How to find a trainer or behaviorist

“Could you talk about how to find a good trainer and/or behaviorist?

It seems that everyone who’s watched a few episodes of “The Dog Whisperer” or “It’s Me or the Dog” is now an expert on training. It would be nice to have a list of criteria to look for/avoid.


My huge disclaimer here is that I am a training CONSUMER, not a trainer. I enjoy training my dogs and attending classes; I have no plans to become a trainer. If I did it would be in something like show handling classes, because my drive to have a perfect front and finish is just not high enough to go through the competitive obedience process.

The fact that I’m not good enough to be a trainer is basically my foundation for how I tell if someone IS. There’s no certifying body for trainers, so anybody can decide to call themselves a trainer or a behaviorist. So I would always want to see that a trainer has in fact succeeded at the training he or she claims to provide. If a typical obedience class, someone who has put titles on multiple dogs. If an agility class, agility titles. And so on.

Once you’ve weeded out the totally unqualified (and there are shocking numbers of these), you need to find someone who is a good mesh with you, methods-wise. There are many, many flavors of training and I personally think that all of them work. It’s worth your while to figure out where you lie and where you’ll feel comfortable so you can participate willingly in class. Your decision will also be influenced by the personality of your dog–if you have a terrier or a classic stubborn and reactive dog (not a bad thing, just a definition), a trainer who uses more physical methods is a BAD IDEA. On the other hand, if your dog is the kind that goes absolutely nuts over food, so nuts that he or she loses any sense of control (and I have owned one of these), going to a trainer who always uses treats is going to be very frustrating.

I personally feel most comfortable in a class that uses a combination of methods; I strongly believe in encouraging behaviors using food or another motivator, but I also find that for most normal owners and average dogs positive-only training methods don’t adequately address self-rewarding bad behaviors like food stealing or pulling on leash. Where I would give a quick leash correction and be done with it, Positive-only trainers will try to replace these activities (instead of jumping up on people, go sit there on your mat) or semi-frantically reward any time the dog makes a different decision. If that’s what you can get behind, that’s absolutely fine with me.

Oh, one thing: agility is virtually always taught using positive methods, often clicker or similar. Agility is a skill built on a foundation of basic obedience; i.e., you should not be solving basic obedience problems in that class. For that reason I’d be pretty wary of anyone using more than a tiny amount of positive punishment (a fancy way of saying leash corrections) in an agility setting. It’s supposed to be reward-based and lots of fun.

Finding a behaviorist is, I think, a little more fraught with risk. If you need a behaviorist, it’s probably because the dog has a serious issue, most often biting dogs or people. That means that the stakes are very high; this is a person who is quite possibly handing your dog a life or death decision.

I personally want a behaviorist who has very rarely resorted to putting a dog down. If they’ve NEVER had to, that would be its own red flag, but if they’re solving a sizeable proportion of problems by euthanizing the dog I would not be comfortable. You want a behaviorist who understands dogs, the differences between breeds, and who is sympathetic to what it is to be a dog. For example, if I brought in a Borzoi who was biting other dogs, I want someone to say “Yes, that’s something we see a lot; the large sighthounds are major snobs and they tend to not like other dogs who are not Borzoi in their faces. Let’s work on giving you the tools to anticipate a conflict, you’re going to stop ever letting her off-leash where there could be other dogs, and we’ll also try a few things like a citronella collar (which sprays as the dog begins that big roaring build-up, and can often distract them from a conflict). Last, let’s work on an incredibly solid recall.”

Anybody who starts bleating about how this must be dominance aggression (without seeing the dog in person and seeing the dog interact with a variety of other dogs), who immediately talks about how you’re going to have to really pull this out of the fire or the dog needs to be put down, etc. would be someone I’d run away from.

Similarly, you want someone who understands that using teeth on a human has many possible causes and there’s always a long way to go before anybody brings up the subject of the needle.

My cardinal example of being careful about a behaviorist has to do with a dog I bred and sold. She was a very, very cute, SUPER smart, very sensitive little girl. Her family had never had a dog as large as she was going to get, and they had a couple of young kids. When she was about five months old, they called me and told me that they were going to have to put her down. Their “behaviorist” had told them that she was incredibly aggressive and needed to be euthanized. I said don’t you DARE, got in the car that moment, drove down to get her. I opened their door and this adorable baby Dane went NUTS, barking and freaking out. I grabbed her by the cheeks and said “SHUT THE HECK UP!” (by the way, don’t do this unless you are stupid or you really know your dog–I would never do this for a dog that I didn’t know very well). She instantly quieted down and started kissing me. The owners were even at that moment trying to insist that she be put down, that they had to take her right to the vet, that she was completely untrustworthy, etc. I ran as fast as I could to the car, threw her in, drove home shaking and crying.

Half-way home I got out of the car and took her for a run in a field. I discovered that she had no idea what a collar was, had no clue how to walk on a leash, cowered if I moved fast, and was generally just totally freaked out and terrified.

I took her to my vet and my behaviorist the next day. Physical causes were ruled out. When we arrived at the behaviorist’s facility, she spent an hour and a half with me; about ten minutes into it she said, “Yeah, this dog is no more a candidate for euthanasia than I am.” Most of the time we spent was figuring out tools and methods to help the puppy understand that people were good things, that other dogs were good things, and so on. Five weeks later, I placed the puppy in a wonderful new home (for nothing but the cost of her spay, of course; I never sell dogs twice). That hour and a half cost me $200, but it was more than worth it.

So–take-home message: Find a trainer who puts her money where her mouth is (has titled and trained dogs). Find a behaviorist who is on the dog’s side, who doesn’t overreact, and who offers you useful and creative methods to help your dog change its mind about the kinds of behaviors that are causing the problem.

2 thoughts on “How to find a trainer or behaviorist

  1. My family was SO fortunate to find the perfect trainer completely by accident when we were dumb first-time owners with a crazy reactive Rottie pup.

    She was all the things you recommended — titled in Agility and Obedience, she trained service dogs, and was a judge as well. A fantastic mix of positive reinforcement and leash corrections w/training collars only sparingly when needed. We were so pathetically ignorant, it was an act of God that got us to her instead of ending up with some quack who might’ve made things worse!

    I saw first hand the ‘miracle’ transformation for our ‘dangerous’ dog — and she matured into the most polite, dignified and intelligent adult. The very first day we went to class, we were told ‘This class is to train YOU, not the dog!’ and that truth has never left the forefront of my mind.

  2. Pingback: Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue part 3: The first month « Ruffly Speaking: Railing against idiocy since 2004

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