You want to get the best possible training for your dog, but you don’t know where to start. There are so many options! Your friends, family, and veterinarian each give different referrals. When you look the names up, some of the trainers talk about the importance of being a good pack leader, others talk about treats and toys, and still others call themselves balanced—and all of them claim that their way is the best (or only) way to train a dog effectively. Help!
Let’s get real: Training methods aren’t all the same
There’s more than one way to train a dog (or a person, for that matter). For example, you can teach a dog to sit by jerking them up by the collar while shoving their rear end to the ground (force-based training). You show them a treat to get them to look up far enough so that they tip their own rear end onto the ground (lure-reward, a type of positive reinforcement training). You can also shove the dog’s rear end onto the ground and then feed a treat once their rear end is down (balanced training).
All three of these options will achieve the goal of getting the dog to sit. Each can also be used to teach the dog to sit when you say “sit.” So why should you care which method you use?
Training doesn’t just teach a dog how to respond to a signal (e.g., sit when the dog hears “sit”). It also creates emotional associations with everything that is happening. In other words, while you are training, your dog is seeing whether it’s fun or icky to spend time with you, whether training is something to be excited about, and whether the word “sit” is something to feel happy or anxious about.
You may be thinking, “But if the dog sits, who cares?” And that’s sort of true, in the sense that your dog might sit in that moment. But your dog’s emotional response to the situation is going to affect how they act when you say “sit” in the long term. If you want a dog who responds quickly and correctly the first time you say “sit,” for years to come, it’s important to consider your dog’s feelings.
I recommend positive reinforcement
Different trainers have different philosophies. Some will argue that one method or another is the best way to go. You have to decide for yourself what methods you want to use, but there is scientific evidence that using force and punishment can have unintended fallout (for the reasons mentioned above). For me, methodology is a no-brainer. I’d much rather have a dog who is eager to train, and happy to respond quickly whenever I ask for something. That means I use positive reinforcement training.
Doesn’t everyone use positive reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is (fortunately) getting more and more popular. After all, who wouldn’t want to get great results while having fun and being nice to their dog? The problem is that since “positive training” is now so trendy, many trainers who don’t actually use positive reinforcement have started using that phrase as a buzzword in their marketing materials. For example, I have clients who have been told to use schock collars on even the tiniest of dogs by people who call themselves positive reinforcement trainers (spoiler alert: using a collar that causes pain means you are NOT a positive reinforcement trainer). So how can you tell the real positive reinforcement trainers from the rest?
Finding the right trainer
When you look at a trainer’s website, or talk to people who worked with the trainer, you can usually tell what methods they actually recommend, if you look closely. Here are some warning signs that a person doesn’t actually do positive reinforcement training:
There are photos of dogs in chain or prong collars
The website talks about pack theory
The text says that being calm and assertive will make all the behavior problems go away
The trainer recommends a collar that “just causes a tickle” to the dog’s neck
If the person says being a strong leader will magically transform every aspect of your dog’s behavior, that person is not a positive reinforcement trainer. If anything the person does involves force, intimidation, or threats, that person is not a positive reinforcement trainer. If the person talks about how you need to be the alpha, that person is not a positive reinforcement trainer.
So how do you find a trainer or behavior expert who will teach you using positive reinforcement, and is likely to be the right fit for your needs?
Anyone in the U.S. can call themselves a “dog trainer” – even those with zero dog experience
Dog training is an almost completely unregulated industry. In most places, anybody can call him or herself a dog trainer – even if that person has never met a dog before. And while there are a lot of people out there who talk a good game, many of them don’t have the skills to back up their sales pitch. That means you need to find someone with a good education and proper experience.
To understand the experience, education, and philosophy of the trainer, look at the alphabet soup behind their names
Many professional dog trainers have opted to pursue certifications to help show their level of experience and approach to training.
Here’s a list of some of the more respected qualifications a dog trainer might have:
CPDT-KA (Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed*)
CPDT-KSA(Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge & Skills Assessed*)
CBCC-KA (Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed*)
CDBC* (Certified Dog Behavior Consultant*)
VSPDT (Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer**)
VSA CDT (Victoria Stilwell Academy Certified Dog Trainer***)
KPA CTP (Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner***)
* These four qualifications each have minimum experience requirements and certificants must pass a test to demonstrate their knowledge or skills.
** Victoria Stilwell Positively dog trainers are hand-picked for their skillful use of positive reinforcement.
*** Victoria Stilwell Academy Certified Dog Trainers and Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partners have gone through coursework that teaches the proper use of positive reinforcement.
Are dog trainers and animal behaviorists the same thing?
In the United States, the term “behaviorist” is properly reserved for either Veterinary Behaviorists (a credential that requires a veterinary degree and additional residency, as well as case studies and passing a written exam), Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (requires a Ph.D. thesis and passing a written exam), or Associated Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (requires an M.A. thesis and passing a written exam).
While I am certified as a behavior consultant by two different organizations, and have many years of experience handling behavior cases, I am not a behaviorist. Anyone who calls him or herself a behaviorist in the United States and does not fit into one of the categories I just mentioned is misusing the term, Sadly, based on what I have seen over the years, people who misuse this term usually have no qualifications or certifications at all. So if someone says they are a “behaviorist” on their website, check to see if they are a DACVB, CAAB, or ACAAB. If they are not, go find another trainer – this one is misrepresenting their education and skills.
Find an educated dog trainer who can help you create a positive relationship with your dog!
No dog trainer can guarantee results, but the better educated and more experienced a trainer is, the more likely they are to be able to help. The best dog trainers know that you don’t have to be a bully to have a well-behaved dog. Do yourself a favor and find someone who can help make training fun for you and your whole family. Your dog will thank you for it!