If you intend to compete in performance or conformation events, or simply wish to have a well-behaved dog and understand its behavior, choosing a great trainer is one of the most important things you can do for your dog’s future. It’s perfectly possible to train your own dog without a trainer’s advice, but, even for experienced owners, an extra set of knowledgeable eyes may reveal mistakes you’re making in your dog’s training. Even professionals take lessons from one another from time to time in order to sharpen their technique. I recommend at least a basic puppy class for every pet parent.
So, then, how do you choose a trainer? It can be a difficult decision, particularly if you aspire to show your dog or compete in an event like agility. These six questions provide a starting point. If the answers to these questions are acceptable, you’ll still need to make sure you and the trainer are compatible by observing a class and checking his or her references.
1. Have you titled any of your own or clients’ dogs?
Even a trainer specializing in basic obedience for companion dogs should have some sort of history in the conformation ring, obedience, schutzhund, tracking, Earthdog, agility, or some sort of competitive event in which dogs receive titles. In rare cases, a trainer who does not train dogs for competition may substitute other experience for titling dogs. For example, owning and training working therapy dogs or training service dogs might make a trainer well-qualified to teach.
In most cases, a good trainer will either have titled several dogs in one event or a variety of events, or will volunteer information on comparable experience when asked this question. It’s critical to get this information if you wish to compete with your dog. If your trainer can’t title his or her own dogs, how will they teach you to win titles with yours?
2. Can I observe a session of the class I’m interested in attending?
If the trainer says you may not observe class before signing up, walk out the door. A trainer who has nothing to hide will not balk at being asked to allow you to observe a class before committing. The trainer’s time is valuable, so some trainers, particularly those in high demand, will charge an auditing fee for observing a class so as to deter “tire kickers” who have no intention of paying for training sessions. Charging a fee is not necessarily a red flag, but prohibiting observers completely is.
When you observe a class, bring a pen and a notebook. Sit quietly in the assigned seating area. Do not bring food or dog treats, and turn your cell phone off. Dogs and handlers trying to learn don’t appreciate distractions. Avoid asking questions or attracting the trainer’s attention until after he or she has finished with the students and their dogs.
3. Do you have any education or professional certification relevant to dog training?
A positive answer to this question can be a double-edged sword. Some “certification” programs for trainers are little more than a correspondence course that rewards anyone who pays the fee and fills out some forms with a certificate claiming they are a certified dog trainer. Other programs are more intensive and, instead of attempting to turn someone off the street into a pro in two weeks, focus on helping established professionals develop a specific skill set.
As a rule of thumb, a trainer who has completed some sort of degree or certificate program may be a good choice, so long as he or she isn’t using that degree or certificate as a substitute for real world experience. Avoid trainers who prominently boast about a certification but don’t offer references and haven’t titled dogs in any event.
4. How many dogs of my dog’s breed have you trained?
Every individual dog is different. That said, most purebreds are selected for a temperament unique to the breed. If you have a purebred dog, this is an important question. Always choose an experienced trainer who doesn’t know much about your breed over a newbie who happens to own a dog just like yours. However, if two trainers are equally qualified in all other aspects, it might be beneficial to choose the trainer more experienced with your breed.
For owners of persecuted breeds like Pit Bulls, this is even more essential. The last thing you want is to report to class and find that the trainer is afraid of your dog, or authoritatively tells fellow students, “That’s the least vicious Pit Bull I’ve ever seen!” (Yes, I’ve heard of both of these things happening!)
5. Do you use positive punishment?
“Positive punishment” is punishment that involves adding a stimulus to a training situation in order to decrease the frequency of a behavior. Yanking on a leash, giving an electric shock, or pinching a dog’s sensitive flank are all examples of positive punishment. There are trainers who use positive punishment and produce good results. However, I personally disagree with its use unless there is specific evidence that your dog responds well to these methods and poorly to reward-based methods.
Positive punishment has behavioral side-effects. Think of it as a medicine that is totally ineffective sometimes, very effective sometimes, and somewhat effective most times. Like strong medicine, punishment also has its dangers. Among them are fear and reactivity. Both of these unpleasant traits can easily be produced in a formerly docile dog simply by training it using punitive methods. Rewarding a dog will not make it fearful or reactive.
Therefore, punitive training should be reserved for cases in which the trainer and owner have reason to believe that it will be vastly more effective than a reward-based method for the individual dog. These situations are so rare that I have personally never encountered a dog that didn’t respond better to rewards than to punishment.
As a sidenote, there can certainly be savvy trainers who use positive punishment, and there are many, many lousy trainers who use rewards. A single method does not a good trainer make.
6. Have any of your students titled their own dogs?
It’s all fine and dandy if your trainer has seven dogs who’ve titled in seven different sports, but if none of his or her students have ever won a ribbon in competition, you would be right to wonder at the disconnect between the performance of trainer and students. Not all brilliant dog trainers are good at explaining training to humans. Some of the best competitors in the dog world wouldn’t dream of giving lessons, for that very reason: They’d have no idea how to explain what they are doing with their dogs to a new owner.
Especially if you plan to compete, make sure that the trainer has successfully coached at least a handful of students and their dogs to succeed in the show ring or performance events.