Finding a dog trainer can be a daunting task. These days there are so many dog trainers (especially in large metropolitan areas) and there are several different training styles or philosophies. To help promote Train Your Dog Month, here are some tips and questions to ask:
1) What is the trainer’s training philosophy? Are the methods based on positive reinforcement (e.g. lure-reward training or clicker training) or are they more compulsion-based (using collar corrections or other physical prompts)? Most modern dog trainers use methods primarily based on positive reinforcement and it is the method that the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior advocate as a first-line approach. Avoid trainers who use harsh physical corrections such as leash popping/jerking, pinning the dogs to the ground or hanging the dog by the leash. With young puppies you especially want to make sure that the methods used are gentle and non-coercive because this is a formative period for a puppy. If the person you are interviewing is evasive or overly vague about the techniques they use, move on.
2) What Kind of Equipment Does the Trainer Use? Most positive reinforcement based trainers use plain buckle/clasp collars, harnesses like the Easy Walk™ or Freedom Harness™ or in some cases head harnesses like the Gentle Leader™ or Halti™. They do not use slip chains (choke collars), prong collars or shock collars. For a review of harnesses and collars see my blog at: http://pawsitivefeedback.blogspot.com/2009/06/harnesses-martingales-gentle-leaders-oh.html
3) Is the trainer certified? There are a few certification organizations out there that try to standardize the level of education and experience a trainer should have. One such organization is the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (http://www.ccpdt.org/). The CCPDT, for example, requires that the applicant have completed a certain number of hours as a head dog trainer and successfully pass an exam that tests the trainer's knowledge of learning theory, animal husbandry, ethology, the use of equipment and instruction skills. Many of these organizations also require continuing education to ensure that its members keep up with current trends and developments in dog behavior and training.
4) Experience and Continuing Education - You also want to find out how they received their education and training. Did they apprentice with a dog trainer? How many years have they been training dogs? Does the trainer belong to a professional organization that requires continuing education? A few examples of such organizations are: APDT, IAABC, NADOI and the CCPDT. While it may be impressive that a person has had 30+ years of experience, dog training has changed a lot in the last 10-15 years and if that person does not do continuing education to keep up with the changes, that experience may be limited and antiquated compared to someone who has been in the business for 10 years but has also been keeping up with the science and changes in the field. Attending seminars and conferences are examples of how many dog trainers keep current.
5) What services do they offer? Does the trainer offer group training and/or private training? If you have a young puppy for example, you may want to work with a trainer that does both private training and group socialization and training classes so there is a sense of continuity in the training and your puppy can take advantage of socialization under safe, supervised conditions. If the trainer holds group classes and you are unsure of his/her training methodology, ask if you can observe a class. If the techniques are positive-based and most of the dogs seem happy and are enjoying themselves, then that is a good sign.
6) Use your gut. If the trainer makes you feel uncomfortable, uses scare tactics to convince you to sign up, if you find the methods overly harsh or if your dog is showing unusual fear or anxiety in response to the trainer’s methods then take your dog out of the situation. A trainer should not scare you into signing up for his/her services.
Here are a few good places to start searching for a qualified trainer in your area:
The Association for Pet Dog Trainers (http://www.apdt.com/ )
Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (www.ccpdt.org)
Truly Dog Friendly Trainers (www.trulydogfriendly.com )