What is Positive Reinforcement Training and What Should You Look For in a Dog Trainer?

Positive Reinforcement Training is a method of training your dog using rewards and focusing on teaching your dog what to do instead of punishing them for doing something incorrectly.  As the field of dog training has evolved, science has proven the old methods using negativity are no longer the best way to approach training.  Dogs, like humans, learn better when they are positively reinforced, whether that is with treats, toys, life rewards, or other positive items.  The training industry is slowly evolving more toward positive reinforcement training and it is even being used to train police K9’s and service dogs.  Science is expanding to help us understand how canine minds work and they are even using MRI machines similar to the human versions to help us understand more about canine minds.  We’ve learned a lot about dogs in the past decade and that knowledge will continue to expand in the next decade.

As the industry continues to evolve, it is important for dog owners to do their research on trainers in their area.  Shock collars have recently been banned overseas because people are beginning to recognize these tools (along with choke chains, prong collars, alpha rolls, electric fences, etc.) cause more harm than good, even at their lowest settings. 

In the United States, dog training is not regulated, which means anybody can call themselves a dog trainer, even if they have no education or experience with dogs.  There are many trainers out there that have no certifications and unfortunately, many pet owners fall victim to untrained trainers and it is the dog that can and will suffer.  When you are searching for a dog trainer, make sure their website says they focus solely on positive reinforcement training.  Sometime it is called modern training or rewards-based training, but ultimately whatever words they use should be very clear they use rewards to teach the dog what to do and not punishing the dog for doing something wrong.  Avoid trainers that use phrases such as “balanced training”, “minimally” or “least intrusive”, anything that says they use any “Aversives”, even if is a small amount, or any other language that indicates there might be punishment involved.

Your trainer should be certified and they should carry insurance.  Neither of these is legally required, however, a good trainer, one that is dedicated to helping animals will have gone above and beyond.  They will have attended a reputable educational program, such as Karen Pryor, Ian Dunbar, Victoria Stilwell, or other academy or program that teaches the science behind how dogs learn.  Don’t be afraid to ask any trainer what their certifications are, what organizations/associations they belong to, if they are willing to refer a case if needed, and of course, always look at reviews and recommendations from people you trust.  They should be actively working on continuing education to keep up with the industry and they should always be willing to refer a case to another trainer if it is something they feel they aren’t qualified to handle. 

Never leave your dog with any trainer until after you have met with them and ideally have done one-on-one or group training sessions with them.  Many trainers offer Board and Train programs, which are just fine to use, but always make sure you know who you are leaving your dog with and check in regularly with them.  Any trainer that is not willing to show you where the animals will be boarded, has closed off communication, or won’t let you check in with them is not a place you should use. 

Finally, don’t always go will the lowest priced trainer you can find.  We are all looking for a way to get the most bang out of our buck, but keep in mind, trainers that have higher or more certifications and more experience will charge more for their services.  Those trainers often have access to more experienced networks of trainers and have resources available to them that other trainers don’t.  They have more knowledge than those starting out and that is a good thing.  Check into several trainers in your town and do price checking on all of them and then choose one based on your dog’s needs and your budget.  A good rule of thumb is to choose one somewhere in the lower mid-price range if budgeting is a concern.  Many will run promotions you can take advantage of and you can always email them to ask if they have anything coming up or if they are willing to give you a deal. 

As the industry continues to grow, pet owners have more options than ever, which can be very confusing.  Pets are members of our family and we want to do the very best for them, so always do your research and choose a trainer you trust that has your pet’s best interest in mind.  Dog training is about teaching both the human and the dog as a team, and you are your dog’s best advocate.  Positive reinforcement training is fun and encouraging for the dog and the human.  It cultivates deeper relationships and trust with your dog and makes him/her want to learn.

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