Choosing a Dog Trainer
Updated: Jan 21
Choosing a Dog Trainer
When looking for a trainer, do your homework and ask some questions. You’re talking about training your best friend here, and virtually anyone can call himself or herself a dog trainer. Simply print up some business cards, advertise, and voila, you’re a dog trainer. There is no licensing requirement, no mandatory test, no nothing. Scary, isn’t it?
So how do you choose?
Ask your friends and relatives for recommendations.
If you see a well-behaved dog on your outings, ask its owner/guardian where it was trained.
Ask local rescue groups or breed rescue groups who they work with.
Ask your veterinarian, groomer, or pet store. Go to a dog show and get information there.
Then visit the trainer’s Website. Do you like what he or she says and how it is said? That’s a big clue as to whether you will be able to work together. Some trainers are very cryptic on their sites — they’re either simply advertisements or they write in “sound bites” and give you the barest amount of information. That may be a clue as to the way they train or as to the diversity — or lack of diversity — in their training methods. Or they may be new to training. If a trainer simply talks about their family or how they have “always loved dogs,” that’s a signal that there may not be a lot of experience.
Are they a member of any trainer organizations? If they are, then that shows an interest in furthering themselves in their profession rather in their pocketbook. Go to their Testimonials page. Boy, if you want to REALLY learn about how clients have been helped, there is no hype here, just grateful clients giving their assessments of how the trainer helped them. Ask if you can speak to a couple of the people for recommendations.
Then you want to talk to the trainer personally on the phone to get a sense of whether you would like to work with this person. Ask about their background and experience. Then go to see their classes. Look at the trainer — how they dress and their hygiene (Are the clothes dirty or full of holes? Is their hair combed?) Look at the methods they use and ask yourself if you would be comfortable using those methods. Ask the students if what the trainer has showed them has worked for their dog.
While all trainers can generally train the basic obedience (read about the Methods below) and manners exercises, there are some trainers who specialize in their particular sport or interest, i.e., obedience competition or agility. You may want to find a trainer who specifically “pre” trains for what you are interested in. There may be some parts of their training that are geared to their own personal interest (if you’re in a class and that trainer knows you are not going to participate in “their” sport, they might not pay as much attention to you), so ask questions carefully and listen to their answers. If you simply want training or manners for your pet dog, then ask yourself whether you need a trainer who competes in agility.
You want to know who your trainer is because they will be training YOUR dog. If you visit a Website and there is no trainer’s name and/or no qualifications, how do you know what kind of trainer you are getting? Many dog walking services and day cares offer training as a supplement to their services. Dog walkers or day care staff generally are NOT dog trainers — many have no training. Hiring them to train your dog may be simply a way for the dog walking service or day care to earn more money. Make sure that you know the trainer’s qualifications and experience. It should be listed on their Website.
Also, some dog training businesses are franchised, which means they pay for a corporation to market their services. Have these trainers gone through training to train dogs or training to make money? Their total training — both dog training and business training — many times is only six weeks — or less! Remember that the best sales person is not the best dog trainer. Telling you what you want to hear on the phone is not the same as training your dog when they come to your home.
Read the rest of this article for other ways to determine whether a trainer is the right one for you.
What are the qualifications of a good dog trainer?
Trainers first and foremost *must* like people and have people skills because they are training owners/guardians to train their dogs. If you get a bad vibe from that trainer or just have a “funny feeling” — no matter what their recommendations or qualifications are — go elsewhere.
Trainers should also know something about whether a dog is healthy or not because if a dog is ill, then he will not learn as readily and may even exhibit withdrawal, refusal, or aggressive behavior.
What does that mean? If a dog is sick, he may be aggressive simply because he is doesn’t feel well but is fine when not ill. If a dog is deaf, he certainly cannot hear your commands — some trainers mistake that for disobedience! (That actually happened to a well-known trainer that I know personally.)
The trainer should be able to read dogs’ body language, so they should know characteristics of the various breeds and how it impacts your particular dog’s teaching and learning.
Generally speaking, you should find out the trainer’s qualifications, length of time training, what their education is, what training methods they use, as well as asking for references. Many trainers offer this information on their Web sites as well as testimonials from satisfied clients.
