Did you know that it’s legal for someone with a history of criminal animal abuse to be a dog trainer in many states? In states as varied as California, Oklahoma, Florida, and Connecticut, dog trainers have been accused of or convicted of animal abuse.
These are the very people we trust to care for our dogs. To teach our dogs how to be our best friends. And yet they’ve been accused of abusing our beloved pets, and many of them escape with no legal ramifications.
The sad truth is this: there are almost no regulations surrounding the dog training profession in the United States. While you need to have a license in most states to be a hairstylist, no state has similar requirements for becoming a dog trainer.
This means that it’s extremely important to know how to pick a good, knowledgeable, and trustworthy dog trainer. As someone who’s been in the dog training industry since 2012, I have a good handle on the field and how to pick a good dog trainer.
I’ll take you through the steps that I use when finding a trainer for friends or family if I can’t take them on as a client myself.
You already see why it’s so important to take a bit of time and pick a good dog trainer. You don’t want your dog beaten with a bat (like a dog at a training facility in Bothell, WA was) or shoved through a wall (like a dog at a training facility in Loveland, CO was) in the name of “training.”
You want someone who really knows how to teach your dog to behave. Ideally, someone who can do that quickly, effectively, and without fear, pain, or coercion.
A quick Google search in most cities will result in pages and pages of dog trainers (probably because literally anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, so there are plenty of “options”).
Luckily, there are some fantastic ways to pre-screen trainers without even getting on the phone. Your exact search process will vary slightly based on what you’re looking for. Do you need a puppy kindergarten group class, group obedience, private training for a specialized goal, or private behavior modification for a concerning problem?
Although there are no licensing requirements for trainers, there are several organizations that offer certifications for dog trainers. I always start with their directories (but that’s not where the search ends).
Here are a few of my favorite organizations that certify trainers:
Members must adhere to the least intrusive, minimally aversive training methods, the industry standard for good care. Members must keep up with rigorous continuing education requirements and are given the opportunity to brainstorm with a network of behavior consultants and veterinary behaviorists. If your dog has any behavioral issues, this is the place to go.
Finally, CBCC-KA is a certification for dog behavior modification and dog behavior counseling — though this test is far less rigorous than the vetting that the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants puts its trainers through.
CCPDT members are committed to positive reinforcement based training and keeping up with continuing education.
There are two other programs that are widely recognized in the industry that you might want to check out if there are no options from the list above. I didn’t include them in the list above because I have reservations about them.
The first is the Association for Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). This organization is large and well-regarded. Trainers also pledge to adhere to the least intrusive, minimally aversive training methodologies (they just agreed to an exciting joint statement with the IAABC and CCPDT). However, as I researched this article, I couldn’t figure out what qualifies someone to be an APDT member. So I decided to “join.”
I selected the Premium Professional Membership, the highest level membership. I confirmed my email and was asked to pay. That’s. It. Not exactly a great vetting process! I’m not impressed, and I’m not recommending this organization for that reason. That said, APDT members are probably a good place to start if you don’t have other trainers in your area from CCPDT, KPA, or IAABC.
The second almost-great organization is the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). While this organization has excellent goals (no pain, no force, no fear), the organization has been known to pit itself against other organizations when others have attempted to agree on admirable joint standards.
PPG trainers generally align with the ethics that I urge for dog trainers, but the membership application is far too simple and does not necessarily reflect a level of skill that I like to see in trainers. Like the APDT, the requirements for joining are simply too low for me to unilaterally recommend PPG trainers.
I get it. I grew up in Ashland, Wisconsin, a town of just about 6,000. We were four hours from Minneapolis, seven hours from Madison, and about ten hours from Canada. Believe me, there were no good dog trainers in the area (there still aren’t, as far as I know).
We live in the 21st century, which means you have the whole internet at your disposal. For those of us who like the accountability and support of a course, here are some of the best of the best:
Many other trainers now offer remote-friendly behavior consultations. If you’d like to go the private training route, just skim through the IAABC or CCPDT listings and find a trainer who you like. Then check to see if they offer remote training (or ask if they’d consider it).
Now you’ve got a good list of potential trainers, it’s time to narrow down the options.
You’ve done your trainer directory search, and if you’re lucky, you’re staring at a list of 10+ trainers. How do you narrow them down?
