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You put a lot of time and effort into finding the right dog, so, of course, you want to find exactly the right trainer for your pup. But how do you know if a trainer will be a good fit? And how can you avoid a bad situation?
Here are my quick recommendations on what to look for in a trainer and where to start your search.
First things first: I do not recommend hiring a trainer who relies on any form of punishment. Punishment-based training can escalate a dog’s level of fear, anxiety and aggression while only temporarily inhibiting problem behaviors. Corrective and shock collars, which rely on pain, discomfort and fear as motivators, can create unintended negative associations. And training that combines punishment with rewards is also not effective; the unpredictable pattern of rewards and punishments can cause your dog to be confused and anxious.
Look for a trainer who specializes in rewards-based training. This approach focuses on teaching and reinforcing desired behavior, rather than punishing undesirable behavior. In other words, your dog is rewarded for doing the right thing, rather than punished for doing the wrong thing. Rewards vary and can include treats, toys and attention. Undesirable behavior is either ignored or redirected to something more acceptable. A positive reinforcement trainer can also work with you to develop strategies to channel your dog’s activity into proper outlets to help prevent problem behaviors.
Other factors will also influence your choice of trainer. Look for someone with experience dealing with the specific issues you are wanting to address, whether that is preventive training and basic manners or something more specialized, like canine sports or therapy certification. Depending on your goals, you may need more than one trainer — for example, if you want to teach your dog to walk politely on leash and start training him for agility competition, you may need to work with two different trainers.
Your veterinarian can be a trusted resource for training recommendations — in fact, in many cases, a team approach (including your veterinarian, a rewards-based trainer and, if needed, a veterinary behaviorist) may be the best way to address some behavioral issues. Make sure that any trainer you are considering is comfortable working with the veterinary team you have in place.
Dog-owning friends can also be a good source — but don't take friendly referrals on blind trust. Research trainers who friends recommend by checking their certification first and then asking the trainer for references. If you are looking for a trainer to work with your dog on something more specialized, like a sport or training to be a therapy dog, start by reaching out to groups in your area that participate in these activities. As with a general trainer, once you have a recommendation, check the trainer's certification and references.
There are several ways to check a trainer's certifications. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has an easy-to-use online database — I recommend using the “Limit Search to Certified Trainers” option to get the best results. In addition, some organizations, such as Petco and PetSmart, have their own training course certifications for on-site trainers. Feel free to ask how trainers qualify for the certification program and what exactly it covers.
Be sure to verify that your trainer is insured, including carrying coverage for any potential incidents or injuries, both to the trainer and your pet.
Finally, be wary of guarantees. Every dog learns at his own pace, and no trainer can say with certainty that a dog will reach a specific level of training in a given time frame. Training guarantees often include specific loopholes — for example, the dog is deemed trained if he responds to the trainer’s commands, even if he ignores his owner — and may be a sign that a trainer is using a punishment-based approach, which should always be avoided.
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