What kind of dog trainer do I need?
There is a difference between a dog trainer, a dog behavior consultant or behavior counselor, a dog behaviorist, and veterinary behaviorist. A dog trainer looks into the future (no, they’re not clairvoyants) and has a specific goal or picture in mind as to exactly what task your dog should do. Any type of dog behaviorist, consultant, or counselor helps in solving a problem — digging, chewing, house soiling, jumping up, aggression, etc. — by looking into the past (no, they don’t look into your dog’s past lives — or yours either!) at what may be causing your dog to act the way he does and then uses the specific tasks taught in dog training as well as behavior modification (for both you and your dog) to help solve the problems.
A dog trainer trains you and your dog to do specific commands — sit, stay, heel, come, etc.
A dog behavior consultant or dog behavior counselor helps you and your dog with problem behaviors — jumping on people, aggression, separation anxiety, fear, etc.
A dog behaviorist is a person who has a degree in animal behavior. It's not a person who decides that since s/he works with dog behavior issues that s/he's a behaviorist!
A veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who specializes in treating behavior problems, runs medical tests, and uses drugs to modify your dog’s behavior.
So if you want help on, let’s say, aggression, a person who only trains classes in obedience (or one who is just starting out as a trainer) may not be the best one for you. However, many behavior consultants — myself included — call themselves “trainers” because that’s what the general public calls them and because we do use specific commands in helping to solve some behavior problems in conjunction with behavior modification. But teaching your dog to perform a specific behavior such as Sit is very different than dealing with the underlying causes of behavioral issues.
Another example of choosing the right trainer for you is if you some day want to do search and rescue work with your dog, you may want a trainer who is familiar with search and rescue so your dog’s early training is compatible with your ultimate goals.
What dog training format is best?
There are basically five formats: group classes, private lessons for training you and your dog, home training, board and train, or a combination of any or all of the formats.
Group dog classes are with a number of people and dogs generally held at a set time and place with a set format. They teach mechanical skills – Sit, Down, etc. They generally do not address behavior issues such as aggression or separation anxiety. The trainer may or may not work with you individually at each class. Class sizes range from four to 30+. The larger the class, the lesser the individual attention.
Private dog training or behavior lessons are held at a time and place mutually acceptable to you and the trainer. The trainer works with you (individually or with your family members) and shows you how to train your dog and/or works with you regarding behavior issues.
Home training or day training is when a trainer comes to your house several times a week and trains your dog for you. Then there are transfer sessions to show you how to transfer the training to your dog.
Board and train is where you send your dog away for training. I think that training works best if you are involved in the process at some point. Otherwise, the trainer can get your dog to behave, but you can’t. Since the trainer is not living with your dog 24/7 and you are, you need to know how to get the desired response from your dog — and what to do if your dog doesn’t respond the way you think it should.
There may be a difference between what you think you need and what the trainer thinks you need. Group classes are for teaching obedience skills — sit, down, come, stay, etc., and some specialty training such as agility. These are mechanical skills for you and your dog. Classes are for teaching cues or commands to groups of people. If your dog tears up your house while you are away, that is a behavior issue which is best addressed in private sessions because the trainer or behavior consultant needs to work with you individually to develop a program specifically to meet the needs of you and your dog. So obedience training and behavior modification are very different.
What questions should I ask a dog trainer?
What is the cost, and what is the method of payment?
What are the exercises and/or procedure used?
Does the trainer provide handouts or written materials?
What kind of equipment is used? Will you need to bring it yourself, or is it furnished?
Has the trainer had experience with your breed of dog or the issue you need help with?
Should all your family members attend the training?
What kind of insurance does the trainer carry?
Does the trainer give information about care and ownership?
Will the trainer give referrals and recommendations, or are there some testimonials on his or her Web site? (If there are testimonials, they should say something other than “this is a great trainer.”)
Does the trainer belong to or work with any obedience clubs, dog-related organizations, or rescue groups?
Does the trainer offer a guarantee? The answer should be NO. There are so many variables in temperament of dog (and their owners/guardians!!!) that a trainer should not make a guarantee as to the outcome of his or her training but should guarantee the thoroughness of his or her professional services. If a guarantee is offered, find out exactly what it is for.
