- What is the most important characteristic of a good dog trainer?
That’s a tough question, but I’d say motivation.
A good trainer’s number one motiviation is to facilitate a relationship between you and your dog. When you’re looking at prospective trainers, try to determine if the trainer is in this business because he cares about you and your dog, or is he in this business, first and foremost, to make money?
- What is the most important question to ask a prospective trainer?
Ask them to show you their education and experience.
Proof of education and experience is the most important information that a trainer can give you, and that information should be easily accessible. It’s not information that a trainer should make difficult for you to find. And, it should be readily visible on the website.
Understand that abbreviations after a trainer’s name, such as “CDBC” (Certified Dog Behavior Consultant) and “APDT” (Association of Pet Dog Trainers), do not necessarily indicate specialized education. Membership in dog training professional societies (that allows a trainer to pay a fee and place letters after his name) does not equal formal education. Ask the trainer about his formal education, how many hours he spent obtaining it, and where it was obtained. Be concerned about individuals who apparently have no education whatsoever or are self-taught.
Do not confuse “dog handling” with training experience. Some individuals who were dog handlers prior to purchasing a franchise business may include their years of “handling” as “training” experience. An experienced, good trainer will have years dedicated to learning to train dogs, not just handle them in the show ring.
- What do you think are the most important elements of a training website?
Is the website easy to navigate to find the information that you’re looking for? Like, education, experience and philosophy. Does the trainer list his fees? Or does he hide it in marketing techniques, like videos–where dogs perform really well, but take a lot of time to train and aren’t your typical family dog?
You should see a price, a philosophy, and their experience. And don’t get distracted from finding out this basic information by the website’s cute photos and/or videos.
Beware of videos that are handed down from a parent organization to a local trainer, which the local trainer passes off as his own abilities. A lot of trainers will spend thousands of dollars/month in advertising to make you think they are a large business with tons of experience, but when you investigate further, you may discover that the trainer is one person who bought a franchise. Franchise trainers often use articles and videos from the parent company to promote themselves. In this circumstance, clients have to understand that the person in the video is not the person who is going to be training their dog.
- Is there anything on a trainer's website that should concern me?
If a trainer’s website dedicates an inordinate amount of landscape to the business aspects of owning one of the franchises, then I’d be concerned that perhaps the person might not have a love of dogs as primary motivation. Dogs may simply be a way to make money.
If you love this business, you will convey your message. Your website and advertising should be very clear to say, “Here’s what I can do; here’s how I can help you.” A prospective client shouldn’t have to call me several times and leave messages or send me multiple emails to request information about my experience and education that ought to be visible in my advertising. My motivation should be to help you.
Consider it a red flag, if you can’t figure out how to contact the trainer directly, without going through a lot of in-home appointments or gimmicks. Gimmicks are sometimes ways to distract clients from a trainer’s lack of experience or education.
- How do I know if a trainer is inexperienced? Are there warning signs?
Pay attention to how the trainer communicates with you and answers your questions.
How knowledgeable are they about your dog’s breed?
How familiar are they with your dog’s problems or your requests?
Years on the training field count big. If you came to me when I was in the business for a year, I had very limited information to give to you. It doesn’t mean a person is a bad person; it means they are an inexperienced trainer. They have a limited amount of knowledge.
Hands-on work experience is a good rule of thumb, but judge the attitude behind the experience as well. Does the trainer come across as a “know-it-all”? I’ve worked with thousands of dogs in 26 years. I’ve worked in ring sport, KNPV, Schutzhund, AKC, and I’ve worked with police departments and the military, but do I know it all? Absolutely not. There will always be a dog that challenges my knowledge. Look out for the know-it-all attitude. These trainers are hard to work with.
How about the person who comes across as abrasive–as if there’s something wrong with you? Anybody who’s been in this business a long time knows it takes patience–not only with the dogs but with the clients, too. It’s unacceptable for trainers to blame clients or specific dog breeds with statements such as, “Well, your dog’s just a Labrador. This is just how they are.” Or, ”Your dog is not getting the command because you don’t practice enough.” Certainly, some breeds are challenging, and some clients do not practice enough, but these statements from a trainer are a big red flag signaling that the trainer may have limited training abilities.
- How do I know if a trainer can do what they promise in their advertising?
This is a reasonable concern. Websites can be misleading about a trainer’s real abilities. It’s easy to watch a video, read the websites, and get lost in pictures. Many websites show you cutsie videos to make you think the trainer can accomplish great feats with dogs, such as having them stand on a box or slide down a slide.
Keep in mind that, in real life, we don’t need our dogs to slide down a slide. We need our dogs to come to us when we call. If your dog doesn’t come, what good is it for him to slide down a slide? The only way to really know if a trainer can deliver is to watch him/her work on the field. With that said, you need to recognize that our demo dogs are good; they execute all sorts of commands and look great in demonstration. Our dogs have received hundreds of training hours, and we practice with them all the time. Just keep in mind that your dog may or may not have the aptitude and skill set to do what our demo dogs can do.
