Dog training is an unregulated industry. That means anyone, and we mean anyone, can advertise as a dog trainer and even aggression specialist. They do not have to have a special license, certification or any training whatsoever. It could be your neighbor who thinks they are good with dogs because they've owned two or three dogs that were relatively well-behaved. It could be a groomer who is an avid viewer of dog shows on television and seeks to emulate what they see.
We hope this guide will help dog owners find a professional who is right for them and their dog and avoid those trainers who are unethical and even dangerous.
Why It Matters
Many of my clients have worked with other trainers before coming to 4Paws. The following incidents by local trainers are based on their reports, as well as reports given to local shelters and humane societies:
- A 5 month-old puppy suffered tracheal damage from a prong/pinch collar by a boarding facility who claimed the puppy was very "dominant." When the puppy returned for more training at 8 months old, it required medical treatment for burn marks to his neck from a shock collar.
- A dog was returned to its owner with a broken leg after being boarded for "doggie boot camp." The same trainer was later in the news for losing a dog in his care.
- A popular group class instructor marched a fearful dog around the class, "correcting" it harshly with the leash while the dog screamed and tried to escape. She claimed the dog was "just being a baby."
- A dog wearing a shock collar was left in a crate the lobby of a local boarding facility, exhibiting signs of extreme stress. They claimed the dog was being trained for "barrier aggression." Any time a person passed by the crate, the dog would receive painful shocks from the collar.
- A young dog returned to its owner with scabs left by a prong collar after being boarded for a "doggie boot camp."
There are thousands of these stories being told to other professionals and humane societies throughout the country. Unfortunately, the vast majority of cases are never even investigated for animal cruelty. In all of the cases above, the trainers are still in business in the Sacramento area.
Trainers, Consultants and Behaviorists, Oh My!
The term "trainer" has become an umbrella for a wide range of professions and experience, not all of which are appropriate for all problems and not all trainers are knowledgeable in all areas of training and behavior. With the exception of specific certifications offered by professional organizations, there are few, if any regulations about who can call themselves a trainer or a behaviorist. The following are the most commonly accepted certifications/titles:
Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed and Knowledge & Skills Assessed
(CPDT-KA/CPDT-KSA): A CPDT-KA has met minimum requirements as an instructor (including a minimum length of training experience), has passed a certifying examination and is required to meet a minimum of continuing education every two years. A CPDT-KSA (Knowledge & Skills Assessed) has passed an additional certification process by providing evidence of training skill. These requirements are set by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB): This certification requires minimum standards of education (Masters or PhD), experience and ethics. Many behaviorists work in universities and conduct the studies that provide the information trainers and behavior consultants need to understand canine behavior. There are fewer than 60 certified behaviorists in the US.
Veterinary Behaviorist (DACVB): A veterinary behaviorist is often most helpful for dogs with neurological or other medical problems that may be causing or contributing to the behavior and/or when medications accompany a behavior modification program. Veterinarians are not veterinary behaviorists and have received little, if any, training in behavior.
Master Dog Trainer, dog psychologist, behaviorist/behavioralist are all terms which anyone may apply to themselves and are not an indication of knowledge or experience.
SCAM ALERT: Some dog trainers have been found to falsely advertise that they hold professional memberships and/or certifications. Certification and memberships are easy to verify on the certifying organization's website. Look for certification by organizations independent from online schools.
Other Dog Professionals
I know some amazing dog professionals including veterinarians, owners of boarding facilities, breeders, groomers and dog walkers who regularly attend seminars and workshops, continuing to expand their knowledge of training and behavior. Unfortunately, they are outnumbered by those professionals who don't and yet still feel qualified to advise dog owners on everything from housetraining to serious aggression problems.
I was a child for many years and grew up around many other children. It does not mean I am a child psychologist. I have lived in houses my whole life, but that doesn't make me a contractor. I have been driving cars for over 25 years, and yet that does not make me a mechanic. My grandmother gave birth to eight children, and yet that does not qualify her as an Obstetrician.
Just because an individual has worked around dogs in one capacity does not mean that they are qualified to give training or behavior advice. Don't discount their experience entirely, but look for other indications that they are qualified as a trainer other than just being around dogs.
Types of Training
Now that we have broken down the types of training professionals, it is also important for dog owners to understand the types of training methods, as the wrong approach can be more damaging than no training at all.
Dominance. Dominance methods rely on the use of aversives such as choke chains (also known as training collars), prong collars, shock collars and "corrections" on flat collars. These trainers tend to use dominance as an explanation of and solution for problem behaviors and often claim to not use treats or "food bribery."
Positive Reinforcement or reward-based methods are based on operant conditioning, the science of how animals learn. Positive reinforcement trainers focus on prevention of problem behaviors while rewarding more desirable behaviors from the dog. Rewards can be food, play or affection, whatever the dog is motivated by.
Balanced. Some trainers claim to use a combination of methods as an attempt to appear more flexible, claiming they do not take a "one size fits all" approach to training. While this appeals to most dog owners (since no one wants to be closed-minded and balance is usually good), these trainers most often fall under the dominance category.
Sport/Specialized trainers are those that focus primarily on one sport, like agility, flyball, canine freestyle, herding, Schutzhund and working dogs like search and rescue or assistance dogs. These trainers are specialists in their field, however their knowledge and expertise does not always extend to behavior problems.