Think about this: Can you guarantee your own behavior? I know how I tend to act, but I would never guarantee that I would act one exact way 100% of the time. I generally drive at the speed limit, but have I ever exceeded it? Yup. Have I ever not stopped at a stop sign? Oops, yup to that one, too. If a trainer guarantees his training, he guarantees that your dog will *always* do what he’s supposed to do 100% of the time. Is that feasible?
Dog Trainer Background and Experience
How did the trainer become a trainer, and what is his or her education?
If he or she has attended a school, how long was the school — six days, six weeks, or six months?
What was the curriculum?
How much hands-on experience did he or she have during learning or was it a correspondence course?
Many trainers (like myself) did not attend a formal school but have had a variety of sources of learning such as working with other trainers, going to seminars, reading books and viewing videos, belonging to and participating in trainer associations.
There are some people who may seem to have a natural knack with dogs who have had no formal schooling or education — but they are very, very, very, very rare and generally cannot explain or transfer what they are doing so you can duplicate it. If your dog only “behaves” when the trainer is there, do you plan to have the trainer move in with you?
What experience does the trainer have and with whom?
How long has he or she been training on his/her own?
Has his or her philosophy of training changed since he or she started training? If so, how and why? If not, why?
Does the trainer train full time or part time, and for how long? If it’s a full-time occupation, then the trainer has fully invested himself or herself in training you and your dog. If it’s part time, training may be something he or she enjoys as a side job or it may be a way to supplement income while learning something else or waiting to change occupations.
Does the trainer have knowledge of your dog’s specific breed traits?
Has the trainer worked with the specific problem you are calling about? And what have the results been?
Does the trainer specialize in any type of training?
Does the trainer keep up with innovations in training, tools, and techniques — in other words, does he regularly attend any seminars or conventions?
Does the trainer belong to any professional organizations, and what are the qualifications for those organizations? Does the trainer become a member by simply paying a fee? qualifying through taking an examination? agreeing to abide by guidelines? being recommended by other professionals?
Is the trainer certified? (See below about certification.)
Does the trainer read books, articles, magazines, and/or belong to any dog trainer Internet forums to discuss training methods? This is *really* important because networking and learning new methods can only help you and your dog.
Does the trainer have any dogs of his own?????? If not, why not?
Methods Used in Dog Training
You need to be comfortable with how the trainer works with you and your dog.
The “hot” question today is about punishment. There are a lot of trainers that say they don’t use punishment. But it depends on what the definition is. Webster’s definition is imposing a penalty for a behavior. Having to pay a penalty decreases the likelihood of that behavior recurring in the future. So when you’re driving your car and the light turns red, you’re being punished because the presence of the red light is preventing you from going forward.
If you say “no” to your dog, you are trying to punish him — I say “trying” because sometimes it works to stop the behavior and sometimes it doesn’t. If you’re screaming at him to stop doing something and he doesn’t stop, then what does that mean? You may think you are punishing your dog, but what your dog interprets as punishment is different. Many of my clients want to teach their dog the meaning of “no” without teaching him what to do in the first place. In many instances, it’s easier to teach him what to do than stop him from doing it.
But, let’s differentiate between punishment and abuse. Punishment means subjecting a person or animal to a penalty for a wrongdoing, and discipline implies restricting your dog in order to bring him under control. An example of discipline is having your dog sit until you release him to go for a walk so he won’t barge out the door. Punishment when it is used as discipline or as a teaching tool is not abuse but more as a penalty for overstepping his bounds. And not all punishment is physical — see the paragraph above about “no.”
Abuse is treating someone or something with intent to injure, harm, or damage. Abuse is hanging your dog on a choke chain if he digs a hole in your yard. Abuse is kicking your dog when you are angry with him. Trainers should not abuse dogs — nor should anyone else.
Trainers should not do anything that you makes you uncomfortable. However, they should expand your knowledge by showing you different ways to get the behavior you want. If what you were doing was working, then you wouldn’t be asking a trainer. Remember the “Dr. Phil” question: “How’s that working for you?”
