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?

(1) Techniques

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.

(2) Personality

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.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    15 replies to "I Chose Wrong – What to Look for When Hiring a Dog Trainer"

    • JSP

      Thank you for that Megan. I appreciate all of your articles, but that one was timely!

    • Mary

      Thank you for an interesting article. I got into formal dog training because of 2 dogs we had many years ago and the behaviorist we hired to help with one of the dog’s aggression. The behaviorist saw both dogs, one an SFT and one a TFT. She loved the TFT and told me to work with her and to just kennel the SFT. The fact was, we hired her because the TFT was the aggressor. She and her classes were of no help to me. I found a dog club by accident and started classes there. I quickly learned more that helped both dogs from a volunteer instructor who loved dogs and would research problems. Your blog is right on. Not every behaviorist or trainer is right for everyone. If your not comfortable with what they tell you to do, run the other way.

    • Lindy Sander

      Great Job Megan! I’ve been professionally training for over 25 years and I always get asked if I’m “certified”. I say “Yes, from the university of experience!” There is no one way to train every dog and I can’t train every dog and the sooner those (sorry if offensive) “holier than thou” dog trainers would stop criticizing then maybe we could help more dogs and their owners.

    • Francine Farina

      Hi Meagan,
      I don’t expect to become a dog trainer. I am a mere pet sitter and I believe first and foremost in creating trust and a bond with a dog or a cat. A bird, a Chinchilla. I did all the beaureaucratic necessities for my State. I learned quite a bit. I made mistakes. . ..I admitted that…not good when you have big business pet care people competing with you. In short, I read the trainers methods and philosophy. I look at any volunteer they do. Are they involved in animal rescue or welfare? Your article was very intetesting and informative. Thank You!!

    • Josette Montebella

      Thanks for this wonderful article I have had very similar experiences in the past and now I train dogs myself I don’t have a website or advertise I just gain clients by word of mouth or recommendations. It’s very rewarding when I am able to help owners and their companions!

    • ronny

      Thank you! Wish I would have read this several years ago when I got my first purebred Terv puppy. Our nightmare with trainers began when our vet recommended puppy class for our 8-week old male, and at the end of puppy class, our puppy trainer said our pup was aggressive at four months. She sent us to a behaviorist who flipped the dog on its back for wanting to chase cars, and charged me $75 for her hour of nothing. Then as my pup approached six months of age, she referred me to another trainer, who constantly belittled me and told me during our sessoins that I wasn’t doing it right, I wasn’t using high value treats, I was using his name too much, and I was giving him too many treats. I couldn’t do anything right in her eyes, and she would grab the leash from my hand and make my pup perform the task or he got jerked around. She too flipped him on his back for wanting to chase cars, and insisted the reason he still wanted to chase cars was because I was an awful owner. The last straw with her was when she suggested I get riding crop to use on my pup as an extension of my arm because I could not control him around traffic. I knew me and my dog were inconsistent (because of her constant critisism and methods) and I felt like we were going backwards in our training. It was an awful experience and we finally parted ways with the trainer on not so good terms. This trainer then told me to re-home my pup because we were not a good match. I did not, and sought advice from online trainers with experience in training Tervs and Mals, and others in the community that had at least a little experience in training higher drive dogs. Today he is a well-behaved dog, but still suffers from some fear issues that I believe developed during those training months with this awful woman. Loved your article! Just wish I would have found your site years ago!

    • Rachel Frampton

      Thanks for this great article on how to find a good dog trainer and thought you made a good point about choosing trainers who have published authors because they have more credibility than just a certification. I will also have to follow your advice to make sure they aren’t just self-published but that they have a good reputation within the dog training industry.

    • Robert Josefs

      Great read. I’m a new puppy owner and plan to hire a trainer. This article helped me. I don’t know how your training skills are since we never met, but you are a captive writer. I’m in marketing so I would know.

    • Dean Phillips

      I thought you made a great point when you said that you should choose a dog trainer that uses techniques you are comfortable with. My wife and I just bought a Miniature Pinscher from our local animal shelter, and he is completely out of control. We will be sure to find a dog training school that uses agreeable techniques to train our dog how to behave.

    • Gloria Eaglin

      I really liked your article now i need a trainer are you available or a recommendation please

    • Mary Skelton

      Hi Meagan,

      I really Appreciate your article. I’m In the process of doing the research to become a dog trainer. It’s a life change for me and I want to do it the right way for both people and their pets.

      I’m on the fence with exactly what area i’d like to focus on. I feel obedience as well as behavioral exposure is very important as the foundation. I come from a long line of military people in my family and I like to work with the vets and provide dogs for them.

      And your years of experience it would be great if you could share with me your thoughts for training school.
      I’ve been researching for a long time and there’s so much out there. I’m seriously looking at the Tom Rose School in Missouri. Do you know anything about the school?
      Tom has been in business for over 30 years. With that said I still want to make sure I start out the right way. I want to start making network connections with people like yourself who are dedicated and passionate carry themselves with integrity and character and are dedicated to a successful partnership between people and their dog(s)

      Thank you.

      • Meagan Karnes

        I don’t have any direct experience with the Tom Rose school so unfortunately, I can’t weigh in. I’ve met some graduates from the program and the style of training did not align with my own, but I can’t say whether that’s indicative of the program itself, or the individuals. I would recommend the Michael Ellis school for dog trainers which I think is one of the better programs out there. That said, I’m not a huge fan of dog training schools in general. I’d much prefer finding several trainers that you align with and reaching out about possible shadow opportunities 🙂

    • Doc

      Thanks for the great post Meagan! I have had many similar experiences with finding a good trainer for my German Shepherd. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said a good trainer should have a personality you can mesh with, uses techniques you are comfortable with and has experience in dealing with your pain point. Great information – thanks!

    • suzanne cardiff

      Enjoyed this read!!! I have similar stories of choosing the wrong trainer before I knew what I know now. I must have interviewed a dozen trainers back in 2014 in a 50 miles radius and none of them convinced me they could treat a dog with trauma. I regretfully, worked with a trainer who did partially use tactics like “alpha rolling” which made my dogs trauma worse. Not being able to find a trainer equipped to handle a biting dog with PTSD in a respectful way that was in line with my own beliefs of how animals should be treated, I set out to find ways to address the behaviors myself. And that is WHY I know what I know now. I have developed these skills over the past years in teaching harder to adopt shelter dogs real life skills until finding them the right adoption match. In working with clients now I often think back to how lost I felt trying to find hope.

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