How to find the right trainer for you and your dog

When you acquire a dog or new puppy you take on the responsibility to  ensure you give your dog the best of everything and this includes training. There are so many different approached out there, some scientific, some self-proclaimed theories, some ‘old school’ and some too ‘new-agey’, and/or a combination of the above. I still have to meet two behaviourists and trainers that agree on everything :).

Training today is so much more than just sit, down, stay and let’s play. We demand so much more of our dogs than 10 years ago, they have become part of families, live indoors, some sleep on our beds, go out on outings and holidays. We need to teach them how to confidently handle these things and situations that are truly foreign to them. 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.

“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.

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

Unfortunately there is no law that requires dog trainers to have certification or to belong to an organization that regulates the industry, however some of us do belong to internationally recognized associations that works according to a strict code of ethics. Therefore it is important to do a little homework on the person that you are entrusting your dog’s education to.

Here are some pointers to help you choose:

  • Beware of 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. Ask them what would they do with a dog that is constantly barking in the class, is not responding to cues/commands or that is not focused on the owner.
  • Ask if you can sit in on a lesson 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 or is the trainer arrogant and abrupt? Does s/he make people feel comfortable about asking questions?
  • BEWARE 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 if a few buttons are pressed you are sure of the outcome.
  • Most 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? You are interested in their professional experience. 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? A good ratio for adult dogs are at least one trainer to four/five dogs. If it is more than that, someone and their dog is being overlooked.
  • If they have a website, read it thoroughly.
  • It is your right to ask about their qualifications and then follow up if it is so.
  • 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 followed by trainers is for owners to leave their ‘difficult’ or ‘un-trainable’ dogs with a trainer and are then asked to go shopping for an hour or so…what is it that the owner is not allowed to see?
  • Ask the local veterinarians if they have had any feedback from their clients about a specific trainer.
  • 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?
  • 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