How to Choose Your Dog Trainer

Whether your dog training goals include basic obedience for your puppy or more intensive behavior modification for your adult dog, the trainer you choose is a huge and important decision. It can be hard to even admit you need help in the first place. Some people choose to rely on information from television shows and videos on the internet. Some of these videos may contain useful information but they cannot compare to the personalized attention of a dog trainer. But not all dog trainers are created equal.

Unfortunately, there are no laws or regulations that govern who can train or what training technique is approved as safe and effective. There are many schools of thought on which is the best way to train which is appropriate, as not all dogs learn the same way, just like people. But when hiring a trainer, you want to be sure you’re hiring the person that is the best match not only for your dog, but for yourself, your family and your goals as well.

Because there are no regulations on dog trainers and their certifications, pretty much anyone can declare themselves a professional in the field. You’d be surprised how many people market themselves as professional dog trainers after watching television shows or YouTube videos. People think they know everything about dogs because “I’ve had dogs all my life.” Everyone has teeth too, but that doesn’t make you a dentist. Some people think they know how to train a wide variety of issues because they have trained their own dogs and ranked in dog sports. So if you hire a trainer without letters behind their name, ask who and where they learned from and what kind of dogs they have worked with. It’s also important to do a bit of research on their place of employment, as well as asking about their training style and methods. When I first started teaching my own group classes, I was not certified. However, I apprenticed under a certified trainer who required me to shadow her classes for an extended period of time and demonstrate that I had an understanding of not only the methodology, but the science behind training. I know many trainers who start out this way. I trained uncertified for a year and a half, but was working towards my certification during that time.

Now when it comes to certification, there are a couple of different routes. One can go through a certification program, such as the Karen Pryor Academy, which is designed to teach the student a certain set of skills or knowledge and requires a test of some sort. Then there are certification councils that are run by organizations that don’t take you through the learning process but test to see if you meet the knowledge and skill level to attain certification. My certification is through the Certification Council of Profession Dog Trainers (CCPDT), “the leader in the development of rigorous exams to demonstrate mastery of humane, science-based dog training practices” (www.ccpdt.com). The “KA” behind my name means I am knowledge-assessed. In other words, I passed a test. If you see a “KSA” behind a trainer’s name, they are knowledge and skills-assessed, which means they submitted a video of them handling a dog and demonstrating specific test items laid out by the CCDPT.

To make things even more confusing, a trainer can also be accredited. Similar to a certification, there is learning and testing involved, however it is not done by a third party. For example, PetSmart trains their own trainers. Usually, this accreditation doesn’t hold much weight outside of the company. The process involves a binder explaining how to teach items on the curriculum and requires a certain amount of hours with an area trainer during which you shadow classes and teach your own. You don’t really get the knowledge or skill set to handle any training situation outside of the curriculum unless you have a certification or other experience in addition.

One other thing I’d like to clear up is that NOT ALL TRAINERS ARE BEHAVIORISTS! Yes, a trainer can be a behaviorist but that’s not always the case. Not every trainer can help you solve your dog’s aggression issues or severe fear. That is where a behaviorist would step in. A responsible dog trainer will tell you their limits. I am not a dog behaviorist and am very happy to refer you to one if I know I cannot help you. Some reputable behavior certifications come from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and the CCPDT.

Picking your dog trainer can be a confusing task. If you get overwhelmed researching the councils, schools and employers, simply ask. I love when I get a call from a potential client and they ask about my background or what kind of training I do. Also, look into if they’re a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, or APDT. You can become a member regardless if you are certified or where your certification comes from. The APDT focuses on making education more accessible to trainers and focuses on and promotes reward-based training. But most importantly, if you feel something is not right once you begin training, speak up or ask around. I’ve met many clients who came to us with horror stories about previous trainers. The clients would tell me “I thought it looked harsh and seemed (ethically) wrong, but I’m not the professional so I did what I was told and felt horrible.” Training should be fun for you and your dog. Find the right trainer, or behaviorist, who has the right skill set for your issues and personality to match your family. I know a great trainer! 😉

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