Here’s some advice from Jean Donaldson on how to choose a dog trainer. After her suggestions, I’m going to take the liberty of telling you how I would want her questions to be answered if I were going to try to find a trainer for my own dog. You may not realize it, but trainers do, from time to time, attend one another’s classes, participate in working seminars, or take classes from trainers who are experts in dog sports or aspects of training that we are not expert in. As an example, I can lay a simple track and have my dog follow it for fun, but I certainly am not an expert in lost person behavior or variable surface tracking! So, if I wanted to know more about scent work of that kind, I might take my dog and go to classes with someone who does. Anyway, back to the topic at hand – how does the average pet owner find a trainer? (Jean’s comments are in bold font. My comments are italicized.)
The animal training industry is completely unregulated and anyone can call themselves an animal behavior professional in spite of having no formal education or qualifications. So what can consumers do to protect themselves?
1. Ask for formal education and credentials.
It’s important that a dog trainer gets an education in the science of how dogs learn. If the trainer has a degree in a behavioral science, has taken classes in psychology, motivation, or learning theory, or has had exposure to these concepts via a school such as the Academy for Dog Trainers, Karen Pryor Academy, Companion Animal Sciences Institute, etc., that’s good indication that the person is interested in legitimate science, and not the “voodoo” that many people spout about their dog training abilities, as if those somehow came from osmosis or from the vapors somewhere. Beware of any schools that still tout “dominance theory” or suggest the use of shock collars.*
(Addendum: In 2015, the Pet Professional Accreditation Board began an independent psychometrically sound testing program for dog trainers which also has an ethical component that prohibits the use of choke, prong, and shock collars by its certificants. Consumers can now begin to look for the PCT-A (Professional Canine Trainer – Accredited) designation when seeking a professional.)
2. Ask for continuing education involvement.
There are now many opportunities for dog trainers to receive continuing education, both in person and online. If the person has done this, they ought to be able to tell you through what organization, the name of the presenter, and the topics presented. More importantly, you should get a sense that they enjoy keeping up with the latest studies and they will not be afraid to alter their opinions based upon valid research. For example, one of the pre-eminent authorities on wolf biology, Dr. David L. Mech, who originally coined the term “alpha” has recanted the original implication of the term because new research shows that it is inaccurate. Hear him tell it in his own words:
Good trainers are always trying to learn more themselves! “I’ve been training for twenty years.” is NOT a credential. It’s also quite possible for a trainer to have been doing it wrong for twenty years, or at least not as humanely as they could have!
3. Ask for scientific evidence supporting any claims about behavior.
Behavior modification occurs because of two types of learning, operant and respondent. In simple terms, operant conditioning takes place in a three part contingency. There is an antecedent, a behavior that the dog performs, and a consequence. So, this is the learning that takes place, for example, when we teach a dog to “sit.”
In respondent learning, there is only a two part contingency. The dog learns, “If this happens, then that happens,” This is the type of learning that changes a dog’s emotional response to something. This takes place, for example, when we rattle the lid to the cookie jar and suddenly the dog comes to the kitchen. He has learned that the noisy lid predicts that you will pull out a cookie for him.
A trainer should be able to tell you about these things. The quadrants of operant conditioning, and the process of desensitization and counter-conditioning should be as familiar to the trainer as the tools of your own trade are to you!
4. Ask what actual physical events will be used to motivate your animal (keep asking if you receive obfuscating answers such as “energy,” “leadership,” “status” or “dominance”).** For example, ask, “What exactly will happen to my dog if he gets it right? And what exactly will happen to my dog if he gets it wrong?”
In good science-based classes, a dog that gets it right is going to hear a marker word or sound, and then receive a reinforcement (food, toy, privilege…) For example, trainer enters the room and asks the dog to sit for greeting. Dog sits. Trainer reinforces the dog with a click/treat.
A dog that gets it wrong in a good training class will not be called stubborn, willful or stupid, he’ll simply get no reinforcement, or he’ll have a privilege withdrawn, and be given another opportunity to get it right. Example: Trainer walks in and dog jumps on trainer. Trainer withdraws all attention and turns away. Once the dog is on the floor, trainer returns and reinforces the dog for having his feet on the floor. Trainer gradually lengthens the time the dog’s feet are on the floor before giving the reinforcement. After a while, the dog needs only occasional reinforcement for keeping all four feet on the floor.
No physical punishment should occur. No choke collars, no prong collars, no shock collars.
5. Ask what side effects each procedure has. Fear is a particularly concerning side effect as it is difficult to undo.
No trainer worth his or her salt wants to add to a dog’s problems. That’s why an understanding of the science is so important. Aggression, learned helplessness, fear, are all to be avoided, but they are easily installed in dogs by those who persist in using aggressive or confrontational training. Here’s an example of Dr. Sophia Yin using science (counter-conditioning) to change a Jack Russell Terrier’s mind about how he feels about air being blown in his face. Before: Can you imagine a child exhaling while laying on a couch near this dog??? After: He’s changing his mind!:
Had Dr. Yin punished the dog, he might have stopped the growling temporarily, but the dog’s dislike for air in his face would still have been there. In this training, the dog actually learns to LIKE having air on his face!
You are entitled to full information before consenting to any training or behavior modification procedure.
~ Jean Donaldson
* “Until these devices are illegal, consumers must protect themselves and their dogs by looking beyond the marketing messages of those who profit from their sale and use. It is not necessary to use electric shock to change behavior. It is not necessary in humans, in zoo species, in marine mammals or in dogs.”
“Absolutely, without exception, I oppose, will not recommend, and generally spend large amounts of time telling people why I oppose the use of shock collars, prong collars,
choke collars, and any other type of device that is rooted in an adversarial, confrontational interaction with the dog.”
~Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB, CAAB