Trainers all use punishment (even though some may deny it) — but it’s when, how, and how much it is used that is important. When a dog is being taught a behavior, is he being shown what you want and then rewarded when he does it correctly, or does he get corrected when he does not do it right? Is the majority of the training guidance based or punishment based? Punishment should be a small part of the training — training should be at least 95% praise and reward.
There are basically three types of trainers — the traditional trainers, the positive trainers, and the balanced trainers.
The traditional dog trainers, generally speaking, use methods that were developed in the military — they rely heavily on choke chains and corrections and think the dog should work for praise only. Here’s my analogy — if you go to work every day and your boss says, “Nice job,” and then never gives you a paycheck, how long are you going to work there? Besides that, words are just sounds to dogs. They need something more concrete than a simple sound or a smile to pay them – if you were paid $1.00/hour, would you go to work? That’s about the value some dogs put on your saying “good dog.”
Your dog is doing a cost-benefit analysis every moment of his life, and that includes around distractions. He’s going to do what he thinks is best for him at that particular moment, not what you think is best for him. So if jumping on you is more rewarding than Sit, then he’s going to jump.
But I’m digressing again. Sorry.
The positive dog trainers try to set up situations where your dog can only do the right thing and then reward him for doing it. They tend to shy away from positive punishment. In theory, that’s a great idea. But many times, it doesn’t work because you don’t have control of the environment every moment of every day – and it also may not work because your dog is smart enough to know when he is in training mode and when everyday life occurs.
Then there are the balanced dog trainers, and that’s where I fall. But even within the balanced trainers, there are differences — some tend to favor punishment and some tend to favor rewards. I fall into the last category.
Dog Training Classes
Who teaches the classes, the trainer or an assistant?
Does each class member get individual help?
Are puppies and adult dogs in the same class?
Do you get written instructions or something else that you can refer to after you meet with the trainer?
Are there vaccine or other health requirements?
Is there a maximum class size?
Is it okay to observe a class before signing up?
Can you call the trainer if you have questions about the homework?
Can you make a class up if you have to miss one?
What is the refund policy?
What about fees?
Fees are important in choosing who you are going to work with, but they should not be the only factor. The cheapest trainer may be the one with the least experience or working for a company that sets rates — or he may be just lucky enough to get a high rank on the search engines. Read more about my fees here.
We all know what our value is, and many independent trainers charge accordingly. Someone who is the cheapest but does not have a broad background may actually cost you more in the long run because his methods do not work with your dog — or it may take many more lessons than you anticipated (and budgeted for).
Speaking personally, I thought I knew more about dog training and behavior when I began training than I do now! Every time I learn something new, I realize how much more there is to know. What an ego crusher.
I have attended dozens and dozens of seminars and have a personal library of over 1,000 books, tapes, videos, etc. for reference. When I first started attending seminars, there was a flood of new information that was almost overwhelming. Now that I have attended all these seminars, many of them say the same thing — but there generally is something new or presented in a different light that I can use to help you for your dog. That’s why I keep attending them. And reading. Boy, do I read and watch videos. I spend an average of two hours a day learning about dog behavior and training. As I get better, my fees have increased — and YOU get service because of it.
So the bottom line — please don’t use price as your only criteria.
What is a certified dog trainer anyway?
There are several entities that have certification programs to test the knowledge and skills of dog trainers.
There are four ways to become certified:
Through dog trainers’ associations
Through national pet store programs
By home study or Internet courses
At private dog training schools
Courses offered through the Internet, many home study courses, and private training schools are too numerous and varied to go into detail here. Those entities issue their own certification when trainers have completed their coursework. Some have qualifying tests; others do not. Some don’t even require their students to work with dogs before becoming certified. It’s up to you to do the research to find out what the trainers had to do to receive their certifications. You can do that by asking the trainer and also by checking the Websites of the certifying organizations.
There are several dog trainers associations in the United States that have certification programs where applicants must demonstrate a knowledge of dog training, equipment, and behavior. Other countries have associations that have their own certifying programs. Do your research. Investigate their Websites and talk to some of their members — ones that are not looking at you as a potential client. Many times, board members of these organizations are a good source, and you can email them.
The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants considers each applicant on his or her own merits by a committee which evaluates that person’s training, experience, education, etc.
