Finally: The completion of my series on dog training. It covers a bit of the same ground that previous posts do, including those that mock dominance trainers. I’m aiming for straightforward and dispassionate here, not because I’m any less riled up about the topic but because in some circumstances it’s the best way to convey information.
I was lucky enough to interview two of the most talented — and in my view, sensible — behaviorists for a story on this topic, which appears in the August 2009 issue of Your Dog: Dr. Ian Dunbar (whom I met at last year’s Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference) and Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli. Even where I don’t quote them directly, they are sources for much of my information. Parts of the following are also adapted from the Behaving and Bonding chapter of Am I Boring My Dog.
So, in addition to the four suggestions in How to Find a Good Dog Trainer, Part 1, you should:
5. Check out a class
Could you imagine a parent sending a child to nursery school without having a clue about what to expect? Why, then, would you entrust your dog’s education to a trainer, sight unseen? Even if you think you want private lessons, observe some group classes — without your dog. You’ll get a sense of various instructors’ training techniques and also get a feel for their interactions with both canines and humans.
If you ask to observe a class and the trainer refuses to let you, that’s a red flag right away. But even when you’re allowed to sit in, you might not have a context for what you’re seeing. Laughter, excited squirming (on the part of the dogs), and tail wagging (ditto) are all good signs; raised tones, sharp commands, and long silences are not. Whatever your impressions, be sure to follow up at the end by asking class members what they think. Few will be shy about sharing.
6. Be clear about your goals
Unless you know what you want, it’s impossible to determine whether a particular trainer can give it to you. For puppies, it’s pretty much everything– i.e., life preparation– but for older dogs you need to be a lot more specific than “I want her to behave.” A good trainer should be able to help you focus if you don’t have a sense of your options, and let you know if you’re being unrealistic about an objective– say, getting your dog to put a roller in his mouth and paint your house.
7. Look for clear progress toward your goal
Be wary of trainers who make promises they can’t possibly fulfill. There are no guarantees of perfection for dog behavior — or human behavior, for that matter. Avoid anyone who talks about ‘miracle cures’ and ‘missing secrets’ or uses similarly fantastical language.
At the same time, it’s reasonable to expect to see progress toward such simple goals as basic obedience and socialization in a few lessons. Trainers can’t guarantee results, but they should be willing to ensure client satisfaction. Make sure, however, that this satisfaction isn’t achieved by using training tools as permanent props. Dr. Dunbar and Dr. Moon-Fanelli advocate the initial use of treats as motivation, but both agree they should be phased as soon as possible. “You don’t want to bribe the dog. You want to train him,” Dr. Moon-Fanelli says, adding, “The goal is to have the dog do something because you ask.”
8. Assess professionalism
A trainer should have everything from a functioning, updated Web site to a demonstrated concern for your dog’s health safety. Basic vaccinations — defining those is a can of worms, I know, but that’s for another post — should be required for all participants in a group class.
Trainers — and certainly training schools — should be insured and have a business license so you’ll have recourse to the Better Business Bureau if necessary. Many who work in clients’ homes are bonded.
Prices should be in the ballpark of other trainers’ charges. “Expect to pay between $150 to $300 for a series of six [group] classes, maybe a little more in Manhattan or San Francisco,” Dr. Dunbar says, adding, “If they’re asking for less than $150, they probably don’t value their expertise so they may not have any.”
8. Accentuate the positive
The popularization of so-called dominance-based training methods on television has led many dog owners to expect them — and many trainers to use them. But as Alice Moon-Fanelli cautions, “Any time force and aggression are involved, learning stops. Instead, the interaction becomes a battle of wills.” She uses the analogy of the human workplace. “If you’ve got a heavy-handed boss who is always criticizing your performance, you shut down rather than performing well.”
Dominance-based training for dogs is not only ineffective in the long run; it’s also based on discredited comparisons between wolves and dogs. Perhaps most relevant, dominance has been misinterpreted by some trainers. “Alpha rolling, direct eye contact, muzzle grabbing — that’s aggression, not dominance,” says Dr. Moon-Fanelli who participated in wolf pack studies at the University of Connecticut. “It’s not what families of wolves do to establish hierarchies.” She advises dog owners to steer clear of trainers who use or advocate these techniques.
10. Trust your instincts and be patient.
“Too many owners don’t follow their emotions and keep going with a trainer who isn’t right for them or their dogs,” says Dr. Moon-Fanelli. “Too often people force themselves to stay out of guilt or because they paid the money, but they’re not moving forward.” Cut your losses if you can’t get a refund, she advises, and continue looking.