- How do I know that a trainer isn't going to use methods that make my dog worse?
This is a tough situation because until you get the dog on the field working with the trainer, you won’t be able to see how the trainer will handle your dog. It’s reasonable to ask the prospective trainer for some examples of what he might do to help your dog, without asking him to divulge exact training techniques.
Be careful to perform due diligence when interviewing prospective trainers to train an aggressive dog. Only the most experienced trainers should use an electronic collar for aggression. The potential exists to make the dog more aggressive and/or skittish. This basic information is available in general articles on training techniques.
- What are the common methods of training that I should be familiar with, when I'm interviewing prospective trainers? Is one form of training better than another?
The two basic forms of training are (1) single-method and (2) combination training.
Single-method training uses one training aid to accomplish training, such as a stimulant collar or a clicker.
Combination training uses multiple methods and includes a variety of aids, if the specific aid is appropriate for your dog. Combination training accounts for changing environments and circumstances, distractions, and dog-dependent moods. It develops corrective options for all situations—understanding that shifts in personality of your dog require shifts in training strategy. In my opinion, combination training is the best because it does not create dependence on an aid that may not always be available to you.
If you’re interested in combination training, then ask prospective trainers about their methods. If the trainer tells you that he is a “combination trainer” or uses a variety of methods, ask him which specific methods, and ask to see his demo dog perform without any training aids, such as the remote collar. This is critical for you to assess the true abilities of the trainer.
Watch trainers very closely. Be very suspicious when a prospective trainer tells you that he can train with multiple methods, and that he doesn’t always use the e-collar; yet, he refuses to take the collar off his dog and demonstrate obedience for you. A true combination trainer is excited to show you the many ways that he or she can work a dog.
- What if a trainer tells me to do things I'm not comfortable doing, such as growling at my dog?
Well, I don’t advocate using methods such as growling at your dog, but, sadly, this sort of advice is common.
A trainer should always train to the owner’s comfort level. Communication is very important in the whole process. I have to be able to communicate to you why I’m doing what I’m doing. And, if I hear you communicate to me that I’m doing something you’re not comfortable with, I need to honor that and move to another method. A true combination trainer can do that.
- Can you give me some examples of training methods that you believe are dangerous or are inconsistent with the psychology of a dog?
An attempt to recreate the alpha role structure of a dog pack is a little silly to me, and inconsistent with what I know about dogs. I’m not saying that dogs don’t have alpha structures in their packs; clearly, they do. But, a human trying to replicate that structure, or fit into it, is not consistent with a dog’s way of thinking.
I bred German shepherds for over a decade. I could growl at one of my dogs, then bring in one of my other shepherds to growl. The first dog reacted differently to me than to my growling shepherd. Clearly, the dog that I growled at did not see me as a dog and responded differently to the real dog’s growl. Humans attempting to recreate the alpha role doesn’t make sense to me, because in all of my experience, my dogs always know that I am not a dog. They might respect me, but their respect isn’t gained because, all of a sudden after I growl, they think I am a dog. Always, they are clear-minded about who the real dogs are. I haven’t observed or heard anything in 26 years to change my mind about dogs and the alpha role structure.
I’ve heard of trainers telling people to growl or throw chains at their dogs. One of my clients who owns a West German Shepherd conformation bloodline breed went to one of these types of trainers and was told to growl at her dog. These West German dogs tend to be a bit nervous because of how they’re bred. Now, if you’re going to shake something and throw it at this dog, you’re only going to make it more skittish. To train a dog, you’ve got to create a neutral state of mind, first. Throwing chains and growling at a skittish, nervous dog does not take the dog to a neutral state of mind.
There’s real potential for getting hurt, too. I called one of these “alpha dog” trainers once and gave him a theoretical example, to see what his answer would be. I told him that I have a Cane Corso dog of 100 lbs. who bites without provocation or warning. He told me to get on my hands and knees and growl at the dog. If that didn’t work, I was to shake cans full of pennies at him. I mentioned that I was pretty afraid that my dog would bite me if I did this. I suggested that maybe the trainer could do this training of my dog himself. The trainer said no, that he had tons of experience, and him performing the growling wouldn’t help my relationship with the dog, so I needed to do it myself.
So, what I learned in this shopping experience was that this trainer was willing to jeopardize me with a 100 lb. Cane Corso, after I just told him that the dog bites without warning. That makes no sense to me. I’m not growling at any dog. That’s very alarming to me. It should alarm you as well and cause you to fear for your safety.
These techniques are only going to make dogs either overly submissive or overly aggressive. Which would you like to have?
I’d like to have neither—I’d like to have a neutral dog.