Let’s face it, as dog training evolves, new dog trainers seem to be popping up daily. You’ve got the holistic compassion based trainers, the force-free movement, the edgy trainers who challenge the landscape and the progressives who are continually trying to evolve. You’ve got the behaviorists and balanced trainers, the sport trainers and the working dog trainers. There’s talk of science, and experience, of titles and sports. And you’ve got philosophies like LIMA, NILIF, NePoPo, and +R.
Not only is the landscape littered with new ideas, and new and old school philosophy, you’ve also got in person trainers, boot camps, seminars, online coaches, online courses, workshops, and training schools.
A quick Google search for dog trainers in your area undoubtedly return dozens upon dozens of results, and I don’t even want to think about how many trainers compete for a spot on the first page of Google for their online training options.
Quite frankly, it can all seem pretty overwhelming.
I remember choosing a trainer for my first dog Koby, back in the rainbows and butterflies time in my life, where I had no clue about dogs except that I loved them.
I was faced with some pretty serious behavior problems so, as one naturally does, I reached out for help.
I chose my first trainer based on their website and, I’ll be honest, their ranking on Google. I was sold by their marketing, by their promises, and by their flashy demonstrations. But that trainer couldn’t help me…
… Neither could the next one I hired …
… or the one after that.
The thing was, I had no idea HOW to choose a trainer. In fact, I honestly don’t think I had any clue WHAT it was that I was even looking for. As a result, I chose wrong, repeatedly choosing the trainer that couldn’t help. The one whose philosophy and style didn’t compliment my needs, my personality, and my goals.
Turns out, I was regularly putting stock in a trainer’s capabilities for all of the wrong reasons.
Here are just a few of them …
(1) I chose trainers based on their certifications
Check this out …
BEFORE I was a dog trainer, when I owned a pet sitting company, back when I knew NOTHING formal about dog training (but quite a bit about dogs given my field) I took a practice exam for a popular dog training certification program.
I scored 100% perfect, ticking off the correct answer every time with ease.
The results were astounding (and frustrating!). This clearly wasn’t a legitimate test of skill and knowledge if non-dog trainers could pass it without even trying.
Here’s the story.
It is absolutely possible (and quite common) to get certified online with NO experience whatsoever in the actual hands-on training of dogs. Take a 250 question multiple choice test and congratulations, you are certified. Or, for the more advanced, go to an online school and complete 20 hours of hands on work and TADA!! You’ve earned your certification.
Listen, 20 hours of hands-on work doesn’t make a dog trainer. I promise. Neither does acing a test your average dog owner can pass.
If a trainer has a certification that sounds impressive to you, research it. Find out what it took for them to get that certification. There are some great schools out there. But for every really great one, there are no doubt 10 that aren’t so great…so it’s up to you to be discerning.
With a solid understanding of the certification process, you can more effectively make a decision as to whether or not it matters to you…whether or not it’s a reflection of this trainer’s ability to help you.
(2) I chose trainers with flashy videos
It can be so easy to see flashy videos of trainers working advanced obedience with their own dogs. The videos are impressive. And you’re left thinking “YES! Wow! That’s what I want! If they can do THAT, they can surely help me with my dog.” But here’s the thing. Most trainers have been at this for a while. And no doubt their personal dogs have gone through extensive training that spans years. And for most, this is their full-time job. Do you have hours each day to invest in getting the same results?
Couple that with the ease in which videos can be edited, erased, and re-recorded and add in the fact that through skilled handling, it can be easy to make a dog appear trained (yep, pretty sneaky I know, but there are trainers out there that use this to their advantage), and all of a sudden those training videos aren’t so persuasive.
(3) I chose trainers who were published authors
Publishing a book is one of the ultimate ways that dog trainers differentiate themselves and lend credibility to their names. It can be really impressive to see “published author” next to the name of a potential trainer you are thinking of hiring. But did you know that self-publishing is actually a (very popular) thing? Simply pay a little money, put in a bit of effort and you too my friend can be a published author.
Now, I’m not discounting the books that trainers self-publish, so don’t read more into this than what I’m saying. There are some phenomenal trainers who have put out some absolutely spectacular self-published books. But with the ease of self-publishing, I’m simply cautioning you not to put stock into a “published author” without doing a little bit more investigation.