Pull up a few of your trainer candidate’s websites and start poking around. Most trainers with a certification are pretty darn good, but it’s totally possible to pass an exam and still be iffy (look at all of those terrifying drivers out there who undoubtedly passed a driver’s license exam).
When I’m examining a trainer’s website, I look for:
It never hurts to do a quick Google, Facebook, or Yelp search of the business. Expect a few negative reviews, but be sure that the trainer is mostly highly regarded. Run away at any mention of corrections, anything that could be abuse, or other highly unprofessional reviews.
Most trainers who are part of the IAABC, KPA, or CCPDT will pass this bar. Honestly, if you’ve made it this far, they’re probably fantastic. But if you really want to go above and beyond, hop on the phone and interview your prospective trainer.
You like the look of the website and the info you’ve got. The trainer is a member of the right organizations, and you’re feeling good about the candidate. Hop on the phone with the trainer (or shoot them an email if you’re that type).
Here’s a sample email to send a prospective trainer. Use this as a phone script or copy and paste it to send to a prospective trainer — it’s yours!
Hello [trainer’s name],
My name is [your name] and I am interested in getting help with [dog’s name], a [age, breed]. We are having some trouble with [behavior problem or training goal] and would like some help.
I found you on the [directory] website, but I’d like to ask a few questions before hiring you.
I really appreciate your time and response.
In this conversation, you’re looking for a trainer who quickly, easily, and confidently answers each question. You want to get the sense that they’re a capable professional. You also want to end the conversation feeling like you enjoyed talking to this person – after all, you’ll be spending a lot of time with them, so hopefully they’ll be some personality mesh too.
More than that, though, you’re looking for responses along the lines of:
Your desired answers to #3 and #4 are more personal, depending on your needs and your preferences.
You might also want to ask about price and length of expected training, but do not expect a firm answer or steadfast guarantee. In fact, most organizations actually forbid trainers from making guarantees because outcomes in dog training are so difficult to ensure. Guarantees are the sign of a sleazy salesperson, not a skilled trainer (the same is true for breeders too).
Hurrah, you’ve selected a trainer and it’s time to get started!
Throughout the course of your training sessions, you should always feel comfortable with your trainer. If you see your trainer interacting with you, your dog, or your family in a way that makes you uncomfortable, bring it up. If it continues to happen, look elsewhere. You can always go to a remote-based trainer if you have no other local options.
Unless your dog is seeing the trainer for stranger-directed fear or aggression, your dog should be excited about training sessions. If you see your dog lowering his posture, pulling his ears back, or grimacing by pulling his lips back with a closed mouth, listen to your dog. Find a different trainer.
That said, if your dog needs training because he’s not friendly with trainers, that’s not a good benchmark! Your trainer should be making some amount of headway in building a good relationship with your dog regardless, but this might be slow. I always applaud the use of basket muzzles when trainers are working with dogs that might bite.
Above all, working with a trainer should feel good. The trainer should support you, be your cheerleader, and explain things in an understandable way. If you or your dog is confused, belittled, or intimidated by your trainer, something is wrong. Go elsewhere with your money and your best friend.
I’ll close with a quick note about board-and-train programs (doggie boot camps). Most of the worst dog training horror stories I’ve ever heard have come from board-and-train programs. In fact, the only time I’ve regretted referring a client out was when that client asked for board-and-train services. That dog ended up more afraid of people at the end of his stay, not less. Something went very wrong.
The problem with board-and-train programs is that you can’t see what the trainer is up to. If you really trust the trainer, going with the doggy boot camp route is fine. But if the trainer is all talk and no skill (or worse, says the right things but actually uses force, fear, and coercion in the name of training), you might not realize that something is off until your dog is traumatized.
Canine boot camps aren’t terrible across the board — some board-and-train programs are fantastic. I’ve heard of trainers that keep a private photo diary online for you to view and see your dog’s progress (along with short explainer text). Brilliant! Expect and require updates.
All good board-and-train programs will also include handoff sessions where you learn how to “drive” your new dog and his skills. If you’re just handed the leash and a bill, you’ve been duped.
Hold your board-and-train trainers to the same stringent requirements as an in-person trainer, and then some.
How did you find your dream dog trainer? We’d love to hear what brought the two of you together!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.