Don’t be shy; a qualified trainer should be excited about being asked about their methods and should be able to answer clearly.
It is a red flag if you feel the trainer you are speaking to is pushy to book a training session before answering your questions or ignores or breeze over things you’ve asked.
The most important question to ask is "what training methods do you use?"
Force-free, science-based, fear-free, and positive reinforcement are all phrases that indicate that the trainer keeps up with modern practices & understandings of animal behavior.
Many qualified dog trainers take it upon themselves to educate themselves to a specific standard. Look for dog trainers who attend national conferences, keep up-to-date with new information via books and peer reviewed studies, and reference the work of behaviorists with PHDs in the field.
All trainers will have anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of their methods, but look for a trainer who references actual research.
Dog training is an unregulated field, meaning anyone can call themself a dog trainer and take your money, regardless of education, experience, or methods. Sometimes, these methods look like they’re working, but science tells us that any method that uses fear, startle, or discomfort has a risk of behavioral fall-out such as learned helplessness or increased aggression.
Recent studies have demonstrated that dogs trained with shock collars (sometimes called e-collars) experience more stress than dogs trained using positive reinforcement.
A well-educated trainer will avoid shock collars and prong collars, and will advocate for using treats, praise, and setting dogs up for success while training instead.
Ask if a trainer is certified or working towards a specific certification.
Certifications will often mean a trainer has taken an exam to ensure the information they’re using is up-to-date. CPDT-KA, KPA, & IAABC are among the letters you can look for next to a trainer’s name to know they are certified by a trustworthy organization.
Memberships with nationally recognized training groups such as the APDT are also good things.
Make sure their services align with your needs.
Are you looking for in-home help for a reactive dog, a group puppy class, virtual basic obedience, or a board and train program?
Not all trainers offer all class styles. Make sure your trainer offers training sessions in the format you’re looking for.
If you’re not sure what style of learning your dog needs, feel free to speak to a trainer, but trust your gut about you and your dog’s needs.
Group classes may be overwhelming for your dog. As the owner of a reactive dog myself, I am a huge fan of group classes for reactivity when done correctly, but my extra sensitive border collie mix isn’t a great candidate for group-style learning.
Similarly, board and train options can be popular for busy owners, but I’ve seen many companies push all clients to pursue this style of training simply because it’s more lucrative for the trainer, not because it will actually benefit the dog more.
Remember, you will be the one learning, more so than your dog.
We call ourselves “dog trainers” because it sounds better than “dog owner trainer.” In reality, that’s typically what we do, though. As dog trainers (or dog owner trainers) we focus on teaching you, the human, so that you can have a better relationship with your dog.
That means when choosing a dog trainer, it’s important to be sure you feel comfortable with the trainer you’ll be working with. You should be able to trust that they will be clear, polite, and helpful with you, and offer effective and up-to-date solutions for your dog’s behavior needs.
As long as the dog training industry remains unregulated, it may take some extra research to ensure you find the perfect trainer, but your pup will thank you in the long run. (Or, we imagine they would if they could!)