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A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding a Good Dog Trainer

Recently, our local news ran a story about the dog training industry and how it is unregulated, which means anybody, regardless of background, knowledge, or formal education can call themselves a “Dog Trainer.”  Unfortunately, this is true and rampant in the industry.  Trainers are a dime a dozen, which leaves the consumer lost. They don’t know what to look for or how to find a good trainer.  The last thing a dog owner (and arguably more important, the dog) wants, is to get involved with a person who calls themselves a trainer, but because of a lack of education, makes the situation worse. The industry is full of horror stories anywhere from mild, easily fixable problems, up to and including, death of the animal.

So, as a consumer, how do you find a good, reputable trainer? 

Dog training is more than just training your dog and giving them a cue.  It requires human training, dog training, knowledge of the science behind how dogs think and react, knowledge of dog behavior and much more.  As a consumer looking for a trainer, you won’t know the specifics of these components, but what you can look for are items like education and certification, transparency, rapport, experience and more.  The chart below outlines 7 essential items every legitimate trainer needs to have. It also takes into consideration the importance of these items.  Some are more important than others.

Breaking it Down

Before we jump into the step-by-step guide, let’s break down each of these items.

Education, Certification, Continuing Education

A reputable education is the main pillar of a good dog trainer.  There are many academies, schools, and other programs out there that teach the science behind dog training.  Make sure the trainer you are looking at has an education through one of these academies.  They should also hold at least one certification, or be working toward a certification.  The most common certifications you will see are those through the educational institution (such as Karen Pryor, Victoria Stilwell, Ian Dunbar, etc), or the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. There are many others out there for various specialties (Separation Anxiety, Aggression, Behavior, Etc.). So, if you see a set of initials you don’t recognize, drop them into a quick Google search. It will help you determine if they are qualified. 

A common red flag I see all the time are statements such as “I have owned dogs my entire life and trained all of them, so I can help you train your dog,” or “I have grown up around dogs and have years of experience training family and friends dogs.”  While these statements I’m sure are true, personal experience is only a very narrow component of a good dog trainer and without the educational foundation, it leaves the door wide open for horrific mistakes.  This is not enough to train to a dog.  Even for the most basic of training, you need a certified trainer with an educational background. One small mistake can lead to big problems later on. 

Transparency

A good dog trainer knows his/her ability and limits.  You want a trainer that is honest and transparent. In other words, they will refer you to another more experienced, or specialized trainer if it is needed. Many trainers will invite potential clients to observe a session, or a group class before committing.  Good trainers will gather background information on your dog and your training goals so they can assess the situation. If it is a case they can’t take on, they will help you find/recommend a trainer that can help. The bottom line here is that the trainer is about helping the dog, not taking the payout. 

Professional Experience

Professional experience is another important aspect of a dog trainer. Just like everything, the more experience you have, the more you learn and develop.  With experience comes more knowledge.  That being said, don’t be afraid of trainers with less experience if you are looking for basic, simple training.  A good rule of thumb is to determine your needs and then look for a trainer based on the problems you are needing help to solve.  If you have a new puppy and are looking for basic obedience, you can easily work with a little bit less experienced trainer (still certified). But if you have a reactivity or separation anxiety case, you will want to look for a more experienced trainer.  Keep in mind professional experience, experience working with clients in professional settings, is much different than personal experience with family and friends dogs.  We’ll talk about that later in the article.

Supporting Network

This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of a good dog trainer.  Nobody knows everything, but finding a trainer who has contacts and a supporting network can be essential.  Not only is this network used for referrals when needed, it is an excellent source of knowledge available to you through your trainer.  Every dog learns differently, so good dog trainers need to know multiple ways of teaching the same skill.  It’s not a cookie cutter instruction and when you have trouble, a good trainer can reach out to his/her network to get suggestions and help to pass along to you. 

Reviews and Recommendations

Reviews and personal recommendations are always important and are a good place to start gathering a list of potential trainers.  This one is fairly self-explanatory, but one thing to keep in mind that could be a red flag is a trainer that has all 5-star reviews or one that has pages upon pages of 5-star reviews.  This can mean they are padding their reviews or specifically asking friends/family to leave fake 5-star reviews.  Or, it could mean the trainer is offering something in return for a 5-star review. If that is the case, you aren’t necessarily getting the true experience from that review.  Letting clients be truthful, even when it means a lower review, is a sign of a trainer with integrity.

Look for a trainer that has a lot of 5-stars, but at least a few 4 and even 3 stars.  It isn’t realistic for any company to have all 5-star reviews, especially in today’s day and age.  However, if there are too many 1-2 star reviews, you may want to keep looking. 

Personality and Rapport

Another often overlooked aspect of training is the personality and rapport of your trainer.  You want somebody you jive with because dog training is quite often more about people training than anything else.  Look for somebody who is easily approachable and willing to answer questions. Ask about who is instructing the specific class you are interested in. Then, ask what the likelihood of having another trainer cover for them is going to be.  You don’t want to sign up for a class thinking you will be with one trainer, then have that person away on a trip with another trainer you don’t know. 

