Finding a good dog trainer isn’t easy. There is no overarching certification organization for dog training as a career, so just anyone can go print cards and be in business, which means dog trainers are a dime a dozen. The problem is that no training is actually better than bad training. Serious damage can be done by bad training. It’s a lot harder to fix a dog who’s been poorly trained than it is to start training fresh with an untrained dog. Every day I get messages from people who invested time and money training only to get a dog back who’s no better than before, worse than before, ill or injured. Rather than admit that they can’t handle the dog or that their methods aren’t working, many trainers tell owners that a dog is ‘untrainable.’ Sadly, a lot of the time this results in the dog being euthanized because the owners take the so-called professional’s advice and accept that their dog can’t be trained.
The goal of this blog post is to shed some light on what to look for in a trainer and how to narrow down your options to select a few good candidates.
MAKE A LIST
The first thing you need to do is make a list of available trainers using a Google Maps search. I recommend a radius of about 30-40 miles depending on how populated the area is that you live in. For example, if you type in “Dog trainers Spokane” you will get at least a dozen search results. Write down the training company and website. One by one, you’ll look for the information listed below. I recommend keeping notes, so you don’t forget who’s who. If a trainer is not looking good, cross them off and move on.
Once you’re on a trainer’s website, find information regarding their training philosophy. Good trainers are proud of their training philosophy and will clearly state which methods they use on their website. Avoid trainers who are Pure Positive, Traditional and Cookie Cutter.
Pure Positive trainers usually describe themselves as “fear-free, force-free, friendly, gentle, rewards-based” trainers. They don’t believe in corrections; some don’t believe in saying “no” to dogs or crating them. Their training works in a perfect world, and we live in an imperfect world. Pure Positive is fine if you’re just looking for a hobby class like Nosework or Agility, but it is not reliable for on/off leash obedience or rehabilitation training.
Next, avoid trainers who are Traditional. Traditional training is old-school and they use an approach that is very outdated and hard on dogs. Only the strong survive. These methods involve little praise and usually no food. The trainers still use choke chain collars which are not only ineffective but can also damage a dog’s trachea and if they do use a prong, they’re usually too big or too loose and not used properly. Traditional trainers use methods that date back to WWI. Training has evolved a lot in the past 100 years.
Lastly, avoid Cookie Cutter trainers. These are trainers who use the same approach with every dog. “Every dog gets a prong collar.” “Every dog starts with an e-collar.” “We never use food.” “All dogs learn this way or that way.” Cookie cutter trainers use phrases like always and never in their training, which are definite red flags as dog training is not an “always or never” industry.
Look for a trainer who uses a balanced, customized approach to training each individual dog. Here is what you’ll find on the Valor website to describe our philosophy:
“We are balanced dog trainers. That means we are specially skilled at each aspect of training and customize our training approach 100% to each individual dog. We believe strongly in the importance of a good training foundation so we use positive reinforcement to teach basic commands and behaviors. We focus on confidence building, the relationship between owner and dog, structure, rules and meeting the basic needs of each dog. Once dogs in training have a solid foundation, we use training collars, such as prong collars and remote e-collars, as needed, to make sure the training is reliable in public and around distractions. We never train using force or intimidation. Our training always has the dog’s best interest at heart and we use body language, treats, rewards and praise to help communicate with the dog and reward the dog for good behavior.”
Good trainers explain their philosophy on their website and include details and key phrases that help to distinguish their training against a sea of other trainers.
You need to find out who the trainers are for each company. What is their background? What did they do prior to training dogs and does it add to their credibility? Going through certification schooling isn’t a requirement to be a dog trainer, but most good trainers have studied extensively with top notch trainers and have worked with countless dogs. Online schools are a joke, so if that’s the trainer’s only credential, move on. There is also a certification called APDT that some trainers like to add as a tagline to their name. It’s basically a made-up certification test and doesn’t really attest to their abilities as a trainer. The APDT-KA is just a written test and doesn’t involve hands-on training at all. There are trainers who base their entire credibility on their previous job, like being a K9 handler in the military. Knowing how to work with one working dog does not qualify someone to work with 100s of pet dogs with varying demeanors and training needs.
Experience as a shelter volunteer, working under another trainer and volunteering for a rescue are all good to see. Good trainers have worked with 100 or so dogs. Great trainers have worked with 1000s of dogs. Experience is the best teacher!
Additionally, I generally like to see what trainers are up to with their personal dogs. Are they training and titling them? Do they participate in anything outside of work with their dogs? Most trainers’ dogs have an amazing life and get to help out as demo dogs, participate in classes, help train other dogs and train during free times. But there are trainers who don’t prioritize their dogs and as a result, the dogs take the back seat and don’t get much time and attention.