(4) I chose trainers who had titled their dogs
Now I’m not going to win many fans here (what else is new?) but this is something I believe strongly in so stay with me.
Many trainers use titles to set themselves apart from their competition. They proudly proclaim “I’ve titled dogs in AKC or Rally Obedience.” or “I’ve trained, competed and titled in IPO…French Ring…MondioRing.” You get the picture. And let me tell you something. Titles are AWESOME. Trainers that compete their dogs are some of the bravest out there and they are incredibly talented. Like no joke, I worship many of them (not in a creepy way, I promise!)
But here’s the thing. A title is only a small piece of the puzzle. A title doesn’t tell you about methods. It can’t qualify a trainer’s competency with things like anxiety and aggression. And it can’t tell you if a trainer has good customer service skills and is kind and fair with dogs. Those things aren’t qualified in a trial.
Not to mention, there are a lot of trainers out there that compete dogs that are ALREADY trained! And many trainers select dogs with very specific temperaments that suit their training style and their training goals. Working a high drive and biddable “Points Dog” in bite sports is a far cry different from teaching a bulldog not to bite people.
I’m being completely honest when I say that some of the most experienced trial handlers and trainers are terrible at behavior modification (while others are phenomenal). And some of the least experienced in trial are some of the best I’ve ever seen (while many are not so great). There’s no hard and fast rule. So you need to be careful not to make assumptions based on the titles a trainer has earned.
Putting stock in trial accomplishment is awesome if you want help getting your dog trial ready. In fact, I use an experienced decoy and trainer to help me get my own dogs prepped for competition.
His list of accomplishments is long and noteworthy. And there is something to be said about his titles as they speak directly to his ability in my sport. But more than his accomplishments, I look at his TECHNIQUE. That matters more to me than anything. And he is good. Damn good.
So while titles are awesome and not to be discredited, trial experience isn’t always a clear indicator as to whether or not a trainer can help you with your specific problems. If the trial experience sounds impressive to you, research the sport and see what it’s all about. And then, ask questions about it when you meet with your trainer to qualify their experience and make sure their skill set is what you need to solve your problems.
(5) I chose trainers with impressive demo dogs
Now let me tell you a story. I got persuaded by a demo dog back in the day when I didn’t know any better. The dog performed some crazy flashy obedience, and I was instantly sold on the story that the particular dog I watched was “just like mine” when she entered into training.
I think I signed the contract before the demonstration was even over.
But here’s the thing. That dog was a lab. My dog was a high drive pit bull with severe aggression. And I promise those two things ARE NOT the same. AND, that dog’s handler was a professional dog trainer. I was not. And ultimately, I was responsible for training MY OWN dog under the instruction of my trainer. I didn’t have the skills he had. I didn’t have the timing. And, I didn’t have the fundamental understanding of dog behavior. And I’ll tell you something…that trainer intimidated me. He made me cry my first day on the field and got me severely bitten by my own dog.
That trainer could train his lab. Could he train my very aggressive pit bull? And more importantly, could he train me?
His demo dog didn’t answer either of those questions, yet still, I put stock in it and yet still, I hired him. And guess what? The answer to those questions was no. He couldn’t train my pit bull and in fact, he couldn’t train me. And once again, another several thousand dollars was thrown in the toilet.
So what should you look for in a trainer you are about to hire?
First, ask about techniques. Your trainer must use techniques you are comfortable with, otherwise, you will never follow through. I know this from experience. If your trainer puts a training collar on your dog and spends 30 minutes persuading you about how humane it is and you simply aren’t feeling it, go a different direction. If you aren’t fully comfortable with the tools, even with the most persuasive arguments, you won’t use them. And if you don’t use them, the training won’t stick.
Here’s another story from my past. I once had a trainer encourage me to “backflip my dog” on a prong collar to make a point. (This isn’t an invitation for other trainers to unload about the inhumanity of it all and launch into a methods war. Not the point here so don’t lose track). But here’s the thing, not only was I wildly uncomfortable with the technique and flat refused to do it, but back then, I was tiny and meek, all of 105 lbs soaking wet without an ounce of muscle on my body (boy have I changed!). Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t physically do what was asked of me. And for that reason, those techniques would never work for me. I had to find someone else.