Observing a class or lesson is a good opportunity to get to know them and their personality.  Find a trainer with a no-obligation consultation and use that to assess whether your personality and theirs will be a good fit.  You can also call and even stop by and visit with some trainers.  You want to find a positive, patient, and genuine trainer. 

Personal Experience

Personal experience, experience with their own animals and family/friend animals, is typically where all trainers start.  This is where trainers get up close and personal. There is a history with personal animals that isn’t present with professional experience.  This experience is important because it is the most basic part of a dog trainer’s foundation.  You want a trainer that has had their own dogs. It shows they have gone through your experience from your point of view.  The other aspects of a good trainer are more important, but this is still a good component to look for.

Step-by-Step

Follow these steps when looking for a reputable dog trainer.

Now that you know some good background information, let’s get down to the meat of finding a good trainer. 

Step 1-Determine what kind of training you need. 

Do you need basic obedience training, Separation Anxiety, Reactivity, etc. and determine what training method you want to use.  See the last section of this article for important information about training methods.

Step 2-Ask for recommendations from trusted sources. 

Find dog-related businesses such as the humane society, rescues, breeders, or your vet for trainer suggestions.  You may also ask friends and family members and do an internet search. Make a list of these companies and their website addresses and start your research there.

Step 3-Visit their website and look around at the home page and “About Us” page (it may be named differently). 

Look for any mention of their background, specifically education (what school or academy did they attend) and certifications.  If they have initials after their name/title, look at those initials and Google them to see if they are certifications.  If so, what do they stand for and what are they certified for?  Write down these certifications so you can refer back to them. 

Also look for statements that indicate they are participating in continuing education.  This can include them stating they are working toward another certification, attending conferences, classes, educational events, reading training books, etc.  Look for statements about their willingness to refer to other trainers if needed.   

Red Flags to look for: 

  • No mention of formal education
  • No mention of certifications
  • Website has a poor design
  • Website has a lot of spelling or grammar errors
  • Contains stand-alone statements like “I’ve owned dogs my entire life so I can train yours.” (These statements are fine if they are in conjunction with education and certifications, but if that is the only experience they have, it is a red flag).

These two items should be very easy to find and very clear.  A trainer that has these qualifications will want their clients to know right off the bat. They will put them on their website in a predominant place.  If you cannot find any mention of education or certification, cross them off your list and move to the next trainer. 

Step 4-Look for any statements indicating they have a network of professionals behind them. 

Do they belong to associations or industry groups like the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), Pet Professional Guild (PPG), or others?  If you find an acronym you don’t understand, do a quick Google search. That will help you understand what those groups stand for. Also, if they have an educational background, they will have a network from that. This is another reason you want somebody with an education.

Step 5-Look for professional experience information. 

While you are on the “About Us” page, look for information about how long they have been in business as a professional dog trainer.  This does not include personal experience.  Are they a well-seasoned trainer or a fairly new trainer?  Go back to your training goals and determine if their experience level is adequate for what you need. Keep in mind, if you have an easier case, you don’t necessarily need a trainer that has 30 years of professional experience. Less experienced trainers may be a more affordable option than a trainer that has been in the business for decades and you will be doing them a favor by giving them more experience.

Step 6-Look for client reviews, testimonials, and recommendations. 

Look for reviews on the trainer’s website and other sites like Google, Yelp, and the Better Business Bureau.  Read those reviews and recommendations for both good reviews, mediocre reviews and poor reviews.  Compare how many good ones to bad ones. Then, check in with yourself to see how you are feeling about the trainer after reading the reviews.  Does it seem too good to be true?  Are there a lot of 1-2 star reviews?  Do you feel like they are trustworthy after reading the reviews and looking at their website?

Red Flags:

  • Too many 1-2 star reviews
  • Too many 5-star reviews
  • Pages upon pages of positive reviews with no mediocre reviews mixed in. This could be indicative of review tampering or false reviews.
Step 7-Look for any indication about the kind of person the trainer is.

Head back to the trainer’s website and social media accounts.  First off, look for a photo of the trainer and a photo of their dog/s.  As a consumer, you can tell a lot from those photos.  They are usually on the About Us or Home page.  Cross reference these photos with any social media accounts you can find for the business/trainer.  Does the person look trustworthy. Can you pick up the love and passion they have for their own animals from looking at their photos?  What kind of training equipment is on their own dogs?  Are there any personal stories about their own animals that give you an idea of the type of person they are?

These items also give you an idea of their personal experience with training dogs.  Do they speak about how they have grown as a trainer and as a pet owner?  You want to get a feeling that you know and trust the dog trainer, at least at a basic level.  Use your gut feeling to help with this.  Be honest with yourself. If you are feeling uneasy about their words, their animals, the equipment they use, etc. you might want to cross them off your list. At the very least, follow up with them to see if they will talk to you or meet with you in person so you can get a better idea. 

