Selecting a Dog Trainer

Nowadays, there is a dog trainer on every corner. A simple Google search will result in pages of dog trainers, many with dazzling sites to wow the senses. How does a consumer decide on which dog trainer will be the right match in the vast sea of trainer options? Here are the top seven things to look for in a trainer:

  1. Longevity in the field and a track record. Ask your trainer for their trainer accomplishments. If your trainer has been involved in dogs for under five years, has no real list of accomplishments, or cannot show you training with their own dog, chances are they are not going to be able to help you with challenging behavioral cases. While a competition background in an obedience related field is not necessary, it certainly goes to show the trainer can work and train dogs in challenging environments.
  2. Be sure the trainer understands your goals. If a trainer is fantastic at field trial competitions with their working Labradors, or has a working Search and Rescue dog, it does not necessarily mean they are equipped or interested in teaching relaxation skills, home manners, or litter box training a small dog.
  3. Cleanliness-If your trainer has a messy home, excessive weeds in the yard, and the kennel area smells excessively, this is a red flag. On the other side of the coin, be realistic. Trainers often train out of their homes, which is in my opinion the best case scenario for your pet. If the trainer is in the middle of disinfecting kennels, bowls, or training they are doing their job. This is not the business where things are placed out for display by 8:00am. Training and dogs are a lot of constant work. Ask your trainer for a lesson or paid consultation if you want to get a feel for the living space your dog will be sharing prior to booking, or simply ask for photos of the space your dog will be occupying during their stay. Your drop off time is a prime opportunity to get a feel and sense of comfort. Just as not all training situations are a match for the client, not all clients are a match for the trainer.
  4. Client dog to trainer ratio. Most pros have personal dogs of their own, and the number of canine students may vary depending on staff, space, etc. Ask your trainer how many client dogs they take into training, and why. Hunting dog trainers, for example, may take a dozen dogs out in one trip, whereas a pet trainer working out of their home may accept only take 1-2. For me, since we have several of our own dogs, I accept no more than 3-4 outside client dogs at a time. Our living situation with property and an indoor training building allows us to do so and still take top notch care of all of our dogs. I find this 4:1 client dog to trainer ratio ideal for my living situation, property and set up. I see so many new trainers getting over run with 6-10 training dogs, not to mention their own. How can one trainer possibly care for that number of dogs and still sleep, clean, and run errands? If they have staff, chances are the staff is training or handling your dog, not the head trainer. We walk our client dogs individually, leashed, several times throughout the day through our wooded walking trails. Every time we handle a dog it is a training opportunity. Cleaning dog yards and picking up the property, clipping nails weekly, bathing dogs when needed, cleaning crates, disinfecting bowls, training in addition to daily handling, etc. all takes a lot of time so beware the training facility with thirty dogs, or the one man show who takes on 8-10 training dogs, ESPECIALLY if the trainer is doing home lessons. Where will your dog be during that lesson? Personally, I only teach a couple of local lessons per week and feel after twenty years I have the proper canine student to trainer ratio, and weekly lesson ratio down to a healthy lifestyle balance. Most trainers I respect hover around a 4:1 ratio, or if they have an assistant in training, perhaps a 6:1 ratio maximum. Others may take on more, but quickly burn out or hire more staff, hence losing one on one time with the dogs.
  5. Don’t be wowed by fancy, ultra sleek websites. While they are amazing, I often see lovely sites by fellow trainers who literally just left the corporate world and who cannot train a dog out of a paper bag. Ask the trainer to show you their personal dog at work, or videos of client dogs. Better yet, ask if the trainer raised the dog from a puppy, acquired from a shelter, etc. I have known more than one trainer who had little to no experience who made a career change, left corporate, bought a TRAINED demo dog, set up a website, and opened up shop. Most dog trainers are neither entrepreneurs, nor business minded. They focus on the craft of understanding dog training and behavior, and effectively communicating to the human at the other end of the leash. Social media is fantastic, however it has allowed pop up trainers to replicate the lingo of bonafide dog trainers, in essence becoming great salesman to unsuspecting dog owners.
  6. Price point. The cheapest alternative is typically not the best, however the most expensive does not always mean top quality. I have seen an upswing in trainers, without the knowledge or skill set, out pricing their competitors in hopes of being viewed as top tier. While a top trainer often commands a higher fee, don’t be duped by your Joe Blow trainer charging outrageous fees without the resume to back it up. I assure you…a top competition trainer who ALSO possesses the skills to effectively and properly train your pet would be happy to do the work for a fair price. I have seen trainers charging as much as $3,500/week. If you see this, it’s robbery. There, I said it.
  7. Beware the trainers who sell ecollars as a mandatory part of their “Motivational, positive reinforcement training package”. Ecollars are amazing tools, and can be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement, but trainers need to call it like it is as opposed to capitalizing on hot key words. An ecollar is not force free, which is one of the latest catch phrases in selling dog training. Repetition and a solid foundation through understanding the four quadrants of operant conditioning, and being able to not only explain but to demonstrate the use of each is the key, no matter the tools. A skilled trainer should be able to get the job done, and may utilize all tools available depending on the task. I send some dogs home with simply a flat buckl collar, clicker and treats. Others, a prong collars and strict resource protocols. Others yet, a treat pouch and an ecollar. It all depends on the needs of the dog and client, but beware the trainer who cannot train without certain tools, or articulate why one is more beneficial than the other.