Anytime I’m looking up a potential staff member for the company, I also look at their social media. Same goes for finding a trainer. What do they share on their personal social media? Are they training dogs or partying? Do they appear responsible and professional? Messy or clean? Bottom line: Is this someone you feel comfortable leaving your dog with?
Additionally, I check to see if trainers are continuing their education by pursuing outside opportunities to attend seminars and conferences. Dog training is a career full of egos. Being willing to step outside what is known and explore the unknown to improve their methods and alter their philosophy says a lot about people. The best trainers are lifelong students.
Fourth, I look at what services the training company offers. You may have an idea of what you want (private training vs group training vs board & train), but a good trainer will tell you which option(s) are best for you and your dog. As you look at training services, keep in mind that good training doesn’t happen overnight. Avoid trainers who make lofty promises in a single lesson–we call these shock-and-awe trainers– and avoid trainers who promise to rehabilitate your dog in a week. Those trainers are just like a 72-hour diet. It might seem to work initially, but in the long run you won’t see real results.
While pricing does vary based on area, you can expect to pay around $75-150/hour for private lesson training, $200-400 for a 6-8 week group class and about $1,000 a week for board & train. Remember, good isn’t cheap and cheap isn’t good. While some trainers do charge less than they’re worth, other trainers take advantage of owners by charging ridiculous fees, like $300-400 an hour for private lesson training. They’re overpriced and hope it makes you think they’re better than the other trainers.
Not all trainers offer complimentary consultations, but if they do this is a nice added bonus and worth writing down for future reference. We at Valor K9 Academy offer free consultations so clients can meet with us, ask questions, tour our facility and let us evaluate their dog. It’s a great way to get to know each other before committing to a training relationship together.
Finally, look at any available social media accounts for that particular training company. Good trainers may not post every day, but they do post regularly. Have a look. Do you like what you see? What is the body language like for dogs in their photos and videos? Are their heads relaxed or held high? Are their tails relaxed or wagging? Are they happily obedient and eager to be learning? Not all dogs will be happy-go-lucky while training, but the majority of dogs thoroughly enjoy training and it shows in the posts.
Avoid trainers where the dog is making no eye contact with the trainer, crouching or low crawling, tail tucked between the legs or overall nervous or robotic-looking. Avoid trainers who don’t seem to be working with the dog, but rather are barking out orders or commanding the dog around. Also avoid trainers who let the dog jump on them, paw at them, nudge them or just in general boss them around.
Whether the trainer works out of a facility or in their home, the training environment should be clean and well-kept. It does not need to be fancy, but messy and dirty are unacceptable. An overall unclean environment says a lot about the trainer and the company.
While you’re on social media, have a look at testimonials. Most good trainers have an average review of 4.5-5 stars. Keep in mind even good trainers get bad reviews. We have almost 200 5 star reviews and a couple 1 star reviews – from people we’ve never met! Keyboard warriors (sigh)
Note: If you’re looking for a trainer who offers rehabilitation training, that trainer must absolutely have before and after videos of their work. Unedited, uncrossed videos that say “Here’s what the dog was like before, and here’s how he is after training.” Not just a video or two, but video after video after video. Photos are not worth a thousands words anymore. Look on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for proof.
MEET THE TRAINER
Once you’ve vetted trainers online, it’s time to meet them. Most trainers offer free consultations or meet & greets. This is where you’ve gotta trust your gut: What are your first impressions? Is the trainer polite, professional and organized? Or is the trainer abrasive, obnoxious, crude or disheveled-looking? Was the trainer on time or early for your meeting? Was the trainer prepared? Did the trainer bring a personal dog along? If so, what is their dog like?
In your meeting with the trainer, ask questions, confirm findings from your research in the steps above, bring your dog along for evaluation and to allow the trainer to see your dog’s behavior in a new location, around new people and with other dogs. While not all trainers bring out a demo dog, if they do, find out who the dog is and see how the dog behaves around you and/or your dog. Use your best judgment at this point. Do you get a good feeling about the trainer, the facility and the dogs? Does the trainer seem genuinely interested in helping you and passionate about training, or is selling you on their programs their number one goal?
Here is a list of suggested questions to ask a trainer: What is your training philosophy? How would your training philosophy apply to my dog and our training goals? Why did you get into dog training? How long have you been training? How many dogs have you worked with? Are you certified? What kind of continued education have you done? Which training program(s) do you recommend for my dog? Do you feel certain dogs are untrainable? What sort of foundation work does your training involve? Do you teach focus and confidence building? When do you add the training collar? What are your personal dogs like? Can I meet them? Do you post before & after videos of dogs you’ve trained? Do you work with all breeds? Have you ever met a dog you couldn’t train? What is your training specialty? What can you tell me today about my dog’s behavior?