The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI) exam consists of 54 essay questions. There are no study materials provided (the applicant either “knows it” or doesn’t), and the test measures the applicant’s personal knowledge and experience.
The test questions cover:
General Information regarding
The applicant’s training philosophy
How to teach and handle situations in Private Lessons and Group Classes.
To receive a Novice/Companion certification, the applicant needs at least five years’ experience in dog training, including at least 104 hours training as a primary instructor accumulated during at least two years. If the applicant does not have the requisite hours for the Novice/Companion Endorsement, then a Provisional membership may be applied for.
Three current NADOI members individually read the test, and then each member passes the applicant.
The cost of the exam is $75.00. Every applicant must pass the exam to become a member of NADOI, which is an additional $45.00 fee. NADOI is the oldest of the trainer organizations. Its Website is .
The Basic Trainer Skills Exam of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) consists of submitting six Letters of Reference, one Training Handout Sample, a Videotape showing the applicant training four different dogs of different temperaments and skills for 10-15 minutes per dog, and three written Case Studies.
The criteria for the Videotape are as follows:
Rewards are Well Timed and Appropriate
Corrections are Well Timed and Appropriate
Competence with Chosen Method
The criteria used for judging case studies are:
Sets Reasonable Goals/Objectives
Progression of the Lessons, Instruction of the Owner
Motivates Owner to Comply with the Training
Letter of Reference
No study materials are provided. Three IACP members must individually pass the applicant. The cost is $150 for IACP members and $250 for nonmembers. Recently, they have grandfathered members into certification who have been professional members of the organization for five years.
The Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers (CCPDT) has developed certification guidelines and its examination in accordance with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) mission and vision statements.
Applicants need a high school diploma or equivalent and at least 300 hours experience in dog training within the last five years with 225 of those hours in actually teaching as a head trainer and 75 hours working with animals in another capacity. Applicants submit letters of reference from a veterinarian, client, and colleague.
The Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) exam is a multiple-choice, 250-question, four-hour exam covering the following areas:
A passing score is 185. There are no study materials provided. It is the only dog trainer testing program accredited by the National Organization for Competency Assurance and the only certification program whose test sites are professionally secured and moderated by the Professional Testing Corporation. The cost is $250 for APDT members and $350 for nonmembers. APDT is the largest dog trainer organization.
The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers has earned accreditation by the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE) through their National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) for both its Certified Professional Dog Trainers – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) certifications. It is the only dog trainer and canine behavior certification program to earn accreditation by NCCA.
In order to achieve this milestone, CCPDT had to demonstrate compliance with the strict standards set by NCCA. This evaluation examined all aspects of their program including administrative procedures, role delineation studies, test development, test security, standard setting, policies, board responsibilities, eligibility criteria, recertification practices, psychometric reviews, and verification of reliability and validity of the credentials.
So you can see that there are many ways for a trainer to become certified. And, then again, there are some excellent trainers who are not certified.
What about these other dog trainer organizations?
Each organization has its own criteria for members, so it’s up to you to investigate. Also, be cognizant that there are many levels of membership — sometimes all a person needs to do is to pay money to become an associate or affiliate membership as opposed to those who are professional or clinical members. And also be aware that there are some trainers who say on their Websites they are members of organizations that don’t exist!
Whatever dog trainer you choose, do your homework. Talk with the trainer and observe a training session even if that trainer is recommended. Stay away from any trainer who will not let you watch him or her train or one that has “secret methods.” Make sure you’re comfortable with that trainer and his or her methods and philosophy before you begin. Then have fun training your dog!
If you’re still reading this, then congratulations! You REALLY are interested in getting the best trainer for your dog and you’re my kind of client and definitely someone I’d like to work with. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, then please text or call me at 1-310-804-2392. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.
Thanks for visiting Choosing a Dog Trainer. I make a small commission on any products or books I recommend.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only. It does not replace a consultation with a dog trainer, dog behavior consultant, or veterinarian and may not be used to diagnose or treat any conditions in your dog.
If you need help with puppy or dog training, we do both private in-person and virtual lessons via Zoom. Please contact us by calling or texting (310) 804-2392 or sending an email to caryl@DoggieManners.com . We look forward to working with you.