You have a new dog or puppy, and you’re either feeling pro-active and want to get off on the right foot or you’ve got a problem brewing and you need to do something about it.

How do you find a dog trainer for your pet dog?

The typical advice you’re going to get will tell you more about the advice giver’s philosophy of training then it will about the skill of the trainer or their suitability to work with you.  I think that’s a problem, so let’s get down to some basics that should be present in every dog trainer, regardless of one’s philosophy.

However, before I can go further, I do have to state my bias for those who have managed to miss it or who never knew what it was in the first place: I focus on teaching dogs what we want using food, toys and positive interactions.  I have no love for dominance based theories or for pressure based training techniques. In my mind, the goal is to find a way that the dog and humans can live in mutual harmony – “mutual” being the key word here. It’s not all about the human, nor is it all about the dog.

Now that I have that out of the way, how does one pick a pet dog trainer?

  1. Look for a trainer that teaches what you care to learn.  For example, if you feel strongly about having a recall, loose leash walking or teaching your dog not to jump on your guests, then you need to find a trainer, either privately or in a class setting, that is going to give you ideas for working on these issues.  There are A LOT of ways to get there, but if you find a local class that emphasizes formal heeling, sit and down, stand stay, and a six foot recall to a sit in front, then your dog may learn a few new things, but the value to you is going to be limited.  Which is not to say that you might not like having these things, and they may indeed serve you well, but none of those is going to address what you were specifically looking for. Instead, look for a class that emphasizes “loose leash walking” (less formal than heeling), gives you specific techniques for handling manners (such as staying on a mat or resting quietly in a crate when guests arrive to prevent jumping on people),  concrete advice for housebreaking and specific techniques for handling any routine behaviors that have you concerned.  All of these are reasonable expectations from a beginning level training class, even if the actual process of teaching the behaviors goes on much longer than the length of the class or the duration of your private lessons.
  2. Look for a trainer who is gentle with you and listens to what you are looking for.  There is never ever ever an excuse for a trainer to berate a dog owner who is seeking help!  A professional will treat you like the adult that you are and will listen to your concerns.  A good trainer will work with you and your dog as partners to help you achieve a satisfactory outcome. Do not settle for less, even if a trainer came “highly recommended” or for any other reason.  You want to be able to relax and learn how to train your dog, not worry about getting yelled at while you’re trying to figure it all out!
  3. Along that same vein, look for a trainer who sees training as a “triangle” of interests; the three of you working together to reach a satisfactory resolution.  If the philosophy “feels” like the trainer and the owner against the dog, then there is a problem.  And if feels like the trainer and the dog against the owner, there is also a problem.  There should be a roughly equal balance of interests if you want to find yourself in a respectful and effective training scenario.
  4. Personally, I would not work with a trainer who did not respond to my initial inquiry within a day or two.  The reason is simple – if the person is too busy to appreciate you as a potential client, then they’re going to be too busy after you give them your $$$ as well.  The trainer-client relationship is a two-way street; each person should respect the other and that includes being timely to appointments and prompt to respond to inquiries from the other.  That is what it means to be professional.   Which doesn’t mean that they will be able to see you right away, but it’s basic courtesy to respond quickly regardless of whether or not they will be able to work with you.
  5. For classes, I suggest working with a trainer that limits their class to no more than about five clients per trainer.  Yes, you’ll pay more than at the local rec center with 10 students to each instructor, but if you go that route be prepared to get what you pay for.  Assuming that your time has value, consider that a solid series of lessons with personalized attention is going to yield you a much better return than six weeks of chaos.  Private lessons are often much more economical over the long run, especially if your dog cannot focus and learn in the presence of other dogs and/or people.
  6. If you have a very specific issue that you are trying to resolve (anxiety, aggression, excessively fearful behavior, etc.) I STRONGLY recommend working with a trainer who specializes in that specific area, and who has extensive experience (and references) to back it up.  I would engage in private lessons and I would be prepared to pay for that expertise.  Ask about their qualifications!  What classes and specialized training does this trainer have to back up their assertion that they are qualified to help you? Do they engage in continuing education?    It’s critically important to understand that MOST dog trainers are not qualified to handle true problem behavior – and dogs that threaten people or who are living excessively fearful or anxious lives are exhibiting true problem behavior.
  7.  Be aware that “experience” is actually a double-edged sword.   Dog training has come a long way in the last 30 years!   While it’s fantastic if a person has been training for a long time, it’s also critical that they have been evolving during that time. Ask a potential trainer how their techniques have changed over time, and listen to their reply! If the answer suggests that ” it’s working for me”  without much self-evaluation or continuing education, consider that carefully.

Note that I have said nothing about training techniques, so let’s touch on that now.  Rather than telling you that you must only work with a certain kind of trainer, I’m going to suggest that you approach it this way:

If it’s a class, ask if you may observe.  Now, as you observe, start with the understanding that the dog has roughly the mental reasoning and emotional capacity of a two or three-year-old child.  If they gave the same advice for a child would that work with YOUR mental model of child rearing?  For example, I do not choose to hit toddlers but some people do!  As you observe the class – would you want this person advising you on child rearing?  Does their perspective on “the other” feel right to you?   If it makes sense to you then it may well be a good way to go.  If it would make you uncomfortable then reconsider your options.

Does the class appear to be fun for the participants?  Happy participants learn better!  This is true of both dogs and people, so look for a class where dogs and handlers appear to be engaged and having a reasonably good time!

It’s not easy to find a good trainer, and most people put little or no thought into how they want to train their pet dogs.  Responsible dog owners simply go to “dog training school” because they have learned that it is a good idea, and it is! But what you learn there might set you up for a lifetime of happiness with your dog or it might create entirely new problems that never would have existed had you worked with another person.  Dog training in an open field – anyone can hang up their shingle. And while there are many ways to become a trainer – mentorships, studying at various dog schools, or simply training a lot of dogs – none guarantee quality.  I know that when a trainer does not appreciate the unique circumstances of each dog or family I get nervous and when the well being of either the dog or the handler is the sole focus, with no consideration for the other half, I get the most nervous of all.

The goal is a happy situation.  A happy dog that has learned how to fit into the household with a happy family that knows how to raise their dog so that everyone can live together in harmony, hopefully for many years to come.

Good luck!