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  Selecting a Trainer
by Pat Miller , CPDT, CDBC
Peaceable Paws, LLC

As a responsible dog owner, you realize the importance of having a well-behaved dog. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by attending a dog training class or utilizing the services of a private trainer/behavior consultant. What many dog owners don’t realize is that because the style and quality of training varies widely from one trainer to the next; it is important to do research and make an informed choice before selecting a training professional. Besides the obvious questions about cost, location and schedule, here are the things you want to find out before putting your dog’s future in a trainer’s hands.

Your Training Goals:
Decide what you want from your training experience. Class and trainer styles vary, with the two primary approaches being the military-style precision training once believed to be required for showing in the obedience ring, and family dog training that is more focused on teaching canine good manners and social skills.

The easiest way to tell the difference is to ask what equipment is required. If the answer is “a choke chain, slip collar, training collar or prong collar,” the program is probably the more formal obedience training that relies on the use of force and physical correction. If the answer is “a flat buckle collar or harness,” you have found the more relaxed family dog training that uses positive reinforcement, rewards (treats) and praise -- rather than jerks on a collar -- to train the dog. If your goal is to develop a relationship with your dog based on mutual respect, two-way communication and joy, the second style is the better choice.

Positive reinforcement, while it appeals greatly to the “good manners/family dog” crowd, is also an excellent way to train for the obedience ring, while still maintaining your dog’s love for the training experience and a relationship based on mutual respect.

When you find the style that appeals to you, watch the trainer in action before you enroll. Make sure you like the methods the trainer uses. If you see a strong emphasis on “dominance,” you’re in the presence of a trainer who doesn’t really understand the science of behavior and learning, and you’d be better off looking elsewhere. Dogs and owners should appear to be enjoying themselves; if they aren’t, you probably won’t either. Neither canines nor humans should appear stressed or be subject to intimidation or humiliation. Both should be happy and willing participants in the process. If you like what you see, interview the trainer to determine what her qualifications are.

Interview the Trainer:
There are very few, if any, reputable dog trainer certification programs. Two notable exceptions are the “Certified Pet Dog Trainer” designation issued by the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, and the “Certified Dog Behavior Consultant" title issued by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. While ongoing education is vital for a professional trainer, a brief certification course cannot provide a would-be trainer with the necessary years of dog handling and teaching experience.

Look for a trainer who has had experience handling hundreds to thousands of dogs, and has been training professionally for at least a year, if not longer. Ask where she got her training and education. Combined experiences should total at least several years of ongoing exposure to a wide variety of breeds and mixed breeds.

Find out if she offers more advanced training, and what other activities are available, if not through her, then through other trainers and dog clubs in the area. Ask if her training methods will prepare you for the other activities that capture your interest.

Be cautious of classes offered by dog clubs and large chain pet stores. While they are often inexpensive, clubs’ classes are frequently taught by their members, who may or may not have any previous teaching experience, and who may or may not use positive, “dog-friendly” methods.

Classes are usually large, with little individual attention given to any one student, and most clubs still use force-based training methods, although that is slowly changing as positive training gathers devotees. Chain pet stores may advertise positive reinforcement, but often hire novice trainers who have little or no training knowledge or experience. They also tend to have a high turnover, since quality trainers can do better on their own.

When you do find a trainer whose methods and options meet with your approval, sign and get ready to have a blast learning how to communicate with and understand your dog better.

© 1999, Peaceable Paws LLC/Pat Miller. All rights reserved.

Pat Miller has been a dog trainer for over 30 years. She is a leading proponent of positive dog training techniques and her columns on training are regularly read by thousands in publications such as Whole Dog Journal. She sits on the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), an organization dedicated to the promotion of positive dog training. She also is the founder of Peaceable Paws Dog & Puppy Training (www.peaceablepaws.com ). Her books include: The Power of Positive Dog Training and Positive Perspectives.

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