How to find a Professional Dog Trainer?

I’ve been away from writing for some time…my apologies to those readers who check back here regularly. As many of you know I’ve been up to my eyeballs moving our business location to a new facility. Due to that, I’ve been working on updating the TMD website and in doing so I usually end up perusing other websites to see what is currently in fashion. One thing I found of interest is the number of sites who host a list of “rules” on how to find a professional dog trainer.

There is some general information that is good, such as making sure the environment is clean and safe and finding out how much the trainer stays current on education and learning new things. There is also the “duh” type statements that if you see a trainer kicking or choking a dog as part of a learning process…well, just turn and run.

But often when you look a little deeper at these lists you uncover an agenda that is espoused by someone or some group who simply has little tolerance for philosophy’s or teaching methods that differ from their own.

Also I want to point out that generally these guidelines are written pertaining to a group class learning environment. If you are considering hiring a private trainer rather than attending a group class you will need to make your assessment based on slightly different criteria since watching a private lesson at an individual clients home would likely be out of the question.

So lets take a look at a few of the suggested guidelines some espouse.

One of the typical first questions centers around the attitude in the environment.
For instance “are the dogs happy?” It is suggested that the dogs should look as if they are enjoying the class, training should be fun. Also “are the people enjoying themselves?” Look for a class that “encourages all family members to attend and participate” is a frequent statement presented.

As a general guideline, I agree with these principles… The learning should be an engaging experience for the dog and the handlers. People should be having fun and it should be pretty low to no stress. But I think it is very important to make sure we are talking about a general obedience class and comparing apples to apples. This means the only goal of the class is to teach rudimentary behaviors such as Sit, Walk nicely on a leash or Lay down when told.

For many dog trainers this means a dog who has minor behavior problems like uncontrolled barking, reactiveness around other dogs, or significant pulling on leash will be restricted from participating in the class. They will either be asked to leave or will be kept off at a distance from the other dogs. Only dogs deemed social enough or with calm enough energy are being allowed to participate.

The dogs who are problematic and more reactive are not allowed to participate in the group class.

This often means those more challenging dogs end up in “the other trainers” classes.
And if that is the case it may not always be 100% positive and completely stress free. A dog learns through comparison: what works versus what does not work. When we take away options from a dog of something that was once rewarding (chasing bicycles for instance) and teach an alternative behavior in it’s place (to sit and watch the bicycle go by) there will be some bit of stress. Learning to change habits is not accomplished with zero stress…anyone who has ever quite smoking, went on a diet or started a work out routine understands exactly what I’m talking about. 🙂

That being said there is a very significant difference between stress (which is often a part of learning something new) and distress (which shuts a dog down and is non-productive in a learning environment)

A qualified trainer will not allow or encourage you to work your dog into a state of distress.

As for all family members being able to attend and participate, again as a general rule I agree. Consistency is a must in any good dog training program which means the more family members that learn “how” to work with the dog the greater increase in likelihood that the training will be an overall success. But once again, there are exceptions to that idea.
I for one do not encourage toddlers or infants coming to class, unless there is a family helper along who will be in charge of the young ones. It is non-productive for mom to try and train the dog and keep her focus there when she is also trying to manage the kids at the same time. Also when dealing with behavior issues of aggression to human or dogs, a child is not the appropriate helper/trainer for those situations.

If we are talking about a very rudimentary class where all the dogs are screened and known to be social and deemed safe around children, then by all means the kids should be encouraged to participate. If dog’s of varying personalities and with varying behavior issues are mixed into one environment than it should be at the discretion of the trainer whether to allow kids to participate.

The next item on the “how to select a trainer” guidelines generally revolves around tools. Statements seen may be similar to: “ Do not attend a class if dogs are wearing prong collars, choke collars or electronic collars.”

My question is; why? Why, other than a marketing agenda, would that be a recommendation? I completely understand that some trainers choose not to use these tools, but why is there a belief that ones skill level or ability to help their clientele is determined simply by what tools they keep in their tool box?

Again…lets go back to rule number one; simply access the dogs in the class. Regardless of the tool they are or are not wearing, are they generally happy and learning? Is the environment relatively low stress or not? If the dog is wearing a head halter and showing signs of mild stress because it is his first time getting used to it, or startles at the first sounds of a click…should one abandon the class or the trainer?

The idea of making a decision based solely on the presence or absence of a tool is short sighted. I have seen amazing trainers whose primary tool is a clicker and I have seen amazing trainers whose primary tool is a remote collar. Skill levels in this profession are far ranging just as they are in other service industries. A certain scissors or clipper does not make a talented groomer, nor does the scalpel make the veterinary surgeon good or bad.

A tool does not define a trainer nor their ability to help you with your dog.

So here are my suggestions for finding a truly professional dog trainer:

Decide on your goals, state them clearly to the trainer and ask if they can teach you to teach your dog the things on your list. For instance if one of your goals it to be able to take your dog for a walk down the street without him/her pulling you or lunging and barking at other dogs that walk by, ask the trainer if they can give you that result.

Find out approximately what time frame will be needed to achieve your goals. Be aware, no one can give you an absolute and time frames will also depend highly on your commitment to practice what you are taught but if it is going to take you 12 months and 4 levels of classes to get to the point of being able to take your dog off leash at the park and feel confident you will be able to call him/her back to you, I think it is fair to know that up front. After all you are exchanging your time and money for an expected service and goal.

