How to Find the Right Dog Trainer

By: Amanda E. Florsheim, DVM, CBCC-KA

TVMA Member
Carrollton, TX

Published September 2016

Whether you have a new puppy, an older dog learning new tricks or a dog with behavioral problems, you may be interested in finding a trainer or behavior consultant to help you. If you search online using the words “dog training” and “behavior,” you may feel a bit overwhelmed by your choices. While it is tempting to hire the first name on a list, it pays to do your research. A little knowledge can go a long way in helping you identify quality trainers who focus on reward-based methods and helping dogs become calm, happy members of your household. It’s important to weed out people who use inappropriate techniques, which can lead to new unwanted behaviors and/or can strengthen the behaviors that need to be modified. Finding the right trainer or consultant is vital for not only achieving your training goals but also for your pet’s overall behavioral health.

Interview Questions to Guide the Selection Process

How do you identify the right trainer? The first step is interviewing potential candidates. These three questions can help you identify trainers who use outdated techniques:

Do You Use Treats When You Train?

Appropriate Responses:

  • “Of course! Food is a great way to tell your dog it performed the behavior you wanted.”
  • “Food is a primary tool of positive reinforcement and is valuable to the animal so it can be used as an effective strategy in training.”

Inappropriate Responses:

  • “No, the dog should do what the person wants without bribes.”
  • “Never use treats. The dog will become dominant to the owner if you coddle it.”
  • “Alpha dogs don’t use treats to get what they want, so why should I?”

What Do I Do If My Dog Doesn’t Obey My Commands?

Appropriate Responses:

  • “Body harnesses can really help.”
  • “Head collars, if used correctly.”
  • “Clickers can be great training tools.”
  • “Remote treat dispensers are great.”

Inappropriate Responses:

  • “Shock collars can help teach basic behaviors.”
  • “Most dogs need choke or pinch collars to let them know who is in charge.”

What Do I Do If My Dog Growls at Me?

Appropriate Responses:

  • “Growling is a normal behavior that warns a bite could be coming. Don’t punish the growl or the dog may start biting without bothering to growl as a warning.”
  • “Dogs growl to communicate their discomfort. Look at the situation and try to help the dog feel better. If it is comfortable, the dog has no need to growl and escalate behavior.”
  • “Growling is high on the ladder of aggression. Stop what you are doing and reassess the situation or someone could get hurt.”

Inappropriate Responses:

  • “Shock/choke/hit the dog.”
  • “Use an alpha roll. A growling dog is trying to be boss, and you need to correct his behavior.”
  • “Stare the dog down.”
  • “Get in the dog’s space and pressure him until it submits.”

Dog Trainers’ Credentials Indicate Expertise and Education

The second step is to look for specific credentials. Dog training is becoming a more professionalized field. Certifications from reputable institutions indicate a trainer has achieved proficient knowledge of dog behavior, and continuing education is often required to maintain their certifications. Some well-known and respected certifications include Karen Pryor Academy (KPA), Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) and Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA). If you are researching a trainer and find he or she is certified, look into the certifying body to determine if it is one that supports science-based training and adheres to the humane hierarchy of dog training. If your dog is fearful or showing aggression, you may need to pursue more directed help from a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB), a veterinarian with training in behavior or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB).

Lastly, while many trainers may have the right education and use appropriate training methods, if they don’t support you throughout the training process, you are less likely to be successful. Be sure to look for a trainer who is just as interested in your success as your dog’s success, and be an active participant in your dog’s training. Actively participating in your pet’s training has many benefits. You improve your skills in working with your pet, and with appropriate techniques, you can improve your pet’s bond to you. While sending your dog away for training can be effective, you do not always learn how to work appropriately with your dog, which means skills can deteriorate as your dog returns home. In addition, you cannot control how someone else handles or treats your dog while the dog is away, which means you cannot guarantee that someone is treating your pet appropriately. Training is a mechanical skill and new to many of us; it is no different than learning how to ballroom dance or inline skate. You need someone skilled not only in the technique but also in teaching and supporting you.

Contributor: Cathy Painter-Rigdon, LVT

Dr. Florsheim was born and raised in Dallas. She graduated from Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine and owns Veterinary Behavior Solutions.