How to Choose a Qualified Dog Trainer

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So you're ready to hire a dog trainer. Whether you are looking to get some basics under your new puppy's belt, or you are finally ready to tackle your older dog's troubling behaviors, there are plenty of qualified professionals ready to help. With an overload of information online and thousands of options to choose from, how do you find the right trainer for you and your dog?

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Here's the kind of scary part: ​dog training is a completely unregulated industry in the US​. There are currently no required education or certifications for someone to set up shop as a trainer. ​The good news is that even though formal regulation is lacking, many qualified trainers do seek out professional development and certifications!​ Here are our recommendations for wading through the web to find a qualified dog trainer.

Training methodology

There is a huge divide within the dog training world about which methodology is best. Old school training relies heavily on punishing unwanted behavior and maintaining a strict social hierarchy so that you, the human, can be "alpha." Lucky for everyone, research has shown time and time again that positive reinforcement methods are the most humane and effective ways to train animals and change behavior. To top it off, pack theory has also been thoroughly debunked! ​If you are looking at a trainer's website and come across phrases like "pack leader" or "dominance," consider those red flags​. It often means that individual is not up to date on the science of animal behavior.

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Certifications

Looking for specific education and certifications can help you find qualified help quickly. ​While years of experience working or living with dogs is absolutely a valuable factor, it is also important that the trainer has a rock-solid understanding of modern canine behavior and learning theory.​ An experienced trainer is a must, but experience is not enough​.​ After all, successfully driving a car for 15 years doesn't make me a mechanic!

Let's take a moment to decode some of the alphabet soup you may come across while searching for trainers. Many of these certification organizations have directories of trainers to choose from.

  • CPDT-KA/KSA (Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed/Knowledge and Skills Assessed): This certification through the Counsel for the Certification for Professional Dog Trainers requires a minimum of 300 hours' experience in dog training within the past 3 years, a signed attestation statement from a certified trainer or veterinarian, a passing score on a 180-question exam, and a pledge to uphold standards of practice, code of ethics.
  • KPA-CTP (Karen Pryor Academy-Certified Training Partner): The Karen Pryor Academy is an intensive 6 month program that includes both online coursework and in-person workshops. KPA-CTPs have demonstrated both a deep understanding of positive reinforcement training and a strong proficiency in its application.
  • CTC (Certificate in Training and Counseling) : The Academy for Dog trainers is a comprehensive 1-2 year program that focuses on positive reinforcement strategies for pet dog training. CTCs submit rigorous video and written coursework on both the theoretical and practical aspects of animal behavior.
  • APDT: The Association of Professional Dog Trainers is not a certification program, but rather an organization for professional trainers who abide by humane and contemporary training methods.

Questions to ask your trainer

Even if you aren't exactly sure what a trainer's specific certifications are, you can get a lot of helpful information by asking these two simple questions:

"What happens when my dog gets it right?"

A qualified trainer should be reinforcing desired behavior with things your dog finds motivating. ​Qualified dog trainers are interested in reinforcing desired behaviors so that they happen more often.​ Every dog is different, but this usually means food, toys, play, praise, and access to their favorite things. Many trainers will use a clicker or a verbal marker like "yes!" so that the dog knows exactly when they got it right.

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"What happens when my dog gets it wrong?"

If a dog makes an "error" during training, it's never the dog's fault. The goal is always to manage and prevent the unwanted behavior whenever possible, and to reward desired behaviors instead. ​If the trainer you are asking mentions correcting the dog with a sound, a motion, an aversive collar, a spray bottle, or anything in between, buyer beware​! A heavy reliance on punishment in training can lead to a lot of fallout and damage your relationship with your dog.

In conclusion

Finding the best trainer for you and your dog might take a bit of vetting, but it's well worth the effort. Remember, your dog can't choose their trainer, but you can. Happy training!

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