Competition titles are impressive, but unless your goal is to compete in that sport, they don't necessarily translate to any skill in other areas. If your goal is to compete in those sports, ask for the titles that the trainer's students have won - for that is the evidence of their ability to teach you how to get success.
Read more about training methods
When interviewing a trainer by email or phone, we recommend including the following questions in your interview:
The trainer should be willing to answer these questions in a way that you can easily understand.
Because the only way to truly assess the quality of a trainer is to observe them in action with both dogs and their clients, it is very important to observe a training session. While it may not always be possible to observe private lessons, the trainer should be able to accommodate your request by allowing you to observe a group class. Any trainer who refuses should be suspect.
Pricing: What Are You Paying For?
Prices vary significantly between trainers and price is not necessarily an indication of knowledge or skill. We've seen trainers that charge $30.00 to as much as $1,600.00 per session. Does that mean the more expensive trainer is better or the cheaper trainer is more reasonable? Not necessarily.
When looking at pricing, look for indications that you are paying for knowledge and skill: Is the trainer a member of any professional organizations, do they hold any professional certifications, do they regularly attend continuing education seminars and workshops by other professionals? If the answer is "No," then what are you paying for? Professional organizations set standards that members must adhere to and certifying organizations require professionals to stay current through continuing education.
Ask yourself: If a trainer is charging very low prices, but is behind the times, is that much of a value? If a trainer charges $300 per session, but doesn't hold professional memberships, certifications or education, what is your money paying for?
The following responses during the interview process might be cause for concern and require further examination:
Dominance/Leadership is cited as cause and/or solution.
Dominance has long been debunked as an accurate or effective definition of behavior problems, although it is still prevalent with trainers who have not furthered their education of behavior. "Establishing dominance" is often a euphemism for physical and sometimes harmful methods that temporarily suppress a problem behavior.
"Dog Psychology" is neither a method nor a science. It is a catchphrase popularized on a television show and is being picked up by dog trainers hoping to profit off of the show's success. It is not proof of knowledge, skill or experience.
Claims to use positive reinforcement but not food rewards.
Often a claim made by trainers who lack a basic working knowledge of positive methods. Some trainers are using the term positive reinforcement to describe the praise they use after they have used compulsive methods to get the dog to perform a behavior. What they are using is positive punishment and negative reinforcement, not positive reinforcement. A good reward-based training program incorporates many types of rewards other than just food - it also works with the rewards preferred by the dog, not just by the owner.
Claims to use a "whatever works" approach.
It seems reasonable enough to say that not all methods work on all dogs. However, there are many factors that determine the success of a training method including the trainer's level of knowledge and skill with such a method. Some dog trainers claim to use "positive reinforcement" and yet only know how to lure a dog with treats (one very limited form of positive reinforcement training). When that doesn't work, it's easy for the trainer to declare that positive reinforcement won't work and move on to a more aversive approach, rather than question their lack of skill.
A skilled positive reinforcement trainer uses many approaches to teaching a dog, all of which adapt to the dog's needs without resorting to the use of aversive methods or equipment.
Only qualifications: Living with dogs a long time.
While some long-time dog enthusiasts do pick up valuable knowledge and techniques from being around dogs, this does not necessarily qualify them to address all training or behavior problems any more than being around humans your whole life qualifies you to address behavior problems in humans. Further, one's individual experience with a select number of dogs and breeds may not transfer to all breeds or situations.
AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator
The AKC has exactly four qualifications that must be met to become an evaluator:
- Must be at least 18 years of age.
- Have at least 2 years of experience working with owners and their dogs
- Have experience working with a variety of breeds and sizes of dogs
- Must not be currently suspended from AKC privileges.
Being an approved CGC evaluator is only evidence of these four qualifications and nothing more. The evaluator does not need to pass any exams, submit letters of reference or in any other way demonstrate evidence of training knowledge or skill. While it looks very official, being a CGC evaluator is not a legitimate qualification of anything other than being able to administer the CGC test.
Is vague or combative when asked about methods or tools.
A reputable trainer has nothing to hide. The fact is that there are no secrets when it comes to dog training, so a trainer or behavior consultant should be willing - and able - to explain what they do and how they do it.
Suggests punishment or euthanasia over the phone.
Behavior problems in dogs are frequently misunderstood or mislabeled by owners and cannot be determined based on a description over the phone or internet. A full history of the behavior must be taken and the dog must be observed in order for anyone to determine the right course of action.
Professional organizations such as the APDT, CCPDT and IAABC restrict their members from offering guarantees because there are too many factors to be able to guarantee the outcome. A dog's genetics, early socialization, past experiences and duration of the behavior, plus the dog owner's ability and willingness to comply with a training or behavior program all play a significant role in the success of a program. None of these factors can be controlled by the trainer and so to guarantee an outcome would be unethical.
The mark of a true professional is that they continue their education and are members of and/or seek certification through professioanl organizations that set and enforce standards. Any trainer that does not is simply not a professional and is setting their own standards.
When you finally make your decision, it should be based on the trainer's methods, experience and knowledge, not on convenience or pricing (high or low). Don't skip the important step of observing a trainer in action. Doing a little research in the beginning will go a long way to helping you meet your training and behavior goals and protecting your dog and your pocketbook.
Other Resources: How To Choose a Dog Trainer