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What to look for in a dog trainer?

Updated: May 3, 2021

Every second week I have the pleasure of teaching final year veterinary students about canine behaviour and canine mental health disorders. They are eager and enthusiastic students, but just like the regular dog owning population they too have bought into dog training myths and need direction about what to look for when recommending a dog trainer.

Here is my advice:

  • read between the lines – what does “years of experience, love of dogs, owning dogs” – as a prerequisite for being a good trainer mean – I have “had children, been around children and love children” – does that make me a teacher of children? No – I need a degree for that.

  • ask the trainer about their methods – if they do not name the methods they use but write things like –“you’ll learn to speak dog”, “become a good pack leader” etc then AVOID. A science-based trainer knows to use positive reinforcement and knows what that looks like. A science based trainer does not talk about your dog’s behaviour issues as a problem of dominance.

  • ask the trainer what equipment will be used to train your dog – avoid anyone who uses equipment such as prong, choke, electronic and shock – there is NEVER a reason for this, and it will invariably worsen your dog and the trust they have in you. Train without PAIN.

  • avoid trainers who use the word BALANCED – this sounds good, but it really means they are prepared to use negative reinforcement (taking away something aversive to the dog to increase the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the future) and positive punishment (adding something aversive to the dog to decrease the likelihood of the behaviour occurring again in the future). Does your trainer really understand the Quadrant of learning?

  • avoid trainers who don’t use food – food is a valuable reinforcer and a way to condition a new emotional response – its effects are powerful and a useful tool in positive reinforcement training. Do you expect to still get paid no matter how long you’ve been in the job? Well dogs expect be to be paid too, and taking away a working wage will reduce their enthusiasm to work with you. There are other reinforcers for dogs and these can include play and toys – whatever the dog likes. Most dogs are not as interested in pats and verbal praise as we would like to think.

  • avoid trainers who say some dogs need a different kind of training – this is not the case – at Animal Sense all dogs are modified with positive reinforcement – no matter how they present. It is ethical and compassionate.

  • avoid trainers who have had no formal training in dog behaviour – as an unregulated industry anybody can set themselves up as a dog trainer or even call themselves an animal behaviourist. Therefore look for some one who has studied this subject through reputable organisations and who has become a member of groups that advance animal behaviour through science and compassion. Some recommended groups would be IMTD, Karen Pryor accredited, TAFE certificated in animal care/science, CASI accredited, is a member of PPG, APDT, Delta. If a dog trainer has undertaken education they are likely to have written about this education on their web site and if they fail to write what their qualifications are, then it is likely that they don’t have them.

  • choose those that work alongside veterinary behaviourists and know when to refer a case. Good dog trainers realise that dog behaviour issues are often as a result of fear and anxiety and these issues are not training ones but ones of mental health disorder and therefore they require the input of a veterinary behaviourist.

  • avoid those whose websites are adorned with men in bite suits. Dogs involved in dog sport (shutzhund) might engage with a person in a bite suit – but this is not the equipment a trainer should be using for working with someone’s pet dog with fear issues.

  • avoid those who offer life time guarantees – dogs are not automobiles and there are no guarantees with behaviour treatment.

  • avoid those who suggest you leave your dog with them for a training or boot camp. Training and modification needs more than ten days and works best when caregivers are taught how to work and condition their dogs. There are no short cuts.

  • avoid those who advise clients that medications are not suitable or needed – trainers are not veterinarians and do not have the knowledge base to advise on medications. Psychiatric medications are often useful for animals in mental distress, just as they are for people, and when they are indicated they should be used early in the disease state to achieve the best outcome. They are not the treatment of last resort.

  • avoid those that shake or throw noisy chains at your dog, teach you to say BAH, and poke your dog in the side of the neck – all these methods have been shown to worsen a dog’s behaviour and emotional responses over time.

  • take a look at my website for those trainers who work closely with me, and when you are recommended a trainer endorsed by Animal Sense you can be assured that I know they are force free.

So now you know what to look for in a behaviour trainer!

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