This month the news broke of a trainer in Kershaw County coming under investigation for cruelty to animals. A total of 41 dogs were found in a neglect situation and were removed by law enforcement and owners. One dog had died under the supervision of this trainer. Unfortunately, this is not the first time for a situation like this. It occurs all too often in all parts of the country. It is time for this column to address how to pick a dog trainer that is effective and will care for your dog the way you would want.
The first thing to understand about dog training is there is no local, state, or national licensing or oversight of dog trainers. In South Carolina, cosmetologists, cemetery owners, and people who sell manufactured homes must be licensed, but not dog trainers with whom we trust our dogs’ mental well-being and in the case of board and train, their physical well-being. There is not even a standard certification process. The only independent certifying agency for dog trainers is the Council for the Certification of Professional Dog Trainers (www.ccpdt.org). Other certifications are provided by specific training schools, businesses, or associations. Those certifications are based on the education provided by those agencies, and what they train and what they require for graduation and certification can vary greatly. Sadly, your next-door neighbor who owns a dog could hang a shingle and advertise dog training services legally and often without question.
It’s buyer beware for dog owners in search of a trainer. Always ask questions. If your friend or neighbor recommends a dog trainer, ask him what they liked about the trainer and what type training was provided.
When you are searching for a dog trainer, there are questions you should ask when interviewing a prospective trainer.
What are your certifications? What do they mean? What agency provided those certifications? Certifications are not a requirement for trainers but researching those certifications can provide information about the training philosophies and education of the trainer.
Are you a member of any professional organizations? Membership in professional organizations are an indication of whether the trainer keeps up with the most recent studies and advances in dog behavior and training.
How long have you been training? Experience is a good thing. If a trainer has been training for many years, be sure to ask them how their training techniques have evolved through the years.
Please explain your training philosophy and methods. A huge red flag is raised if the trainer focuses on the training ideas of dominance and submission and uses words like “dominant” and “alpha.” These ideas and terms were based on the dominance theory proposed in the 1940s based on a study of captive wolves in non-related groups. In short, the theory said the wolves competed for status and resources by asserting their strength. Later studies with wolves in the wild contradicted this study. Wild wolves are family groups. Younger wolves stay with their parents often through two or three generations until the younger wolves are ready to leave. The younger wolves follow and obey the parent wolves willingly, not by force. Additionally, just as apes aren’t people, dogs aren’t wolves. Dogs are different creatures who have evolved to be our pets (and family members) of today.
A trainer who uses the idea of dominance or uses punishment-based training methods is a trainer who does not meet the standards of science-based training. The American Society of Veterinary Animal Behavior (www.avsab.org) has issued position papers on dominance, punishment, and picking a trainer. According to the AVSAB, “Research shows dogs do not need to be physically punished to learn how to behave, and there are significant risks associated with using punishment (such as inhibiting learning, increasing fear, and/or stimulating aggressive events). Therefore, trainers who routinely use choke collars, pinch collars, shock collars, and other methods of physical punishment as a primary training method should be avoided.”
Dog training based in science is reward-based and should not inflict unnecessary pain or distress. Count it as another red flag if the trainer claims using treats, toys, or other rewards is bribery. This is an indication the trainer does not understand how animals learn.
May I watch you train? May I observe one of your classes? After asking the trainer about his or her training methods and philosophies, it is a good idea to observe the trainer working with a dog. This will help you decide if you are comfortable with that trainer. In a class environment you can observe the trainer working with many types of dogs and tell whether the trainer is effective with different sizes and types of dogs. Ask about class size and ratio of trainers to students. The ratio of trainers to students should allow for some individual attention.
If you are considering putting your dog in a board and train facility, ask to be allowed access to see your dog periodically and to observe his training occasionally. Visit the premises and view the currently enrolled dog before enrolling yours. This is particularly critical since you are entrusting your beloved pet to someone else on a 24/7 basis.
If a trainer offers a guarantee, this is another red flag. A dog’s behavior is dependent on environmental factors, time, learning style, trainer’s ability, and the type of behavior issue. There are no guarantees when working with animals and behavior.
Ask for referrals from clients whose dogs were trained for similar reasons. Then, contact those referrals.
Need more information on selecting a trainer? You can find more in-depth information in Katenna Jones’ book Fetching the Perfect Dog Trainer at www.dogwise.com.