What I Learned About Finding Quality Dog Trainer
Coleman Fish, CVT
Four years ago, I was a student at the University of Pittsburgh with a brand new fluffy tornado at home—AKA an Australian Cattle Dog puppy. I had not yet gone to vet tech school, and while I was dog savvy, I was not a professional in a pet field. I quickly knew that I would need some guidance with training for the slightly feral (not really) beast that now shared my home.
After spending a few years learning about animal training while working at the National Aviary, I knew that my general philosophy when it came to working with animals was founded in positive training and low stress handling principles. I did some quick and unguided research to find a trainer in my area who could help me teach my puppy some life skills and basic manners. I chose a person with decent reviews whose website said they used positive reinforcement training. Perfect, just what I was looking for in a trainer.
When the trainer arrived at my house, it felt as if she really didn’t like dogs much at all. She hip-checked my friendly and exuberant puppy repeatedly as he attempted to greet her and was generally forceful with her interactions. The training methods I learned that day included using aversive tools such as sour apple spray and loud noises to discourage behavior. She also had a strong emphasis on lengthy and seemingly frustrating time outs for my puppy as punishment. She told me how to punish unwanted behavior in a variety of ways, but not how to help my puppy learn what he was supposed to do in the first place to avoid those punishments. When the trainer left, I looked at my confused and quite stressed out puppy and knew right away I would not be implementing any of these methods.
A few months later, after not revisiting any more formal training, my now adolescent red heeler began exhibiting some concerning behaviors. These behaviors were more serious than just rowdiness and lack of manners, he was exhibiting dangerous signs of aggression in certain situations. Exasperated, I confided in a friend who put me in touch with a dog trainer she knew well in Denver. This trainer, ever so kindly, gave me lots of advice on how I could manage some of my dog’s aggression and resource guarding. She also advised that I find a behaviorist or behavior consultant in my area to help me with the problems I was facing.
I learned from my prior mistake and spent much more time and focused attention on finding the right trainer for me and my dog. I found a trainer who was able to give both me and my dog the type of support that we needed to meet our goals.
Flash forward to now: my dog is a happier dog who is much more enjoyable and safe to live with. He has gained many life skills as well as earned a few dog sport titles. Through learning more about training and working through his challenges, I have even been inspired to pursue training as a second career. Knowing how much goes into being a skilled and qualified training professional, I have spent the last three years working toward becoming a certified dog trainer.
Here are some tips I wish I had known when I started looking for a trainer to help me work with my tornado:
1) Certifications are important. The dog training industry is not regulated which means anybody can start a business and call themselves a dog trainer. Just because someone has experience working with animals in some capacity, does not mean that they have the knowledge or skill set to effectively train an animal. Just because a person has experience training dogs, doesn’t mean they are skilled enough with human communication to be an effective teacher (and let’s be real, humans are half of the equation). Some certifying organizations to look into that include both animal training and human instructing criteria include: International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (CDBC, CCBC, IAABC-ADT), Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA), and Karen Pryor Academy (KPA-CTP)
2) Choose someone whose methods make you feel comfortable. Ask questions before hiring a trainer, especially if they do not have a details on their philosophy on their website. Anyone can say they use “positive training” when that’s not quite accurate (as I found out the hard way). If you can only ask two questions ask, “What happens if my dog gets it right? What happens if my dog gets it wrong?” You should never feel like you are hurting your dog or losing their trust. Training should be a fun and mutually beneficial process for you and your dog (even when working on serious behavioral issues).
3) There is no such thing as a “quick fix”. Like everything else in life, behavior modification and training take time, practice, and patience. It’s important to find a trainer who wants to get to the root of your dog’s issue and fix it in a holistic manner, rather than just slap a band-aid on it by suppressing undesirable behaviors. If a trainer’s claims seem too good to be true, listen to your gut.
We ask a lot of dogs—learning to live in our human world with our silly human rules is not insubstantial or easy—we owe it to them to treat them fairly and with respect during training. A knowledgeable and skilled trainer can help you provide the training and environment to make this possible while helping you meet your goals.