After another bout of a mystery intestinal problem — apparently not related to his diabetes, fortunately, but still worrying — Frankie’s feeling much better, and expressing himself through enthusiastic doggie flatulence. It’s a good thing he’s little. And that I wasn’t planning any dinner parties.

So, as promised, I’m beginning my series on how to find a good dog trainer.  I’ll start with four things to look for. I’m not suggesting your attention span is short. It’s been an exhausting last few days, so I’m afraid mine is.

1. Seek out the certified

A good place to start a trainer search is the website of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), which lists about 1,400 CPDTs, most in the United States and Canada. To take the council’s standardized exam, applicants are required to submit references from a veterinarian, client and colleague. They also must have performed at least 300 hours of training within the last five years.

The lengthy exam, which is re-evaluated annually, covers learning theory, equipment, ethology (species-specific behavior), instruction skills and husbandry (health issues). Moreover, CPDTs must recertify every three years, either by providing proof of continuing education credits or by taking the most current form of the exam.

If a trainer claims he or she is certified, ask by whom. All kinds of schools have popped up that certify their graduates, but only CCPDT has an exam that is created by an independent certifying body of experts and geared specifically toward dog trainers.

Anyone interested in being a dog trainer — and who has the proper references and experience — can take the CCPDT exam, but the majority are members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), which is unaffiliated with the group. Those certified by the CCPDT are qualified for the professional membership level of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

2. Look for joiners, course-takers and readers

Membership in organizations such as APDT below the professional level doesn’t guarantee quality – you need only pay an entry fee to join as a full or associate member – but at a minimum it indicates an awareness that training is not merely a hobby.

An even better sign than membership: Attendance at APDT’s annual conferences, which offer lectures and discussions by top names in the behavioral field.

The APDT conference isn’t the only game in — or out of — town. Dog-training experts regularly offer courses or seminars, including on line webinars.

How do you know if a trainer you’re considering has taken advantage of any of these educational opportunities? Ask. Trainers who have kept up with the latest information love to talk about what they’ve seen, done and read. You may not be able to shut them up.

3. Check websites

The fact that a trainer has bothered to create one is a good start, again suggesting that she or he considers training a profession. Other things to look for in a website include:

  • Currency

I know, not everyone updates their websites regularly (guilty!) but if you’re referred to an address that says “We’re looking forward to getting this site up in early 2007” you’ve got to worry about the trainer’s seriousness and organizational skills.

  • Attitude

One website of an APDT member I came across disses everything from “university veterinary behavioral programs” to “food-bribery trainers” and group classes. I wouldn’t want to put my dog in the hands of someone so insecure that he needs to disparage the methods of others instead of just explaining the virtues of his own approach. In my experience, such humans often exhibit fear-based aggression.

  • Unwarranted claims

Be wary of anyone who guarantees results within a certain period of time — or guarantees results, full stop. All you can expect is that a trainer do her best, using tried and true methods — yes, that means positive ones, but I’ll get to that again later — for your dog. These methods may not succeed as a result of factors completely unrelated to a trainer’s skill, such as inherited temperament traits or illness.

4. Seek out individualization

Each dog, like each human, is unique. Some dogs are fearful and behave aggressively; some are friendly but have a hard time focusing; others are shy and don’t eat when stressed. The permutations are infinite. A trainer should be flexible and understand the needs of your particular dog, rather than applying cookie-cutter techniques.

A good trainer also recognizes and adapts to each owner’s unique personality and abilities (a nice way of saying they can deal with really annoying — or just nervous — people). Trainers need to be able to assess the owners as much as — if not more than —  they do the dogs.

Avoid trainers who can’t work past the fact that they like animals better than humans. It’s an understandable sentiment, but the process isn’t going to succeed if a trainer can’t train you along with your dog.


Note: Much of the information is adapted from a story I did for Your Dog, the newsletter of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts, and from my new book, Am I Boring My Dog.

5 thoughts on “How to find a good dog trainer, Part 1”

  1. Some trainers use coded phrases when writing on websites or in brochures about their philosophy or methods. One I’m seeing more often now is “real world” trainer, which often seems to mean old-school methods … like those of us using newer methods live in some unreal world.

    Our trainer uses the tagline “Modern, Gentle Methods” to convey the fact that she uses up-to-date science and non-punishment strategies in her work.

    And, yes, these guarantees and “quick/easy” sales pitches (common in dog training franchises) annoy me. I’m seeing a lot of this lately on Twitter too. (grumble)

    1. Thanks, Roxanne. “Real world” is a new one to me! It’s one of those buzzwords like “tough love,” which implies that the opposite is weak and therefore ineffective.

      I agree with you about Twitter. I’ve been more vigilant lately about checking websites so as not to follow — and thereby imply approval — of the quick fix trainers.

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