First impressions are very important and in an online world, a good trainer will use their website to help you get to know them and what you will be receiving if you decide to work with them. 

Step 8-Research their personality and ethics. 

Find their social media accounts and look at the photos and information they post.  This will give you an idea of their training methods along with their personality.  Do they work with rescues or other community non-profits that you may find important?  Can you find anything questionable as far as ethics go?  Are they professional on their accounts, or do they use their accounts in unprofessional ways?  Social media can give you a wealth of information.  Keep an eye out for anything in photos, words, sharing other posts, etc. that is an indicator that they may not be the trainer for you.

Step 9-Take your research offline. 

At this point, you more than likely have crossed off a few trainers that you don’t feel like are a good fit.  For the remainder of the list, compile your research and rank them in the order of preference you have based on your gut feelings.  Call (or email if you prefer) each trainer/business and talk to them about what you are looking for.  Ask any questions you may have and see if they will allow you to observe any lessons or classes. Are they friendly with you and willing to answer your questions?  If you emailed them, is the response helpful?  Do they fully answer your questions and elaborate, or do they just give one word answers? 

Important note for people looking for Board and Train programs:  At this point, you MUST find a trainer that will allow for a site visit.  DO NOT trust any board and train trainer that is not 100% transparent about where the dog will be held, what training methods they use, isn’t open with communication, or won’t let you check in on your pet, etc.  If you have any uneasiness about a trainer for this type of training, DO NOT drop your dog off to them! Ideally, for a board and train case, you should have worked with the trainer on private lessons or group classes before you do a board and train program. You want to know the person before you leave your pet with them.

Step 10-Make your final decision and book a consult. 

After you have gone through each of these steps, you should be able to make a final decision.  Look into consultations and make sure they will allow you to book a consult without obligating you to lessons.  This consult is important for both the trainer and you because you are both getting to know each other and seeing if it will be a good fit.  The trainer will be asking more questions to make sure they are capable of handling the case (and will refer if not), and you will be learning about them, their teaching style, personality, etc. 

If your trainer does not do a no-obligation consult, it doesn’t mean they are a bad trainer.  In that instance, you will need to decide if you are comfortable signing up for lessons, and if not, ask if they would be willing to meet with you to give you the comfort level you need prior to signing up.  You may need to move to another trainer if you can’t get that information, but be sensitive to the trainer and don’t expect a free training session in this instance. 

One final thing to note.  Most trainers do not offer free consultations because there is a lot of time, research, and planning that goes into a consult.  A good trainer will take the background information they have received and your training goals, and developed an agenda for the consult.  This may include research on their part and could even include reaching out to their network to make sure they are giving you the best possible information, so consults typically are not free.  There are a few trainers out there that will offer free consults, but they usually are not an in-depth, high value meeting if this is the case. 

**Disclaimer:  These steps and information are meant to guide you in your research, they are not a guarantee you will be satisfied with the trainer you choose or that the trainer you choose will turn out to be a valid, good trainer.  They do not guarantee whatever trainer you choose will be successful. 

Important Information about Dog Training Methods

In your research and journey to find a good trainer, you will come across two types of training methods.  At the surface level, one is positive-based, where the trainer uses rewards and teaches the dog what to do.  This philosophy celebrates the successes of the dog and what they do right.  The other philosophy/method is negative-based, where the trainer uses punishment to teach the dog what they did was bad or not the behavior you wanted.  Which method is better is an extremely sensitive subject in the training industry.  As a dog owner, you get to choose which method is best for your dog, so that in itself is a good thing to research and make sure you understand the pros and the cons.

This article is not about training methods because that information alone could cover an entire book.  I do want to make sure you, as the consumer, are aware of the sensitivity of the subject, however, and I want to give you some very basic advice in this realm. 

As you are researching trainers and methods, think about your dog and try making the decision based on what he/she would want since they will ultimately be the one being trained.  If your dog could talk, would they prefer to celebrate successes with treats, praise, rewards, or would they prefer to be punished for offering the wrong behavior? 

I come from the positive, rewards based side of training, so that is the direction I lean. That being said, I will never say other methods don’t work for some dogs and I will never say the other trainers don’t know what they are doing, but I will say I am fiercely passionate about positive methods, which is why you can pick up on my bias in that advice. When I speak about training methods, regardless of which direction you choose, I always like to have people think about having a shock, e-collar, etc. on themselves with somebody else having the remote control and the power of when you will get shocked.  Most people will have a large amount of anxiety creep in if they were in this situation. 

This is the same situation our dogs are in.  They are learning something new, they don’t know what, and they are at the mercy of whoever is holding the remote control.  That is a very scary place to be, so it’s always good to try to relate to dog training by putting yourself in the position of your dog. I truly believe there is not a behavior, problem, or breed/dog that cannot be helped with positive training.  The key is to find an appropriately educated and experienced trainer to help with whatever issue you may be dealing with. So, as you are researching trainers, research training methods as well.

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