How To Find The Best Dog Trainer For Your Dog
How to decode the alphabet soup of trainer certifications to find the best training professional for you and your dog.
People have many questions when it comes to dog training: Lure-reward training or clicker training? Group classes or private lessons? Basic obedience or beyond? What type of trainer is best for dealing with your dog’s behavior challenges?
Finding the right trainer is an important piece of the training puzzle. Dog training is an unregulated industry; anyone can hang up a sign and instantly become a dog trainer. If you mix some decent Web-authoring skills with a college-level book on public relations, even yesterday’s Fed-Ex clerk can have the Web presence of a seasoned dog training professional. Adding to the confusion is the complicated assortment of titles used to describe dog trainers: trainer, behavior consultant, behaviorist, dog psychologist, human-canine relationship counselor, and many others. How does one make sense of the dog trainer name game?
The reality is that anyone who studies the field of behavior can call themselves a behaviorist. But not all behaviorists are created equal. I like to ride my bike. Does that make me a cyclist? Does it make me a cyclist in a Lance Armstrong way?
In the professional dog world, the term “behaviorist” is somewhat controversial. Some trainers call themselves “behaviorists” because they help clients modify their dogs’ behavior. This can range from annoying behaviors such as stealing food or jumping up, to more severe problems such as fear and aggression. Other trainers refrain from calling themselves behaviorists out of respect for “applied animal behaviorists” and “veterinary behaviorists” – two types of professionals who have met certain educational and certification requirements.
Leading the letters contest
Let’s take a look at the credentialed training professionals who are available for consultation.
- Applied Animal Behaviorists are certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), a professional organization dedicated to the study of animal behavior. In order to apply for ABS certification, the professional must possess a graduate-level education in ethology, learning theory, comparative psychology, psychology, biology, zoology, animal science, or experimental design. She must also have a minimum of three to five years of professional experience.
Candidates with a Master’s degree in a related field may apply for certification at the Associate level (Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or ACAAB). Professionals with a PhD or veterinarians with at least five years of clinical experience may be certified at the Full level (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or CAAB).
When would an owner consult a certified applied animal behaviorist? Perhaps in cases of extreme aggression – such as a dog who causes physical harm by biting humans or other dogs – or for a dog whose fear issues impact his quality of life. Often, local trainers will consult with an applied animal behaviorist on a specific case. This provides the benefit of the behaviorist’s additional educational and clinical expertise in a manner that is generally more cost-effective for the client.
- Veterinary behaviorists have completed a minimum of a two-year residency under the guidance of a board-certified veterinarian and are professionally certified as Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB). Veterinary behaviorists are knowledgeable in psychopharmacology and may incorporate pharmaceutical therapy into behavior modification protocols. DACVBs are a rare breed. As of this writing, only 48 were listed on the ACVB website.
In human terms, a veterinary behaviorist is comparable to a psychiatrist, whereas an applied animal behaviorist may be comparable to a psychologist. Veterinary behaviorists are often consulted when behavior modification alone does not affect change. In extreme cases (such as clinical separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, phobias, and idiopathic aggression), medication is often needed to help the dog achieve a mental state in which learning can occur.
When medicating dogs for behavioral problems, it’s extremely important that they are closely monitored by a professional with an educational and professional background in animal behavior. Subtle behavior changes, often easy for the family veterinarian alone to miss, can mean that a change in medication type or dosage is urgently needed.
If you cannot access a veterinary behaviorist, contact an applied animal behaviorist who can work with you and your veterinarian to determine if medication is appropriate. The standard vet school education does not include an in-depth study of animal behavior. We generally recommend against using your family veterinarian as the sole source of expertise when it comes to behavior problems.
Please note that all types of training professionals will potentially work with the same types of animal behavior problems. The difference is, while a good self-titled behaviorist will have years of experience and continuing education behind him, applied animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists must have a certain amount of education and experience under their belts in order to become certified, credentialed professionals. Any good self-titled behavior professional will also have a relationship with one or more certified behaviorists they can consult with and/or refer to when a client has needs beyond the scope of her own education and training.
