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How to Choose a Dog Trainer

Did you know that dog training is a completely unregulated industry? That's right. Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and start taking your money for their services. Read on to learn how to choose wisely. 

Some years ago I posted an ad for an upcoming group class under the heading, "Training Your Dog Should Be Fun!", an idea I'd borrowed from Dr. Ian Dunbar, one of the world's pre-eminent Veterinary Behaviorists. The first reply I received was from another dog trainer, who wrote:

"Training dogs should NOT be fun!  All dogs know is dominance until we show them otherwise. Training dogs is dangerous, serious business, and people like you shouldn't be in it."

"Thank you for your interest in our upcoming class," I replied. "I look forward to meeting you and your dog. You'll both learn a lot and have a lot of fun!"

Unfortunately, my profession is dangerously unregulated in the United States. Anybody can hang out a shingle claiming to be a dog trainer. The field abounds with self-anointed "Master Trainers" (there is no such credential or certification) who have watched one too many Dog Whisperer episodes - and ignoring the "Don't try this at home" warning - thought, "I can do that."

The response of the trainer who wrote to me revealed a great deal about their lack of education, and knowledge about dog behavior and ethology. More importantly it waved a red flag about the techniques that would be used to train YOUR dog should you choose to train there. Hint: It's not going to be fun for your dog: He is basically Cujo-in-waiting and needs to be shown who's boss before he tears out your throat in the night.

This is nonsense, of course, and dangerous nonsense for your dog and your relationship with him or her.  This is one of the things that drives me crazy when I hear people say things like, "we all have different philosophies when it comes to training dogs."  This is not about philosophy. Philosophy is about people - dogs have no philosophy - discussing their opinions about something. If you express your opinion and I grab you around the neck and choke you to the ground we have wandered far afield from philosophy.

But choking dogs with what I like to call "punitive neckwear" (choke, prong, or shock collars) is part and parcel of how traditional, dominance-theory dog trainers train dogs. And science is very clear about the damage that is done both physically and behaviorally by these methods, as well as of the advantages of training animals without force or fear.

If the trainer who wrote to me had actually received an education, and understood the nature of the damage they inflicted when they punished animals, a large number of dogs and their owners could have been spared the well-documented behavioral fall-out (including fear and increased aggression) that results from these techniques.

Recently a number of trainers, at the behest of Jean Donaldson, took what was called the "Transparency Challenge," and made videos answering in clear terms (no buzzwords like, "energy" or "calm-submissive") the following questions:

What happens when the dog gets it right?

I will let him know with a single word, "Good!" and follow it with a food reward. Why food? Why not just tell him what a wonderful dog he is? Because there has never been a dog in history who, if lost in the woods, thought, "Boy! I wish I had some PRAISE!"

What happens when the dog gets it wrong?

I will let him know with a short, "Too bad!" and withold the reward. No soup for you. I might have to make the step I just attempted a little easier for him because we want to have as close to error-free training as possible. Then we can increase the difficulty in a next step he can handle. Success breeds success.

Are the techniques I'm using the least aversive and intrusive available?

Absolutely. In fact, I am required by the organization that certifies my credentials to take part in verifiable continuing education programs in order to maintain my standing. As a result I keep up on the most recent research in my field, attend seminars and take webinars with the people involved in the research. Thanks to my education at the Academy for Dog Trainers ("The Harvard of dog training schools") I have been educated in HOW to evaluate the information I receive and recognize empty rhetoric of the "pack leader" variety.

So, if you train with me we won't be pushing or pulling your dog, we won't be swatting or yelling, or poking him with dowels, or choking him with punitive neckwear. Instead we will be motivating, luring, and reinforcing the behaviors we want to see repeated.


Also, it will be a lot of fun.

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