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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


How’s Your Relationship?

One of the saddest things I see as a trainer is a dog that has no relationship with the human at the other end of the leash.  When I see such a lack of camaraderie between dog and owner, I am struck by the similarities among almost all of these “couples.”  The first thing I notice, oftentimes, is how quiet and uncommunicative the person is with the dog, how quickly the person is inclined to correct the dog or feel that it needs correction, and how reluctant the owner is to use food in training or to use a sufficient rate of reinforcement when the dog is first learning.

Perhaps some owners feel that because dogs don’t talk that we need not talk to them.  But, a dog that hears its name spoken cheerily by a loving owner, who follows up with a “yes!” as soon as their dog looks at them, and then tosses a nice bit of cheese or meat, usually has a dog that knows its name.  If nothing interesting ever happens when the dog does try looking at his owner, why would he continue to try to engage?

If you can get a dog to turn to you when you say its name, you can carry on an additional conversation with your smile, directional gestures, and activity, that the dog can respond to. It’s the first step toward getting the dog to want to come when called, and the dogs with the most stellar recalls are usually those that have been built solidly on relationship.  Sure, if rote obedience is your only desire, you could put a shock collar on a dog and force it to come, but the joyous, free, “I can’t wait to get to you” recalls are built on healthy relationships that benefit the dog as much as the human, and not on coercion.  I would never again coerce a dog when I know that I can have such pure joie de vivre reflected back at me by simply making every recall a happy affair that results in my dog benefiting as much as I do.  I have no problem showering my dogs with a smorgasbord of real meat, cheese, yogurt, tripe, and all manner of other enticements when they arrive at my feet until they think that I really am the god of all things dogs want.  And even for dogs that are more inclined to want to chase squirrels than eat, there is still no reason for punishing techniques (there ‘s something called Premack Principle that will come in to play for that).

Another problem with relationship that I see is that everything is filtered through the lens of what the dog does wrong.  “How do I stop my dog from (name the unwanted behavior),” they ask me.   What if people, instead of thinking only of the things they want to correct, began to reward the dog when he was good?  Dogs are practical – they repeat behavior that works.  And, dogs aren’t trying to take over the world, be “stubborn” or piss us off.  They are just being dogs.  All they need is a bit of education and they are more than willing to cooperate.  But how do you educate a dog that’s already out at the end of its leash trying to avoid you because the only feedback you’ve given is aversive?  I’ve never been able to quite understand how any logical person could think that their dog would want to be with them after they speak harshly, pin, scruff, shake, yank, or ignore the dog.  (Yes, I know, we ignore jumping up, but that isn’t the same as ignoring the dog on a two mile walk, save to yank him away from some cool scent once in a while.)

Correction has fallout with regard to relationship.  If you were on a leash and the only time you got your neck jerked on, or heard harsh commands, or were pushed away, was when you were on that leash (next to your human), you might wish to stay far away from the human once the leash comes off.   The saddest thing is to see 5-6 happy dogs, engaged with their owners and having a great time at class, and one poor dog that is being corrected at home, trying his darnedest to get to the other puppies and people, never once looking back at his own handler.

The truly hard part for me, as a trainer, is when I get someone ask me if they are in the right class, are doing something wrong, or have a stubborn or stupid dog.  There are few nice ways to be honest enough to tell someone that they may have done some things that messed up the relationship they have with their dog.  If the dog wags its tail upon the owner’s arrival home, the owner may tend not to believe that there could possibly be anything wrong.  But, indeed there sometimes is.  So, if you are struggling in class, or at home, please know that I don’t want to tell you that your relationship is suffering, but your dog is counting on me to tell you!  So, if I ask you to increase your rate of reinforcement, or use a high pitched voice to call your dog, or get cheerful, or catch your dog doing something right, or pay your dog a jackpot, all of that is designed to get you to be the most important thing in your dog’s life.  If that means a smorgasbord, and no more “no” then that’s what it means.  Please don’t shoot the messenger, but this blog post is my way of telling you, too.  Your dog will thank me if you listen, but you don’t have to – one more happy dog is more than enough thanks for me.

For information on why punishment doesn’t work:

For more information on the proper use of food in dog training:

Pam’s Dog Academy has some great videos on building attention and recall (and side effect of building relationship!)  You can start here:

Pet owners can now join the Pet Professional Guild.  Guild members, affiliates & sponsors understand Force-Free to mean, no shock, no pain, no fear, no physical force, no physical molding, no compulsion based methods are employed to train or care for a pet.
To learn more: