Choosing a dog trainer can be a difficult thing, but is easily one of the most important decisions a new dog owner can make. Starting off on the right foot immediately can set you up for long term success, and make many aspects of your journey into dog ownership easier.
Using a trainer is important, which I know sounds biased coming from me, but is nevertheless still true. For example, I know how to use most power tools but I don’t know how to use them well enough to build anything substantial... I’m not a carpenter, why would I? I can fix some problems as they come up in an already built house, but I’m not doing major renovations and I’m certainly not going to pretend I know what I’m doing if I ever had to build a house. Dog training is the same. Little issues that pop up along the way you should absolutely be able to fix, but to build a solid foundation or to fix a major issue, invest in a trainer. You have to live with your dog for the next 10-15 years, dog training IS an investment. Those 15 years can pass by in a breeze of teamwork and adventure, or can rollercoaster their way through with chewed baseboards, a smattering of leash reactivity and one too many jumped-on houseguests.
But how do you even go about finding a trainer? If you google “your city + dog trainer” you’ll probably get an absurd number of hits. Dog training is a massively unregulated industry and not every trainer is guaranteed to have the skills and experience you need. Shopping for a dog trainer isn’t something most people do frequently, so not everyone knows what to look for when perusing the multitude of websites and Facebook pages. Here are some of the top things I would recommend looking for and some ideas of what to ask the trainers you speak with.
-The first thing I look for is accomplishments, for both their dogs and themselves. Have they attended a training certification program or training school? Do their dogs have competition titles? Do they certify dogs for anything? Some more modern trainers will absolutely swear up and down that you need to go to a training school, and some older trainers will swear up and down that you can’t learn anything from a training school. It’s all a matter of opinion, so talk to your prospective trainer and ask what their opinion is and why. Ask why they think whichever route they chose was best and have them explain their choices. Lots of trainers have some combination of the above and most have no problem talking about their “origin story”. I’ve never met two excellent trainers that have become excellent the same way! Additionally, while competing with your dog may not be a desire of yours, it should definitely be something you expect of your trainer. This is what they claim to do professionally. Saying it doesn’t matter if your trainer has titled or certified their dogs in anything is like saying you have no problem hiring a carpenter to build a house that has never built one before. I can tell you I think my dogs are well behaved but that would be both highly biased and completely subjective. When you hire a dog trainer, you are asking someone to help you train a
dog to YOUR requested level of behaviour. By competing, certifying or titling their personal dogs they’ve actively gone to a third party and had them verify that they can train their own dog to a specified standard and that under pressure that standard was maintained. If your trainer doesn’t have any titled dogs, ask why not! There are many good reasons, but always ask your trainer to explain themselves. As a side note, most trainers own several dogs and many trainers take in rehab cases that require extensive work. However, if their reasoning behind every dog’s behaviour is simply “it’s a rescue”, that’s a bit of a red flag... If they haven’t resolved the issues of their own dogs, how can you expect them to resolve your dog’s issues?
- One of the more common traps I see are trainers claiming 20+ years of experience when they’re barely 30. You want to know how long they have been TRAINING dogs, not owning them. Most trainer profiles state many things about how long they have loved dogs and that’s nice, but (and this may come as a surprise) you don’t become a dog trainer if you hate dogs. You want to ask potential trainers how long they have been training their own dogs, AND how long they have been training other people’s dogs.
- Typically, common sense would
dictate, in order to become a dog trainer one must
have worked with many, many dogs. In order to get access to a large number of untrained dogs, most people work for kennels, daycares, rescues, humane societies or dog walking companies to gain experience. Ask where your trainer cut their teeth, and what kind of dogs they primarily worked with during those years.
- A good trainer will have a large number of happy dog owners willing to give them
references. Ask for a variety, or try and speak with someone that had a similar dog or problem to what you have. If they can’t dig up a reference or the owner is unwilling to
speak with you, ask for video before and afters of the dog in question. Videos are great ways to see what a trainer can accomplish! Check their social media for videos and progress updates. If there are only photos, what do the dogs look like? Are they client dogs or the trainer’s dogs? Are they in busy environments, or are they in the same place every time? Are they being held in a position by a person or with a leash, or are they obedient enough to hold a position without assistance? Does the dog look focused and engaged, or is it looking at everything but the photographer?
- Another good way to go about it is to ask to sit in on a class or session to see what they’re all about and what their personal style is like. Some trainers are really great trainers but they just don’t mesh with YOU specifically and that’s okay. Choosing the right trainer is as much about a trainer being able to engage the dog as it is about them being able to engage with you. You need to get along with your trainer, trust them, listen to them, and (possibly) be able to ask them all kinds of embarrassing questions. If you don’t feel they’re the kind of person you can be honest with about an aggression case, or ask weird questions about puppy poop too, they may not be the one for you.
Last but not least, I recommend you ALWAYS meet a potential trainer’s dogs. If they claim they can train a behaviour, their dogs should be the proof. If you meet a trainer’s dog and they’re displaying behaviours you don’t like, it’s a good indication they aren’t the trainer for you. There are some trainers that try to cover up their own dog’s bad behaviour with a backstory on the dog or an excuse, but a trainer should always be willing to let you meet, or watch, their personal dogs work. Again, if they can’t train behaviours out of their own dog that’s a pretty big red flag. However, if you meet a trainer’s dogs and their behaviour is something that makes you think to yourself, “God, I wish my dog could be like that” chances are you’re looking in the right direction.
Keep in mind that you are not beholden to one trainer for the rest of your dog’s life. Although just about all of us can provide guidance on raising a puppy, many of us have our own specialities or areas of interest. For example, I don’t teach agility. I like it well enough, but A) I’ve never titled a dog in it and B) where I live there are WAY better agility instructors around me. Can I teach your dog to go over a jump? Sure. But why should you come to me when someone I know has way more experience, a passion for the sport, and can teach you the right way to do everything from the beginning? I love to see my clients flourish by making sure they see the best trainer for the job, and sometimes that’s not me. If a trainer claims to teach everything, know everything, or refuses to refer you to someone else if something is outside their wheelhouse, run.
At the end of the day, choosing a trainer will come down to what end behaviours you are looking for, who you are comfortable with, and who you believe will best prepare both you and your dog for long term success. Ask lots of questions, look at references, and choose carefully. Happy training!