How To Choose A Dog Trainer
Dog training is a wonderful, enjoyable experience for both the dog and owner. It strengthens the relationship (if done correctly), teaches social skills and is fun!
However, dog training is an unregulated industry here in the UK. That means anyone can call themselves a dog trainer/behaviourist etc. The person who ‘grew up with dogs’ and just decides one day that they’d like to start a dog training business, well… they’re legally entitled to!
There are many great trainers out there with qualifications and probably even better trainers out there with no qualifications. The one thing they will have in common though, is that they will have studied – a lot. Be it as an apprentice to a reputable trainer or on a recognised and accredited course.
So, how do you tell the difference between a good and bad trainer, and a trainer that uses techniques you would be happy to use on your dog?
In my opinion, it pretty much comes down to 2 things:
- Do they fully understand how dogs learn? Can they explain classical and operant-conditioning? Are they going to be able to teach your dog in a way that causes the least confusion and stress for your dog? Even not giving a treat because the dog did not perform a ‘sit’ well enough can cause stress in a dog.
- Are they using aversive methods?** I guess what most people mean by this is: ‘Are they using methods that would cause your dog to experience pain or fear?’
So, without getting technical (see bottom of page if you’re interested), I would broadly advise following these guidelines:
See if you can get a recommendation from someone who’s completely satisfied with the trainer they used. Failing that, or in addition to that, consider asking the following questions and find out if you can watch a class.
- Where did you learn to train dogs?
- What qualifications do you hold (if any)?
- What is your training philosophy?
- What books do you recommend?
- What kind of training equipment do you recommend?
- Please explain ‘classical & operant conditioning’? (this demonstrates whether a trainer understands how a dog learns and any dog trainer that doesn’t understand this, in my opinion, should be avoided!)
If you can observe a class or lesson, look out for these points:
- Everybody (dogs & owners) should look relaxed and happy
- The instructor/s should be friendly and approachable. Do they appear to have the best interests of the dogs and owners in mind?
- The dogs should be relatively calm and there should not be excessive noise/barking
- Aversive methods shouldn’t be in use. Choke chains are completely unnecessary.
- How big is the class? How big is the venue? Is the instructor going to be able to provide everyone with enough attention?
- What methods are they using/teaching? Food, toys and praise are all good motivators, but not all dogs respond to them in that order. Can the instructor tailor the training slightly to benefit each dog and owner?
The Technical Bit!
** What is regarded as aversive is a hotly debated topic in the world of dog training. It is a blurry line as even the most ardent ‘force-free’ or ‘purely-positive’ trainers will at some point use an aversive technique (whether through lack of knowledge or by mistake). ‘Aversive’ just means ‘something the dog will want to avoid’. It doesn’t mean it has to be painful or scary. There are probably many things you do without realising that your dog would rather you didn’t do e.g. hugging your dog. Most dogs are uncomfortable with this ‘manoeuvre’ but will tolerate it. Check to see if they turn their head away, yawn or lick their lips.
A training example: when a dog breaks a ‘sit’, one technique commonly used is to step in towards the dog, which will encourage the dog to ‘sit’ again. This can then be rewarded and reinforced. But, the ‘step in’ will put spatial pressure on the dog, which the dog may want to avoid (thus making it aversive) and so it will comply with the ‘sit’ request. Remember: you don’t decide what is aversive – your dog does.
So, the question is: is it ok to use aversives that aren’t painful or scary? That, of course is up to you. It is your dog. Some trainers claim to operate without using any form of aversive (although most of those, from my experience, don’t fully understand the concepts, or at the very least use scientific language without sticking to the precise scientific definiton). I presume what they actually mean to say is: ‘I operate without using any form of training that will cause your dog to experience pain or fear.’ Some trainers are actually vehemently opposed to any form of aversive, but in reality, these are few and far between. Most trainers (me included) accept that although we choose not to use training techniques designed to cause the dog to experience pain or fear, during the process of training it is likely the dog will experience small amounts of pressure and therefore circumstances that it may find mildly aversive. As long as the trainer understands that this can, and probably will occur, and can recognise these situations when they arise, then they can be minimised as much as possible.