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Finding the Right Dog Trainer – Harder Than You Think

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!

6. If you feel at all uncomfortable, don’t be bullied: get another opinion.
Places where you can seek help:

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.”
~Jean Donaldson

“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


About pawsforpraise

I own and operate Paws for Praise. We offer group dog training classes and behavior consultations in a dog and human friendly environment. We think training should be fun for you and your dog. Go ahead - make a tail wag!

33 responses »

  1. This is marvelously complete and useful. It’s going into every keeper file and will be posted at every sharing opportunity I have. Thank you, thank you.

    • You are quite welcome, but of course most of the credit here goes to my wonderful colleagues, Jean Donaldson and Karen Overall, who are both Special Council Experts for the Pet Professional Guild.

  2. Reblogged this on eileenanddogs and commented:
    I’m reblogging a spectacular post from pawsforpraise on choosing a dog trainer. Covers both the big picture and the nuts and bolts. This would be incredibly helpful for pet owners so I hope everybody passes it on.

  3. Really helpful, great illustrations. Thank you.

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  5. Run A Muck Ranch

    I actually asked a highly recommended and credentialed dog trainer to come out and work with me and my recent Afghanistan immigrant. After about a half hour, the trainer said my William Achmed was a danger and should be ‘destroyed’.

    That was a year ago. “By the book’ methods did not work for him. But we were able to work it out.

    I think another something to look for is a trainer that can think outside the box in cases where normal doesn’t work.

    • The fact that someone has a credential does not always mean quality, sadly, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any safer choosing someone based on narcissistic hyperbole rather than evidence of study.

      I don’t know what you mean by “by the book” methods, but I can tell you that the biggest reason for failure is often that trainers *don’t* go by the book, i.e. by the science. Poor diagnostics, execution, or timing, are often factors in the failure of a training plan.

      There really are some standard operating procedures that trainers should know. For example, is the dog fearful, aggressive, or just frustrated or hyped up? If you are dealing with the former, and want to change a dog’s emotional response to a stimulus, you’d choose desensitization and counter-conditioning (CC), but if you just need to teach an alternative behavior, you’d choose to differentially reinforce an incompatible behavior (OC).

      In an unregulated industry, it’s hard to suss out the good from the not so good, sometimes. Hopefully, with the advent of schools that are more focused on the science, we’ll gradually get better.

      • Like other commenters, I struggle with the issue of how to gauge the competence of trainers/behaviourists. Especially as, to me, behaviourist doesn’t mean “someone who sorts out your pet’s behaviour”, it means someone who uses methods gleaned from the work of Pavlov, Skinner et al.

        I do use “trained dogs for 20 years” as a qualification, I think it helps students to know that, I think it also means I’m more likely to have a resource for your dog if I’ve seen the same thing lots of times before.

        I also have seen many trainers (in the UK, but I think the same probably goes for the US and other countries), with qualifications both respectable and dodgy, who can’t train for toffee.

        I am a clicker trainer, a “Jeanist” a “Karen Pryorist” and an “ist” of many similar. And I do have a qualification or two.

        The best advice I give to callers asking about how to choose a dog class, mine or anyone else’s, is to go visit first. And go visit at least 3! And don’t use the post code as a reference! I think this goes for almost any service, websites are great, but soooo easy to tell fibs on. If only I’d thought to do that when I first started, I wouldn’t have ruined my first couple of dogs, I’m sad about that. Then again, I did learn a lot from the choke and yell training of my old days, I’m sorry for my dogs, but kind of glad I did it. I think it gives me more authority to say: “Please don’t!” Oops, off topic.

        I think we should treat our students as adults, if they can choose a mortgage provider and a doctor and a school for their children, they can choose a dog trainer. It’s our job as responsible dog trainers to put their minds in the state of being discerning customers. It is really easy to think all dog trainers and doctors are pretty much the same if it’s your first trip into the world of choosing those services.

        Saying all that, I still struggle. I think formal qualifications are frequently of very poor quality in many areas of human endeavour, and I think we rely on them too much as proof of competency. I think they’re a bit like democracy, as Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I can’t think of a better way to sort the quality of available dog training than by externally moderated qualification, but me? I’d still, if at all possible, go visit without my dog before signing up for anything.

        So I think your list is great, but I’d probably change the order and put 6 to the top.

      • I think that the order is up to the consumer, but I certainly agree that if you feel at all uncomfortable, a second, or even a third, opinion from a credible source is a good idea.

  6. As a “Jeanist” (and science-based trainer who fits these criteria) I found these rules to be eminently sensible when I first saw them. I love your comments on them & have reposted. This is a terrific blog, Eileen.

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  9. I agree 100% with all but number 1. Just like the professionals themselves are unregulated, so are the formal education opportunities.

    I lack a formal education right now (if you don’t count college psychology courses, seminars, webinars, texts, and DVDs), but am very serious and concerned about the science behind behavior. I feel that education AND experience are required for a professional, not either/or.

    I also lack credentials because rather than pay all that money into getting letters after my name, I’d rather put that money towards continuing education.

    However, I trained part time and mostly for rescues, so it’s not a full time endeavor for me with the money that that entails and the formal education/credentials it would afford me.

    But I realize that right now, it’s more of an likelihood than a sure bet that with a professional with a formal education and credentials, you’ll tend to find someone who is better equipped to handle behavioral issues/general obedience in a more effective and often more humane fashion. So good advice, nonetheless.

    • I actually do consider psychology courses, seminars, DVD’s and serious independent study to be very important. At least those who pursue education in those ways, which I did myself for many years, are not fabricating their protocols based on myth and on pseudo-science.

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  12. One thing I noticed was there is 2 very distinct types of trainers in our area, positive trainers (which I prefer) and traditional trainers (cesar millan style). Personally I’m not a fan of the traditional style, which is alpha dog training, but it might work for some dogs. That’s why it’s so important to talk to the trainer first before committing.

    • Since the industry is lacking in consumer protection, your approach makes sense, although some folks have very fancy web sites and convincing personalities, so that’s why I’m a fan of auditing a class and asking the questions.

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  14. Excellent information! As a trainer, these are all questions I would ask and would encourage potential clients to ask. With that said, you didn’t mention the CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA, or CBCC-KA. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers has been offering these tests for almost 15 years now and while it is true that their members are not required to be force free, earning this certification requires a great deal of education and knowledge.

    • The reason I don’t mention the CPDT is that their certifying body, CCPDT, still approves the use of shock collars, so even though many CPDT’s are force free, the consumer cannot use that credential alone to rule out force trainers.

      • Currently, PPAB is the only independently tested credential that prohibits certificants from using choke, prong, and shock collars. Also, I think you’ll find, if you take the test, that it is even more challenging than the CPDT test. At least that’s what CPDT’s who are also PCT-A’s are telling us.

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  18. Dominic jones

    They need to stop hutting the dogsand dont put them t.v for the pulic to watch that is not right the same gose for dressing them up just so you think that thay look if you love your dog you would not need to any of this stuf

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