Once you find a trainer with techniques that make you think “Hey! I can do that!” ask yourself a simple question (and do it often in your training exchanges). Ask yourself “does this training make sense?” If it doesn’t make sense to you, it won’t make sense to your dog. While some trainers like to make training sound very profound, I promise, there is more common sense to it than you think. So if you can’t make sense of it, your dog can’t either and if your trainer can’t clarify in a way you understand, it’s time to move on.
This is something that is widely neglected when very well-intentioned pet owners start the search for their trainer.
Trainers have to ultimately inspire change in YOU. So more than anything, you have to mesh with them. Don’t choose trainers who intimidate you and alternatively, don’t choose someone you think is “hokey”. Choose trainers who motivate and inspire you, who you believe in, and most importantly, choose trainers who LISTEN when you talk. At the end of the day, your dog lives with YOU and has to be trained by YOU. So make sure you choose someone who doesn’t neglect you in favor of your dog.
(3) Experience dealing with YOUR pain point.
We all hire trainers for different reasons. Some of us want simple obedience so our dogs are more enjoyable when we are out and about. Others are dealing with some pretty serious behavioral issues. And yet others are looking to pursue advanced sports with their dogs.
When you are choosing a trainer, make sure you select someone with direct experience and a solid track record dealing with YOUR pain point. Don’t choose a sport dog trainer to fix your aggression unless that’s something they have extensive experience with. And don’t choose a behaviorist to help you get your dog prepped for competition unless they’ve spent a considerable amount of time working in that arena. Choose trainers with experience (and lots of it!) dealing with the problem you are faced with. Ask to speak with past clients who were facing the same issues that you are. And check for testimonials. Don’t be afraid to ask your potential trainer “How have you dealt with XYZ issue in the past and have you ever been unsuccessful?” or “Tell me about a time where you were unsuccessful helping a client with XYZ issue.” I think you’ll be surprised at the answers that you get.
Listen, I spent $12,000 on dog training for my dog back before I knew any better. I hired the best of the best. But I made the mistake of being sold on things that ultimately weren’t a reflection of the trainer’s direct ability to help me. Unfortunately, I failed to hire anyone that could actually effect change in my dog … and most importantly, I failed to hire anyone that could effect change in me.
To get the most out of your training exchanges, choose a trainer who you are comfortable with. Who understands your vision and who LISTENS. A trainer whose techniques make sense. And a trainer with direct experience with your struggles. Don’t be persuaded by flashy titles, certifications and perfectly cut and spliced videos. Because those things, while nice to have, don’t train a dog…and those things don’t train you.
And a quick note to dog trainers…
You … are … amazing.
You all have strengths. And I hate to break it to you, but you can’t help every single dog owner. There are some clients that simply aren’t suited for your unique abilities. Identify your strengths and differentiate yourself based on the things you do best. Get specific and put it out there. Sing it loud and I promise, you’ll start attracting the customers that will gain the most from their experience with you.
And please, quit trying so hard to change people’s perceptions. Don’t hide or sugar coat your methods. And don’t claim to do it all for fear that you’ll miss out on a potential customer. If you are honest about your strengths and your training and someone passes you by, they likely weren’t well suited to work with you, probably wouldn’t have benefitted as much as you were hoping, and you will probably better off in the long run.
Truth is, most of my trainers early on weren’t suited for me. We didn’t work well together and as a result, I’m sitting over here telling stories of how I threw away money and didn’t get results. Thing is, they weren’t bad dog trainers. We just didn’t have the same vision, didn’t communicate effectively with one another, or I didn’t fundamentally like the training philosophies. Plain and simple, I needed something different. And had their marketing been clear about their programs, their strengths, and WHO they REALLY were, we’d both likely never wasted each other’s time.
So Dog Trainers, I implore you. Get yourself really clear on those things you are really great at…those top two or three things you are really passionate about…your top two or three strengths. And organize everything you do around them. This is how you attract the right clients and this is how you’ll best serve dog owners in the long run.
If you want help getting clear on your strengths (from a non-dog perspective), read Marcus Buckingham’s Now, Discover Your Strengths and take his StrengthFinder Assessment. While it won’t speak directly to your dog training capabilities, it will help you better understand the strengths you should be capitalizing on to grow your business and to reach the RIGHT dog owners…those people you can really help…and those areas where you can really start effecting change.