What we’d call “trainers”
In the world of noncredentialed behaviorists, there are a variety of dog training professionals. Depending on the types of issues they feel comfortable working with (basic obedience training versus behavior problems) titles usually include dog trainer, behavior consultant, behavior specialist, or behavior therapist. Recently, and I suspect in response to the proliferation of the Cesar Millan brand, the term “dog psychologist” can even be found with greater frequency.
(It’s worth noting that there is no educational field of “dog psychology,” only mentions of it in the context of understanding canine social behavior and how dogs learn.)
Regardless of what they call themselves, people who teach human clients to teach new behaviors to the clients’ dogs or to change the dogs’ existing behaviors offer a variety of skill sets, educational backgrounds, and degrees of experience. There are lots of schools that offer education in dog training, many of which provide students with a certification upon completion of a fee-based program. Such certifications are the program’s way of acknowledging that the student satisfactorily completed the requirements of the program. This differs from an independent assessment of the student’s general knowledge and ability as a trainer.
One popular independent trainer certification is offered by the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers. Those who meet the requirements and pass the evaluation and testing can use the title, “Certified Pet Dog Trainer, Knowledge-Assessed” (CPDT-KA). Requirements for certification include:
- Trainer must have completed at least 300 hours of dog training experience within the past five years, most of which must be actual teaching time as the lead instructor in a class or private setting.
- Trainer must pass a 250-question examination covering instructor skills, animal husbandry, ethology, learning theory, and training equipment.
- CPDT trainers must undergo recertification every three years, either by re-taking the exam or earning a minimum of 36 continuing education units by attending approved educational seminars.
Another in-depth certification program is offered by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). This organization grants certified membership to professionals who have completed a minimum of three years and 1,500 hours in animal behavior consulting; 500 hours minimum of verifiable advanced instruction/education related to the core areas of competency (assessment, consulting skills, learning theory, general behavior knowledge, and species-specific knowledge); and the ability to communicate clearly through written work and case studies.
Professionals with a high school diploma, 300 hours in behavior consulting with their species of choice, a CPDT-KA or equivalent knowledge, and experience in two of five core areas of competency can apply for associate membership.
It’s important to note that many gifted and talented trainers hold no formal certification at all, yet they successfully change the lives of dogs and their owners for the better on a daily basis.
When choosing a trainer, it’s critical to do a lot of research in order to avoid being misled by important-sounding terminology. Whatever the title, from “dog trainer” to “behavior specialist,” a competent training professional will have a solid understanding of dog behavior and learning theory, combined with a thirst for knowledge and a commitment to continuing education.
A superior training professional should be well-versed in humane, dog-friendly training techniques. She should promote her clients’ ability to get their dogs to comply because of a relationship based on mutual trust, understanding, and respect, not one based on fear, dominance, or submission.
When choosing a trainer, take your time and find someone you’re comfortable with. Not all trainers are the same, and your dog is counting on you to help make learning a positive (in every sense of the word!) experience. Do some research before starting school – preferably even before you acquire your dog or puppy! Ask your friends, family members, local veterinarians, or even folks at your local dog park for references. Ask the owners of the best-behaved and happiest-looking dogs you meet where they went for training and if they were happy with the experience.
Observe carefully! Do the dogs comply with their owners’ requests slowly and with tucked tails, lowered heads and ears, and averted eyes? These may be signs that the dogs are being trained with force- or fear-based training methods. Note the name of the trainer – but don’t go there unless you see ample proof that these dogs are exceptions to the typical canine graduates of that program.
If, in contrast, the dogs comply cheerfully, ears and tails up, eyes bright and interested, their owners may have been taught to train with truly positive methods. There are resilient force-trained dogs who fit this description, but generally, an eager countenance and eagerness to volunteer behavior is a hallmark of a dog who has been trained without punitive methods.
Once you’ve established your short list of trainer prospects, contact each of them and learn a bit about them. What is their background? If the trainer is going to help you train your dog for an activity such as therapy dog work, competitive obedience, or agility, do they have experience in (or sufficient knowledge of) the activity to successfully guide your training journey?
