The very best possible trainer for your dog is you. Nothing strengthens the bond between an owner and her new dog like one-on-one training sessions — “sit,” “stay,” “down,” and so on. There’s a lot of give-and-take, a lot of reward and satisfaction in the two of you getting it right, finally, than when someone else does the teaching
But “you” may not be available. Perhaps you love dogs and are thrilled to have one as a companion but know you simply lack the necessary patience (and it does take patience) or worse, can’t keep your temper under wraps. Or maybe you simply don’t have the time to make the commitment. Or you’re glad to have rescued a dog but are not motivated to teach him the ways of the world.
In situations like those, it’s definitely a good idea to hire a trainer. Paying for a professional trainer is certainly better than unhappy training, or no training, by an unwilling or unable owner.
Who do you choose?
Most critical is that the person employs no punishment. Start by asking these questions:
- Do you believe that while physical punishments, or “corrections,” are not ideal, sometimes they simply must be employed?
- Do you give corrections with a collar by jerking a dog’s head?
- Do you ever use choke or prong collars?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, move on. Training should never involve pain, or fear. That teaches the dog that you are scary; it doesn’t teach him how to follow your cues. He’ll never truly internalize the lessons. On the contrary, punishment can actually inhibit the ability to learn — in addition to sparking aggression in a dog who might otherwise not have been that way.
Rather, all training should be positive, with rewards for getting it right (delectable morsels of food, warm praise, stroking on the muzzle) and no frustration for getting it wrong. Don’t bother asking the person if she is a “positive” trainer. Plenty of trainers call themselves “positive” because they use some positive training but resort to physical punishment as well.
You may, however, want to ask if the person is a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (www.apdt.com). It promotes positive, no-punishment training only and in fact may be able to help you locate an exclusively positive trainer in your area.
Beyond asking questions, you have to go with your gut. Just like choosing a tutor for your child, you want to hire someone about whom you have a good feeling. But that takes education. Interview the trainer; observe her training another dog. Does the individual seem like she would be a good fit for your pet? Are the tails of the dogs in her care up and wagging or down and tucked? Does the person seem ready to scold?
Bear in mind, too, that dogs, just like people, have different learning styles. If your pet is fearful and shy, you don’t want someone who comes on too strong. If your pet is a rambunctious handful, on the other hand, you’re going to want to choose someone whose leadership qualities define her. Each dog has different motivators, too, which is critical, as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior endorses training methods that encourage dogs to work for rewards. Some dogs are more than willing to learn to work for food. Others may respond better to having a trainer help them play with their favorite toy if they get something right. Others still may be hungry for affection — stroking in response to being able to follow instructions. Does the trainer appear to have the flexibility to “learn” the dog she’s trying to teach?
It’s a good idea to get some references as well, and if the trainer balks when you ask for them, that’s a significant red flag. Another red flag: if the trainer dispenses instructions on what to feed your dog or how to take care of his health and medical needs in other ways. Many trainers are knowledgeable about such things, of course, but many are not. Nor should they be required to be. A trainer’s job, after all, doesn’t include needing to know what’s nutritionally appropriate for your pet or other aspects of your dog’s physical well-being. That’s what veterinarians are for.
Finally, if two or three sessions in, you feel like you made the wrong decision, it’s okay to stop. Your primary goal is not to avoid an uncomfortable conversation or keep the trainer happy. It’s to make sure your dog learns from the right person so he’ll grow up appropriately socialized and be a pleasure for you to have as a household companion.