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What to consider when looking for a dog trainer

December 17, 2019

Thinking about looking for a trainer to work with your dog? Maybe it’s time for puppy classes so you can build a foundation of good manners while nipping annoying behaviors in the bud. Or, you recently brought home an adult dog from a rescue, but she hadn’t had much training in the first place, so you’d like to do something about the leash tugging and the fact that she ignores you when called. Perhaps you’re getting bored with the marathon fetch sessions with the tennis ball and looking for a new activity. All are great reasons to work with a dog trainer, and you can use this guide to help you find one that meets your needs.

Why work with a dog trainer?

There are lots of reasons to work with a trainer, and doing so is one of the most important investments you can make in your dog. Every year, some 3.3 million dogs are relinquished to animal shelters. Undesired behavior in the dog is one of the top reasons people give up on these animals, but working with a trainer can put you and puppy on the right path. Anyone, dogs and humans alike, can benefit, and here are a few options.

Traditional obedience classes

By signing up for an obedience class, whether it’s for a puppy or an adult dog, you’re setting an intention to shape the behavior you want in your house. The classes teach you how to teach your dog how to respond to various, everyday situations. These are some of the commands and behaviors they focus on in obedience classes:

  • how to respond to basic commands, starting with sit, stay and come
  • how to respond to advanced commands, like lie down and heel
  • how to behave on a leash (no tugging), and how to greet new visitors (no jumping up on people)

Classes aren’t only for novice dog owners. Even longtime dog enthusiasts find they can get more done in less time in a structured setting of an obedience class. Because the dog is around other dogs in the classroom setting, that can help with socialization. Some think dogs benefit from a classroom setting because they can learn impulse control even when there are lots of distracting dogs around them.

The idea of these classes is more than teaching your dog basic commands. The spirit behind a high-quality class is teaching you how to do a better job of communicating with your dog. When the classes end, you’ll still be practicing the things you covered in class, plus you’ll have a foundation to continue working with your dog, whether you’d like to teach new skills or improve their manners. In the best case scenario, you’ll also meet new people who would love to go on outings with you!

Keep in mind, there are different types of classes from beginning to advanced, as well as classes that focus on puppies and adult dogs. Talk to the instructors before signing up to know which level is best for you and your dog. For more on choosing the right class and instructors, read on below.

Solving behavioral issues

Some pet parents work one-on-one with trainers to address specific problem behaviors. Perhaps you’re having trouble solving nuisance behavior, like jumping up on people or failing to respond to calls when focused on the scent of a distant rabbit. One-on-one sessions with a trainer can help you find a better strategy to stop the unwanted behavior and redirect your dog.

When a dog struggles with a more serious behavioral problem, however, that’s more than likely beyond the skills of a general dog training. If your dog is destructive (chewing on the furniture), guarding resources, acting out due to separation anxiety, or shows severe aggression, an applied animal behaviorist will have the education and skills to help you resolve these issues.

Before you begin, have your dog seen by their vet, so you can rule out (or identify) underlying physical issues that could be causing the bad behavior.

What to know when choosing a trainer

Before you invest your time and money into a class (or a series of one-on-one sessions), make sure this teacher and the course are a good fit for you and your pooch. If practical, ask to observe in person. Here are some key things to keep in mind.

Certifications and training

Dog trainers don’t require a license to practice, which means anyone can decide they’re a trainer and go into business. But to get a feel for their level of preparedness and professionalism, you can ask about their certification and memberships. Two to consider are the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers and The Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

Good references

Along with online reviews, do what you can to independently vouch for the quality and effectiveness of the training and the class. Ask people in the animal community. Talk to your vet, contact the local animal rescue, or chat with the friendly clerk at your local independent pet supply store.

Positive reinforcement or discipline-based: Which is better?

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and other organizations strongly endorse dog training methods that enforce positive behaviors. Positive reinforcement training focuses solely on offering rewards, such as treats, praise and play to get dogs to perform behaviors you want.

Other trainers, however, use punishment or aversive methods. These are tools and methods that create negative or unpleasant responses when the dog does something you don’t want it to do. The dog might experience an unpleasant sound, a tightening of the collar or a mild shock from the invisible fence. The idea is to command the dog’s attention, put an immediate stop to the unwanted action so you can redirect the dog to the correct behavior.

So, which is better, positive reinforcement or aversive? While some trainers are focused on one or the other, many use a combination of both. Before you sign up for a class, do your research about these two schools of thought and consider which method suits your style and what suits the breed and temperament of your furry friend. For some dogs and breeds, a direct, heavy-handed approach is what works to get the message across. Yet for others dogs, the aversive style can be overwhelming and provoke a fearful response which can affect the relationship between you and your dog.

Excellent people skills

Does the training instructor clearly demonstrate the method and explain why they’re doing it? Do they give humans plenty of time to practice? If the trainer’s behavior is disrespectful, off-putting or makes you feel inadequate, say no thank you. If you don’t feel good about your working relationship with the instructor, their training won’t be helpful.

Is everyone having fun?

Training classes sound like work, but humans should not be stressed, and tails should not be tucked. Lessons should be fun for both the dog and the pet parent, so smiling faces and wagging tails are both good signs.

While everyone has slightly different goals behind working with a trainer, there’s one thing all pet parents get out of it: It should deepen the canine-human bond so both of you can live happier together.

Nothing conveys a job well done to a dog better than a drool-worthy treat. NutriSource Soft & Tender Treats are made with real chicken, lamb or salmon that will bring any training session to a delicious end. Find them on the shelves at your local, independent pet supply retailer.