How to choose a dog trainer.

This week Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services had a Facebook post about choosing a dog trainer, which links to an article in Companion Animal Psychology titled, How to Choose a Dog Trainer. It is a great article, clearly written, with good advice as to what to look for in a trainer, and what questions you should ask the trainer. Remember, this is your dog and you get to decide how it will be treated and to require that your trainer be committed to humane, dog-friendly training techniques.

When choosing a dog trainer, the most important thing is to find a trainer who uses reward-based dog training methods, which they might call positive reinforcement, force-free, or humane training methods.

You want to look for someone who uses a reward based method of training, meaning that the trainer uses rewards (primarily food) to make a behavior more likely to reoccur, and withholding a reward to lessen a behavior. For example, when your dog’s bottom hits the ground after you say “Sit,” reward with a tasty treat. If your dog jumps, turn your back on him (withholding the attention he seeks) and wait for his bottom to touch the ground. When it does, reward with affection and food!

In practice, the reward that works best is food. It is possible to use other types of reward, such as play, but food is more efficient because it’s faster to deliver; it’s better for most dog training scenarios (for example, if you’re teaching a dog to sit-stay, play will encourage your dog to jump out of the sit); and all dogs love food.

So in other words, you want a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog.

Many people fear that if they use food to train their dog, the dog will only listen when the food is present. A good trainer will also teach you how to: 1) use your dog’s food (so you are not always dependent on treats); 2) reduce the amount of food as training progresses and; 3) add in other rewards for desired behaviors.

The article goes on to talk about certification for trainers, professional memberships, and continuing education. Most professional organizations require continuing education, so check and see if the trainer you are considering pursues further education, and with whom!

There are certain names that are a very good sign. For example, if someone has attended training with the likes of Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, Kathy Sdao, Chirag Patel, Ken Ramirez, Ian Dunbar, or Bob Bailey, that’s very promising, because these are all important names in science-based dog training.


yourfamilydog_2Check out the trainer’s website and Facebook page to get an idea of what they do when they train and the methods they employ. Do they blog or podcast? Looking at their writings or listening to them talk about dogs will give you a clearer idea of how they approach training. Also, look for customer reviews (not only on their websites, but other forums such as Angie’s list or Thumbtack), and ask for references. And, to really get a good idea of what training will look like with a particular trainer, ask the following three questions:

          What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it right?

          What, exactly, will happen to her if she gets it wrong?

          Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

If you are uncomfortable with the answers to any of these questions, keep looking.

The article also discusses the advantage of group versus private lessons, what to do if there isn’t a trainer in your area, and who to call if your dog has a behavior problem. This comprehensive article is well worth reading and will help you to make the right decision concerning the training and well being of your dog. Remember, you are your dog’s best and only advocate, do not settle for less than the best for your best friend.






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  1. Thanks for the tip about considering a dog trainer’s website before choosing them. It would be good to find some customer reviews in order to know that they are qualified. My husband and I are looking for a dog trainer for our new lab puppy, so we’ll have to check their website first.

    • Julie Smith says:

      Hi Hannah, I am glad you found the blog to be useful, and I wish you the best of luck in finding just the right trainer for you and your dog. I do a podcast with Colleen Pelar called Your Family Dog, and here is our episode on choosing a dog trainer you might find useful: Choosing a Dog Trainer.

  2. My wife and I have been thinking about getting our kids a puppy and did not know what to look for in a trainer, so thanks for the great advice. However, I am glad that you bring up the importance of making sure that the trainer is certified. After all, if you are going to trust someone with training your puppy you’ll want them to be properly trained to do so.

  3. Ellie Davis says:

    My husband and I just bought our first puppy! Thank you for suggesting that when we find a trainer we should make sure and ask what will happen when our puppy gets something right. This seems like a great way for me to know what is going on during the training sessions. I’ll have to do some research and find the right trainer in my area to help get my puppy fully trained.

  4. Katie Wilson says:

    I agree that you want to find a dog trainer that uses a reward based system. Finding someone who provides rewards instead of punishment would probably help train your dog faster. My husband and I are looking for a trainer for the German shepherd puppy we just adopted, so we’ll have to consider their system of training first.

    • Julie Smith says:

      Hi Katie, Congratulations on your new puppy! I hope you are able to find someone in your area who uses positive reinforcement and lots of tasty treats! Most shepherds I have met thrive on intelligent training, rather than forced based coercion, as they are smart sensitive souls. You might want to check out my most recent blog, Intelligence and Positive Reinforcement as it talks about the relationship between discovering the innate intelligence of animals and keeping their world safe through positive training.

  5. Kit Hannigan says:

    I really like your tip about how we should look at prospect dog trainer’s social media pages to get a sense of how they can approach the training. Our young retriever is really exhibiting some destructive behavior around the house, and we can’t seem to modify his habits no matter what we do. I’d be sure to comb through social media pages to get the right dog trainer for us.

  6. Katie Wilson says:

    Thanks for explaining how a good dog trainer knows how to properly ration things like treats. It would be good to check someone’s training methods before actually signing up your dog. My husband and I want to find a trainer for our puppy, so we’ll have to find out how they handle things like treats first.

  7. Kit Hannigan says:

    I couldn’t agree more with what you said about how people should only consider working for dog trainers who use humane, force-free, positive-reinforcement training programs. If I wanted to make my dog behave in a gentler manner, I would want him to receive training that will not cause him any traumas or fear of people in any way. This tip will surely help me find the right dog trainer in the future. Thanks!

    • Julie Smith says:

      Thank you Kit for reading my blog and commenting. I am glad that you found it helpful and I hope that when you need a trainer you will find exactly what you need! When the time comes to find a trainer, you can do a trainer search on the Association of Professional Dog Trainers website using your zip code.

  8. Amy Winters says:

    Thanks for pointing out that we should choose a dog trainer who used a reward based method of training and withholds rewards to discourage bad behavior. My husband and I recently got a new puppy, but he’s been behaving pretty poorly so far. I wasn’t sure what qualities to look for in a trainer, so your tip to look for reward based methods will be very helpful!

    • Julie Smith says:

      Thank you Amy for commenting, and congratulations on your new puppy! I hope you find just the right trainer and have fun. If training isn’t fun, something is wrong and your trainer will want to know so she can help you to get back on course.

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