That last question gives the trainer a chance to give you open and honest feedback. I will often tell my clients their dog is nervous or fearful, pushy or bratty, dominant by default or spoiled. I tell people the truth about their dog in a direct yet respectful way, and they appreciate it. I tell them the good, the bad and the ugly if the dog has behavior issues. Good trainers are honest, even when the truth hurts. If your trainer sugarcoats things now, you’ll never get real, down-to-earth training out of them in the future.
Below are additional questions you can ask regarding training programs:
1) In group classes, how many dogs are in each class? How big is the space?
(We enroll 8 dogs per class and have a 2400sf training space).
2) Where do dogs stay during board & train?
(Our dogs stay in the trainer’s home and/or our facility in their crates.)
3) How many dogs does each trainer have at a time in board & train? And how much time does each dog spend training per day?
(Our trainers typically have two board & trains at a time and work with dogs for 1.5-2 hours per day. This does not include time spent exercising, socializing and playing with the dog. Beware: There are training facilities who overload their trainers with 5-10 dogs each. As a result, those trainers only spend about 30 minutes a day with each dog. Cheap isn’t good, remember?)
4) Is the trainer knowledgeable in Canine First Aid & CPR in case of emergency?
(Our staff is all trained in Canine First Aid & CPR. As a bonus, two of trainers have 10+ years experience each as emergency veterinary technicians.)
5) Do you ever allow aggressive dogs near client dogs without safety measures, like a muzzle?
(No client dog should ever be put in harm’s way.)
6) Will you keep me posted while my dog is in board & train?
(We email owners weekly and post regularly to social media.)
7) Are dogs required to be fully vaccinated to attend training?
TOUR THE HOME OR FACILITY
If you are touring the trainer’s home or facility, check for the following:
1) Stop and smell. Does it smell like pee or bleach? No well-kept facility should smell like either one. Pee is disgusting, and all the bleach is there to cover up the smell of pee. Our facility is neat, clean and organized. Poop is picked up several times a day. Kennels are clean. Any accidents are cleaned up immediately. Dogs are clean and well-cared-for.
2) Listen. Is it loud? Are there dogs barking and howling? If you can’t stand it, how do you think your dog will feel being left there? Chaos is not fun for anyone. Our training facility and trainers’ homes are peaceful, quiet places. When dogs are well-taken-care of, properly exercised and trained, they aren’t spinning in their kennels, barking or fighting with the dog kenneled next to them.
3) Ask. Find out what different dogs are there for. How far into the program are they? How successful has their training been?
4) Look. How do the dogs look? Are they underweight? Panting? Stressed? Or calm, relaxed, and sleeping like our dogs usually are when people come in for consultations.
5) Explore. Don’t just go where they take you. Look in the areas they don’t show you. Are all the dog yards clean and feces-free? Or just the yard they took you to? Are all the kennels clean? Or just the first row?
6) Safety. Ask if they have a canine first aid kit. Ask how high their fences are. How far they are from any busy roads. How many safety measures are in place for dogs boarding. We have a two-barrier rule. That means dogs must at all times be blocked in by at least two barriers (e.g., kennel and door or kennel and fence or leash and door). We are extremely careful with our client dogs and treat them with the same measure of care we treat our own. We even go so far as to check their pee/poo each day to make sure everything is A-ok!
NARROW IT DOWN
The next step is to narrow down the trainers from your original list to two or more. Use your best judgment at this point. Do you get a good feeling about the trainer, the facility and the dogs? Does the trainer seem genuinely interested in helping you and passionate about training, or is selling you on their programs their number on goal?
While sales is part of the process, it shouldn’t feel like the focus or priority. We let our work speak for itself. We don’t aim to sell anyone on anything. If you’re feeling pressured to sign up, it’s probably not the right trainer for you.
One more thing to consider: Good trainers are busy! No good trainer who’s been training for awhile is available tomorrow for a private lesson or next week for a board & train. We are typically booked out 4-6 months for board & trains, our group classes fill up months in advance, and we are usually booked a couple weeks out for lessons. Be sure to let the trainer know if you are flexible, in case someone cancels or reschedules so you can get in sooner. We do occasionally have cancellations and contacts people on our wait list first.
START OVER OR COMMIT
If you made it through this list, and you eliminated everyone on your original list of trainers, that’s okay! Start again but this time expand your search area. We get clients from all over the United States and Canada, because they didn’t find someone in their area, or because they want the best for their dog, so they travel to us! We are known for our ability to train even the most difficult of dogs, so we oftentimes have out-of-state dogs for our board & train program. Good trainers can be hard to come by. Don’t lose hope!
If you found a trainer that checks off all the boxes, then it’s time to commit! I will tell you now that spending a couple hundred or even a couple thousand dollars is only the first step. Next comes all the homework, training sessions and the real commitment. But when the trainer is good, you’re in good hands, and you will see results. Going through professional training with your dog is hands-down one of the best ways to grow closer to your dog and build an unbreakable bond!
By: Amy Pishner
Owner/Head Trainer of Valor K9 Academy
You can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.