A Better Way to Find a Qualified Dog Trainer

By Adrienne Mesko

Last week an article was published in the New York Times entitled “How to Find a Qualified Dog Trainer.” I found the article to be less than helpful and wanted to present a better way to look for the right qualified dog trainer. As the article pointed out, dog training is an unregulated field, and one must carefully research potential new trainers. 

First ask yourself whether you would like to do a lesson program or a board and train program. Many trainers only offer one service or the other, so this is an important place to start. Talk with the potential new trainer about the services they offer and the pros and cons within them.

Generally in a lesson program, you are being trained to train your dog. Lessons are more affordable because you are doing the bulk of the work yourself. They will also generally take more time than a board and train program. However, you are learning dog training skills that you can use in the future. In a board and train program, the many repetitions of training are done for you. The down side is that it's only a head start, and expectations can sometimes be unrealistic. 

Once you have found a trainer who offers the services you seek, have a lengthy conversation with prospective trainers. Be prepared, make a list of your questions, and take good notes. 

Ask them About Their Experience

Certifications can be misleading. As the field is unregulated, there is no singular certifying authority for dog trainers. Many different organizations offer their own programs with their own criteria for achieving certification. Some are downright bogus and only serve to indicate that that a trainer has paid for a program that offers a certificate. 

Rather than asking for certifications, ask them about their education in the field. How did they get started? Did they go to school or train in an apprenticeship position? Who have they worked under and for how long? What special skills do they have? 

Getting personal can be a great way to get to know someone you will be working closely with. Ask them about their own personal dogs, and what training goals they have for themselves. Trainers that have titled their dogs have put themselves “out there” to be judged within a standard set by the discipline. It's certainly not a necessity for a pet dog trainer to have titled a dog in a discipline but it is a good sign that a trainer is willing to be judged by their peers. 

Look for Trainers with a Support Network

Dog trainers should have the support of a network of peers. In fact, this is one of the most critical things a trainer should have. In difficult training cases they may need to consult within this network for help. They may need someone else's educated perspective on a tricky case. Listen carefully to how potential trainers answer this question. If they scoff at the idea of working with other trainers and indicate that they are above needing the help of others, they may be victims of their own egos, too isolated to grow in the ever changing landscape of their profession. A lone wolf should be a red flag for those looking for a professional dog trainer. 

Inquire About Continuing Education

If a trainer participates in continuing professional education, it is an indication that they are interested in keeping themselves current. It also means that they keep an open mind and are a lifelong student of their profession. Trainers that proudly declare that they've been doing it for long enough and they no longer need education should be avoided. 

Ask For a Syllabus and Expected Results

Trainers should have a clear plan when it comes to working with you and your dog in either a lesson or board and train program. Ask for estimated lengths of time for their programs and what the goals are for each week of training. You want to see that the trainer has taken the time to design a program with reliable results in mind within a reasonable amount of time. 

Beware The “Behaviorist” 

This term is often used by dog trainers who do not have degrees in animal behavior, which is what this term is meant to convey. All good dog training is based in dog behavior. In the hopes of obtaining more clients, this term is often used to sound more science based than simply dog training. If someone calls themselves a “behaviorist” or “certified behaviorist” ask them for the details on their education and certifications, which should include at a minimum a bachelor of science in an animal science. 

Yes, Dog Trainers Should Be People People

A dog trainer should be able to convey relevant information to you with clear communication. They should be fair, patient and understanding with both you and your dog. You should feel comfortable asking them questions and not feel bad when you haven't quite mastered something. 

The best dog trainer is a coach and a teacher to both the dogs and their owners. They should employ the same positive attitude that will motivate both the dog and the owner. They should be good listeners and take your thoughts into account in the training process, customizing their training program to you and your dogs needs. If they are inflexible, impatient and do not make you feel inspired and motivated, they probably aren't the right fit for you and your dog.