Ask the trainer how they go about helping you achieve your goals. Be aware it is not feasible for the trainer to explain the whole plan to you in a few minutes (that is why you sign up for training). But you should be able to obtain some idea of a logical progression of how you will get from A to Z to achieve your goals.

Observe a training class and speak to some of the other attendees about their experience. Find out if they are happy with the results they are getting. Ask if their dog seems to be enjoying the learning process.

While observing the class pay attention to the instructors teaching style. Do they communicate clearly? Are the lessons explained in a way that make sense to you? Do they spend adequate time helping owners hone their skills or do they spend most of the time demonstrating with little practice time for the students? Some instructors are better at “show and tell” rather than really coaching their clients how to do it themselves. This is a poor practice, because after all, you are the one who has to become competent handling your own dog.

If the trainer tells you that your goals are unrealistic, for example: “You have a Siberian Husky and they can never be trusted off leash” take that as a cue to interview more trainers. Trainers that have a long list of excuses as to why your goals are unrealistic or can not be achieved, probably need a bit more expertise and experience themselves.

As mentioned previously, most of these guidelines revolve around the idea of observing a group class environment. Please be aware that many trainers teach through private lessons rather than groups. If this is the case, it may not be possible to attend a lesson since they are often taught at an individual clients home. However, you can ask for referrals and chat with former clients. Many trainers also video tape their work and may be willing to share some clips with you for reference. And of course there is always the idea of asking your family and friends for opinions. If you know of someone who has a well trained dog ask them where they went for training. A referral from someone who has worked with an individual trainer is worth far more than any opinion or list of guidelines you will find on the internet.

Long story short, dog training is a service industry. You are paying for a service and in return you should have some definable outcome that you can expect at the end. Be clear on what you are buying and remember to compare apples to apples.



  • I just ordered 2 e-collars for my 2 5month old puppies. Is there a e-collar trainer in the Hinesville, Savannah, Jesup, Richmond Hill, Ga. area. Please let me know so I can get some guidance with the collars & how to properly use them..

  • I live in Laurel, MD and have the mini educator for my 25lb. mini labradoodle. Am looking for an e collar trainer in my area. Thanks

  • I fully agree with your post. When I was looking for a dog trainer, I had two goals: first off how do I teach my dog not to be dog-aggressive (she was attacked repeatedly and as a result started to attack on initial meetings to prevent getting bit) and I wanted to be able to trust her off leash. I should also mention, she is a husky-malamute mix from the High Arctic breed to hunt polar bears (I’m totally serious). I had two trainers tell me I was crazy, she could never be off leash and that since she was attacking other dogs I should have her put to sleep. I left both of them and NEVER went back. I was so happy when the third trainer I went too looked me straight in the eyes and said that it could be done, it was all up to me (thank you Duke Ferguson). If I did what he suggested and was consistent in my training, I could have an off leash husky that was not dog-aggressive. He also promised (which he fulfilled) to help me every step of the way and to be available whenever I had questions or concerned for as long as it took (even if I stopped for 5 years and then wanted to start again) without an extra cost.

    We started with private lesson and progressed quickly. Turns out my dog not only wanted but craved the structure of training. I worked very hard at having her understand what the ecollar was and for me to know how to use it properly (much like I would never try to drive a big rig without having a trained instructor). When we were first joined the group classes, she and I stayed off to the side and worked at our own pace. We quickly progressed to being part of the group as we are to this day. Since then, I have welcomed another dog into my home and my learning started all over again (huskies are not malinois and now I have both – talk about opposites) but my trainer was with me the whole way. He has become a good friend and I consider him a mentor. My friends that new my husky before and are seeing her now are amazed and some have actually asked me if I could fix their dog to which I quickly replied: “I’m not a trainer, I had to learn to do it and only have experience with my own dogs. You should find a trainer that works for you. This is the person I work with – I think he’s a great trainer.”

    My point here is, do what feels right for you. If you have an issue you want to solve, find a trainer that can help you. If you don’t agree with a trainers methods, find another one. If the trainer tells you to euthanize your dog even if you are committed to making it work, run. I would not have been able to live with myself if I had not tried everything possible to help her before taking that Finale Decision. She remains a work in progress but then again, so am I and proud of it!

  • Eileen hit the nail on the head.

    I recently read an excellent blog about how to find a good dog trainer based on the credentialing they have, what memberships in what organizations, the degree to which those memberships were held (provisional, associate, professional, etc etc). It was very well-written and informative, but I found that the author was missing the big picture.

    Get out and watch a good trainer work, don’t just look at what’s on paper. All the credentialing and memberships in the world still don’t tell me what that trainer can DO with a dog.

    As the joke goes, what do you call the personal who graduates last in their class at medical school? Doctor. And I hear of quite a few who aren’t deserving of that designation, but you wouldn’t know that looking at the plaque on the wall…

    • agreed. A piece of paper or certification is no proof of competency. Case in point, I and my kids were seeing a local dentist for several years…I switched to another dentist due to a referral and the new Dr. found two erosions in my molar (which I had asked the previous doc about and was told they were “no concern”)…got those filled, took my daughter in and new Dr says ” do you realize she has an open bite?” it was never pointed out to me by the previous dentist…so my then 14 year old needed braces and speech therapy to correct a slight lisp I had been asking about….all those years undiagnosed and untreated by someone who is a licensed professional. Started asking around and found I wasn’t the first to have complaints about the dude…yet he is still licensed and still practicing. Licensing, certification, plagues on the wall are all nice but they are not guarantees of one’s ability.

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