If you’re seeking help with a complex behavioral issue such as fear, anxiety, or aggression, find out if the trainer has successfully worked with similar cases in the past. These issues may be beyond the ability of a novice trainer. Matters can quickly be made worse in even a single short session with someone who lacks the education and experience to succeed with an aggressive or deeply fearful or anxious dog. Ask for references from clients or fellow dog professionals who are familiar with the trainer’s work.
Also, find out what specific training techniques a candidate would expect to employ. Ideally you’ll have been referred to trainers who practice scientifically sound, modern, dog-friendly training techniques. If they describe themselves as “positive trainers,” ask specifically what that means. Some trainers call themselves positive because they use treats for correct behavior, but they use physical corrections for unwanted behavior. (We suggest asking: “Do you ever use leash corrections?” Pay attention to any “weasel words” in the answer, such as, “No, but we sometimes use a quick ‘pop’ on the leash when the dog pulls.” Pop goes the weasel!)
Modern, educated professionals agree that when working with aggressive or fearful dogs, fear- and pain-based training methods make matters worse, not better.
Inquire about the equipment that is used in class. Reward-based trainers stay away from choke chains and pinch collars in favor of plain, flat collars, or head halters and no-pull body harnesses if needed.
Some trainers feel it’s okay to employ dramatically different training techniques or equipment for different dogs; for example, switching from lure-reward training with one dog to corrections with a choke, pinch, or remote collar with another. It can be quite disconcerting to students practicing positive training methods to watch the student next to them employing such corrections, so be sure to find out in advance what the instructor’s policy is.
A good reward-based instructor will be able to offer several positive alternatives for teaching the same behavior, recognizing that one size does not fit all when it comes to training dogs. To that end, find out if the trainers regularly participate in continuing education to stay abreast of the latest developments in positive training.
Come. Sit. Stay a while.
It’s also important to take the time to watch the trainer in action. A good trainer will have no problem with you coming to observe a group class. Pay attention to both the human and canine students. Do they appear to be enjoying the experience? Is the class safely under control? Does it seem like there are too many dogs and people in the class? Does the instructor have an assistant to help keep an eye on things?
Find out what behavioral issues can be safely incorporated into the class. For example, many instructors can successfully incorporate overly excited or even dog-aroused dogs (within reason) into the class by using strategically placed barriers that help block the aroused dog’s visual access to his canine peers. If the instructor allows such dogs in a class setting, watch to make sure that they are handled in a way that makes the rest of the class feel safe.
Find out what procedures are in place to help students who might be struggling. Is there adequate time and personnel in class to help students who need it? Do the trainers and assistants make the rounds to each student during practice time, or do students appear to be on their own as the trainers chat amongst themselves?
Is the instructor available before or after class to answer questions? What about between class sessions? Are written handouts provided? Watch how the instructor interacts with the students. Is there a genuine interest in what they’re doing and an overall feeling of support? Does she seem like someone you would be comfortable working with and learning from?
In a group class setting, the most significant teaching happens between the instructor and the dog’s owner. It’s the instructor’s job to teach the owner how to effectively communicate with the dog so that successful training can take place throughout the week between classes. If you don’t mesh well with the instructor, you won’t get as much out of the class.
Take note of what’s being taught in the class and make sure that those behaviors are aligned with your personal goals for you and your dog. Some classes may focus on exercises required for competition obedience events, while others focus on improving the behavior of the family pet.
For example, coming when called in a competition obedience class might focus on teaching the dog to wait as you walk away and come sit in front of you when called. A pet-friendly class might stress the need to teach your dog to turn away from high-level distractions and race to you upon hearing his recall word. Be sure to find a class that covers what will be most useful to you and your family.
Speaking of family, if you have kids, find out if the instructor has an age restriction or other special rules or requirements for children attending the training class.
Finding the right trainer and class can make all the difference. At a minimum, it helps ensure that you and your dog learn how to effectively communicate with each other, allowing you to create a well-mannered canine companion that you’re proud of.
For some, finding the right class is what sparks a lifelong love of dog training and opens the door to the wide world of activities that can be enjoyed in the company of a dog. You may well find you learn as much – if not more – from your dog as he learns from you!
Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Los Angeles. She shares her life with two dogs and competes in obedience and agility. See page 24 for contact information.