What to look for when hiring a dog trainer


As a good dog trainer, I’m looking out for the dogs of the world. I want to make every dog owner happier with their dog, and every dog happier with their owner. But there are a lot of people and dogs out there– I can’t help them all! So I’m sure glad that there are plenty of others out there doing my job.

But one of my biggest pet peeves is when “trainers” misrepresent themselves either on their Websites or in-person to clients. While I’m not offended when people select other trainers, I am offended when these so-called trainers aren’t called out on their marketing mumbo-jumbo.

In your quest to find a competent, experienced trainer who won’t damage the bond you have with your dog–one who will actually improve it– here are things you should look for:

They don’t call themselves behaviorists (unless they are)

Calling yourself an Animal Behaviorist is misleading. Unless you have a CAAB after your name, it’s a big, fat lie. A Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist has done the following:

  • Obtained an undergraduate degree
  • Completed post-graduate education receiving a Master’s (2-year full time) or Ph.D.(4-year full time) degree in a behavioral science, or DVM or VMD degree with a behavioral residency.
  • Passed oral and written examinations given by their faculty committees.
  • Published articles in scientific journals.
  • Supervised hands-on experience with animals.
  • Met the course work and experience requirements for certification as set forth by the Animal Behavior Society.

The full criteria is listed here. Guess how many there are in NYC? Three. The CAAB has a nice listing of the handful of them in the US on their site. This doesn’t stop many  trainers from calling themselves “animal behaviorists” when they’re not I could probably do that too, but I’d rather not lie to the public.

They’ve had good teachers

You’d be hard pressed to find two dog trainers who have taken the same path to get where there are. There are few credentialed university or college level programs out there; there are some correspondence courses and short classes (maybe a weekend, maybe a few months) that promise varying degrees of expertise. Many excellent trainers have gained all their knowledge through experience, seminars and books but never went to school.  There are a handful of Positive Reinforcement trainers that have  their own education and certification programs, among them: Jean Donaldson, Pat Miller, Victoria Stillwell, and Karen Pryor. If you’re trainer has studied with any of these people, that’s a good sign.

They have credentials

Someone who doesn’t list any credentials probably doesn’t have any. On the beginning of every episode of The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan claims to have been born with the knowledge he imparts to dog owners. Do you want a doctor operating on you because he was born with that knowledge?

You don’t need any kind of license to become a dog trainer. Print out a business card and you’ve got as much of a right to instruct dogs as anyone else. Unfortunately, the certification options are still kind of limited and flimsy and not unified. Different schools offer different certifications. Annie of School For The Dogs, for instance, is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. Fancy! The main certifying body for dog trainers is the Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers, which offers the title “CCPDT-KA” (for Knowledge Assessed) to trainers who have at least 300-hours of experience and who pass their test, which covers everything from learning theory to canine husbandry. There are about 2,000 CCPDT-KAs in the country. In my experience, if a trainer is a CCPDT-KA or KSA (Knowledge Skills Assessed, the next level up), it’s still no guarantee that they’re awesome. But it’s an indication that they’ve had some kind of minimum of experience and made an effort to search out a way to validate their knowledge. You can also ask a trainer to document if they have any CEUs (Continuing Education Units) that they’ve acquired at seminars and conferences. There’s always more to learn, and a good trainer should always be a student.

There are also several professional organizations that you can join if you’re a trainer (among them: APDT and IAABC).  The membership will generally get you a spot in their professional listings,  discounts, and a badge for your site, among other things. Usually you only have to pay to be in such organization; there is no vetting process. It’s certainly a good thing rather than a bad thing for a trainer to be part of a professional organization like this, but it also may not mean a whole lot.

Of course, good credentials don’t mean that a particular person will be the best adviser for you and your dog. Teachers may have different teaching philosophies and ways of conveying information; students may have different learning styles. That means that two students might have very different responses to two equally credentialed instructors.

They are clear about their training philosophy

Be wary of someone who doesn’t elaborate on their training philosophy or goals.  If they say “We do all kinds of dog training,” walk away. It’s like saying, “I treat children in all kinds of ways.” Too broad: That could mean “I force feed them ice cream” or it could mean “I sodomize them.” Yikes. It’s a similar cop-out to say they don’t just use one method, because that’s a given. Every dog is different, we all know that, but I strongly believe forcing a dog to learn via intimidation will damage the dog and your relationship with it. Therefore, I do not use my hands to force a dog to do anything and I will gladly state that up front. Anyone who doesn’t, probably does use force and intimidation to get results. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever use a firm tone of voice or time-outs, but that’s much different from leash-jerks or pinning a dog on its side.

They don’t “guarantee” results

Promising training results is a ridiculous marketing gimmick. To do so implies that you think your techniques will work on every family with every dog, instead of  acknowledging that every dog and situation is different. Also, because of the variables in dog breeding and owner commitment and experience, a trainer cannot predict the future. What if the recommended training plan isn’t feasible to the owner? Is that a failure? And what about all that happens after your trainer stops working with you and your dog? There are probably many convicts who had really good kindergarten teachers.

What you should instead look for is a trainer who guarantees satisfaction with their service: they guarantee their knowledge, professionalism and guidance. I personally guarantee that you can speak to satisfied people I’ve worked with before. I could also “guarantee” if I had most problem dogs living with me I could make significant changes in their behavior, but I wouldn’t tell a client that, because it’s irrelevant. They don’t live with me. I have to work with you, your specific limitations and the framework of your life.

They have insurance

Any professional who works with dogs in people’s homes or in a classroom setting should have dog training insurance. Many also are bonded. A trainer should indicate this on their Website and should be able to provide proof if asked.

They don’t place blame

Whatever problems you are having with your dog, it isn’t your fault. And it isn’t your dog’s fault. It’s the fault of poor communication, and that‘s the thing that a dog trainer should be helping you with–not figuring out which one of you needs the bigger time out.

I get really fired up when I see people getting taken advantage of. I’m in it for the dogs and their families and to prevent more dogs from ending up in shelters. If I were wealthy enough, I wouldn’t charge a thing. That kind of passion and devotion means I keep up to date with the most recent research. All that research shows that the behavioral fallout from using force just isn’t worth it in the long run. While you might get the behavior you desire at the moment, I’ve seen the long-term damage it creates and it doesn’t make for a long healthy journey with your dog.

The first step down that road? Asking the right questions before someone guides you to take the wrong turn.

Illustration by Gaby D’Alessandro


4 Responses

  1. Anne Springer

    April 14, 2012 11:14 pm

    Terrific article. The Pet Professional Guild also has listings that can help dog owners find a force free trainer who has pledged to use ethical science-based training, and not to use prong, choke or shock collars.

  2. Meghan Longhurst

    April 15, 2012 8:55 am

    This is wonderful! Would you be willing to let me put this in our adoption packets? I work for Jasmine’s House Pit Bull Rescue. I would credit you fully.

    Thanks for the great article. 🙂


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