Liz Connor didn’t know what to do. After months of sessions with multiple dog trainers and thousands of dollars spent, she was afraid she would have to euthanize her dog.
Connor, who lives in South Florida, got her Mastiff puppy, Abby, at 11 weeks. From the start, Abby was fearful and skittish. Connor had four Mastiffs previously, so she was familiar with the breed but she had never encountered this problem with any of them.
“Abby was a different dog,” she says.
The vet said Abby would benefit from training and gave Connor a recommendation, but the trainer had no availability in her group class and said the puppy was too old to be trained.
“She told me I missed the window to train Abby,” Connor says.
She found another trainer who worked with Abby for several weeks, but the dog was getting more fearful as time went on. Abby was already almost 60 pounds and was quite strong.
“I was unable to handle her. Every day I was in tears. I was not seeing results and Abby was getting bigger each week. It became a scary situation.”
A third trainer worked with Abby for a while but was not sure what to do. She suggested she use yet another trainer who had more experience with aggressive dogs. That trainer’s plan was to put Abby in a class with other aggressive dogs. To Connor, this seemed like exactly the wrong thing to do, so she found yet another trainer — who had a very heavy hand and even wanted to use a prong collar. The next trainer she found wanted to take Abby away and train her at her home. Things got worse each week.
Connor was almost out of money when two neighbors who rescue dogs told her about trainer Tim Mullally, owner of A Dog’s Best Friend. Mullally was the first trainer certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers in South Florida and is certified by Purdue University in puppy development, problem prevention, and treatment of behavior problems in dogs.
Mullally showed Connor different techniques and a better way to handle Abby. When Abby barked, he used a clicker. He was able to immediately assess the situation, identify the problems, and address the issue calmly.
“Tim had an actual plan for Abby! He was not heavy-handed and Abby responded to him,” Connor says. “Today Abby is a much less fearful dog. I am glad I did not give up, but many people do.”
Just like the fitness and personal training industry, dog training is even more unregulated. Anyone can advertise as a dog trainer, and some even refer to themselves as “animal aggression specialists” after taking only a few courses.
Unfortunately, at many training schools, the requirements for certification at are minimal at best. For example, some programs only require you to take online courses, attend a basic obedience class, and take the class with your dog. That might be fine if you go to work for a training company to gain experience, but many people then go on to open their own companies immediately after graduation and gain experience at the expense of their clients. And their dogs.
Dog trainers are not required to have a special certification — or any training whatsoever. Many times, someone believes she is good with dogs and becomes a trainer. It could be someone who has been around dogs, such as a dog groomer, an owner of a boarding facility, or long-time dog walkers who are looking to segue into a new career.
That worries Mullally.
“I have lived in houses my whole life, but that doesn’t make me a general contractor,” he says. “I have been driving cars for more than 30 years, but that does not make me a mechanic. There are very specific things people should look for in a dog trainer.”
The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers is the only independent certifying body in the industry, but that is still no guarantee of a trainer’s skill. Certification does show a level of completion and commitment but dog parents should not take the certification itself as a measure of quality.
“This industry is ever-changing and quality dog trainers want to learn the latest information. Today, there are international and national conferences, workshops, webinars and much more. Avoid trainers who think they already know all there is to know,” said Mullally.
It is also important to find the right trainer to help your dog with his specific problem. Relevant expertise is important. “A military canine trainer may be able to teach an excellent heel, an obedience competition trainer may be able to teach a beautiful retrieve, but can they help you house-train your Yorkie?” Mullally says.
Above all else, it is essential that a dog trainer use humane training techniques that encourage appropriate behavior through such positive reinforcement like attention, play, praise or food. Food is a big motivator for dogs and a positive training tool makes training fun.
“Training techniques should never involve any action that inflict pain or scare the dog. Yelling, choking, yanking the leash, shaking the scruff, forcing the dog onto his back are all also clear signs of a bad trainer,” Mullally points out. “Some trainers may say they use positive reinforcement, but they praise a dog after ‘correcting’ with a prong or choke collar. Look for a trainer that uses lure-reward-based methods, who train with food. Avoid trainers who require choke chains, pinch or prong collars or electric collars, or any other punishment-based collar.”
Other things to ask when you are looking for a trainer:
Finally, look elsewhere if the trainer is vague or combative when asked about methods or tools.
A reputable trainer has nothing to hide. The fact is, there are no secrets when it comes to dog training, so a trainer or behavior consultant should be willing and able to explain what they do and how they do it.
What has been your experience with hiring a dog trainer? Was it beneficial? Did you try out a couple before decided on one? Let us know in the comments.
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About the author: Jennifer Cohen is a long-time animal advocate. She lives in South Florida with her husband Brian, their human twin daughters Sydney and Alexandria, their dogs Jake and Max, their parrot Sam, and their hamster Elliot, all rescues. Follow her on Twitter.