Getting a new puppy or adopting a dog is an exciting time. We all want to provide them the best start in their new life with us. Part of this huge new responsibility includes their education and training. Finding the right dog trainer for you and your puppy is vital to their early learning. Or in the case of a newly adopted dog, their smooth and easy transition into a new home. There are many dog trainers with many different approaches out there to choose from. Some approaches are scientific, some self-proclaimed theories, some ‘old school’ and some too ‘new-agey’, and/or a combination of the above. How do you choose?

Why is it important to find an up-to-date dog trainer?

Dog training today is so much more than just teaching basic obedience like heel, sit, down, stay for 20 minutes, let’s play and socialize. We demand so much more of our dogs than 10, 20 years ago. They have become part of our families, live indoors, some sleep on our beds, go out on outings and come with us on holidays. Dog training today is a lot more about building confidence and making the dog feel secure. It is about teaching them life skills to be able to navigate the human environment. It is about building trust and learning to understand one another. They don’t automatically understand the human world and our humans rules. Sniffing crotches is not desirable with humans, but in canine communication it is vital – we need to guide them and teach them what we want them to do – in a way that they would understand.

The “positive only” dog trainer myth

“Positive training methods only” is a myth – it’s virtually impossible to only use positive training. Usually what is meant by if trainers, such as myself, say “we use techniques that are non-confrontational and are based on the principles of positive reinforcement” it means that we first focus on Positive Reinforcement and then use Reward Removal as a negative consequence to an unwanted behaviour. For example if your dog snatches at the treat, the treat is removed, thus snatching equals no treat. The snatching behaviour will decrease, because it leads to loss of reward. But we first teach the dog, how to take a treat gently. Only then if he snatches, do we apply Reward Removal. More modern dog trainers and behaviourists will use the MPLI approach. MPLI stands for Most-Positive-Least-Intrusive Practice.

For  more information on why we don’t use aversive confrontational methods or physical punishment click here.

Dog training is unregulated

Unfortunately the industry of dog training and dog behaviour consultation is unregulated. There is no law that requires dog trainers or behaviour consultants to have certification. Neither are they required to belong to an organization that has a code of practice or ethics. Many modern dog trainers and behaviourist do belong to internationally recognized associations that works according to a strict code of ethics, that can hold us accountable for irresponsible or negligent actions. Therefore it is important to do a little homework on the person that you are entrusting your dog’s welfare and education to.

Here are some pointers to help you choose a good dog trainer

  • Beware of dog trainers that proclaim that they use treats/praise/play motivation; they might also be using physical punishment, they might even ’soften it’ and call it ‘discipline’. It is important to ask them what type of punishment methods they use. Here are some questions to ask. What will they do when a dog that is constantly barking in the class? How will they handle a dog that is not responding to cues/commands. What do they do when a dog is distracted in class? Ask if you can sit in on a group class before booking; if the trainer will not allow it, move on.
  • Speak to the clients after the class. Are they happy and do they look relaxed? Do their dogs look happy and relaxed? Does it look like they and their dogs are having fun?
  • How does the trainer respond to questions in class? Is it encouraged, is it answered clearly and with patience? Does s/he make people feel comfortable about asking questions?
  • BE AWARE of guarantees, promises, cures and quick fixes. The dog is a living being with a fully functioning brain, nervous and endocrine system. Therefore, no ethical trainer can guarantee an outcome; they can however give you an expected outcome. A dog is not a machine or computer that when a few buttons are pressed you are sure of the outcome.
  • Most dog trainers are not behaviourist. Behaviour can be very complex; make sure your trainer is educated in canine behaviour as well. Behaviour training and obedience training are two very different things, but they are closely intertwined.
  • The amount of years the trainer has been training is not an indication of their ability. Does the amount of years include the time they trained, Fluffy the family dog when s/he was 13? It is their professional experience that counts. If they have 15 or 20 years of experience, are they using 15 or 20 year old methods. Behaviour is a science – have they kept up?
  • How many trainers and how many dogs are in the class? So good ratio for adult dogs are at least one trainer to four/five dogs. If there are too many dogs in class, somebody and their dog is being overlooked.
  • Dog trainers and behaviorist should have websites. Website should provide you with the basic information about their qualifications, professional memberships, experience, approaches, techniques and protocols.
  • Anyone can call themselves a qualified dog trainer or dog behaviourist. In South-Africa it is not a protected term, like it is in other countries. It is your right to ask about their professional qualifications. Do they belong to professional bodies or institutions that have a strict code of ethics?
  • When attending a class, don’t hand your dog over to a trainer to do a demonstration that you feel uncomfortable with. If at any time the trainer does something to your dog or instructs you to do, that you don’t feel comfortable with, leave, it’s your right. Just because the person is an instructor does not make the use of aversive methods justifiable, no matter what the dog has done. And then give feedback to the person who recommended or referred you to this trainer.
  • The latest trend is for owners to leave their ‘difficult’ or ‘un-trainable’ dogs with a dog trainer for a few hours or a few days. What is it that you are not allowed to see? Also, dogs are very contextual learners. This means that they do not easily transfer one behaviour to the next environment. The trainers home environment is not your home environment. Neither are you getting the opportunity to build up a relationship of trust and reinforcement with your dog.

And lastly,

  • Can you see that the trainer has a true passion for dogs, AND people AND teaching or does it just look like it’s a job?  Do you get the feeling that the trainer serious about what s/he does, or do you get the feeling that it is a pastime or hobby?
  • Ask your local veterinarians for their opinions on the local dog trainers and behaviourists. Their clients are sure to tell them if they were happy or not with a particular person’s service.
  • After speaking to the trainer do you feel comfortable with him/her, because ultimately you and the trainer are going to spend a lot of time together.

Copyright Claire Grobbelaar