My Checklist for Those of You in the Market for a Dog Trainer

Is it overkill to come up with a Bill of Rights for dog training? I think not! Take this list with you when vetting dog trainers for your pup.


Dogs sometimes get the short end of the training stick, when in reality no stick is ever needed to properly and humanely train a dog. I am currently experiencing all the trials and tribulations myself of training a puppy — a highly dog-reactive German Shepherd puppy named Trinket. I am helping her through positive reinforcement training and behavior modification, but we face challenges every day. No matter what behavior she exhibits, it’s my job to teach her better behavior in a humane way that makes sense to her.

I can’t speak for dogs, of course, but I can speak as a professional trainer in terms of what works in dog training and what doesn’t. The next time you are looking for a trainer, take in these Bill of Rights, hand them to your trainer, and ensure that your dog’s needs are met. Why? Because it’s up to you to be the guardian for your dog.

Here’s my dog-training Bill of Rights:

1. Training shall not physically hurt the dog

If you are hurting your dog or causing it to fear learning from you, you are doing it wrong. Training should be fun and not boring for the owner or the dog. Humans don’t like to learn while in a state of fear, and neither do dogs. It’s counterproductive and ruins the trust in your relationship with the most trusting animal on the planet.

I recently worked with two brother Australian ShepherdBorder Collie puppies. Their tails were cruelly cut off without anesthesia while tied down, and this resulted in extreme leash phobia — they associated being restrained with serious bodily pain. I worked with their new owner for three months and we successfully acclimated these brothers and changed their opinion of what a leash means.

Had we mistakenly believed that these dogs were challenging us and vying for a leadership position in our “pack” instead of abating their real behavior — abject fear — we would have made their problems much, much worse.

2. Do not allow a trainer, veterinarian, or your Uncle Pete to harm your dog in the name of “training”

Just because your buddy watches a TV (entertainment) show about dog training, that does not mean he has a complete understanding of canine behavior or how dogs learn. It’s like watching the show Ice Road Truckers and then declaring yourself to be an expert big truck driver. Invest time in reading the oodles of quality information at Dogster that explain how dogs learn. Hint: It’s not by throwing the dog to the ground to show it who’s da boss.

3. Determine what truly motivates your dog

It’s not always food, and love isn’t a strong enough motivator to allow your dog to read your mind. If your dog takes off after that talkative squirrel in the tree, it’s not a problem of love; it’s a problem of training. You have so many great things to use to motivate your dog! Here are just a few that go beyond food: Frisbees, tennis balls, jumping into a pond, peeing on a fire hydrant, greeting another friendly dog on a walk, getting petted, getting praised, getting to sniff that prairie dog hole …

Use the concept of the Premack Principle, which states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. This translates like so: Dog wants to pee on the fire hydrant, but first he gives you a lovely sit-stay for 20 seconds. Then you free him and take him directly to the hydrant and let him do his business. You’re happy, he’s happy, and the only thing that may not be happy is the fire hydrant.

4. Understand that your dog did not come to you knowing basic commands

Don’t stand above your dog and say over and over: “Sit, Fido. Sit. Sit. Sit. SIT!!” Use food or toys to at first lure the dog into a sit if necessary. Do not shove your dog into a sit. Shoving an animal is not quality training, but it is a good demonstration of human frustration. You can lure a sit with food, capture with a clicker, praise like a maniac or give a toy for a job well done. You shall from this day forward retire the human practice of screaming a human word at a dog.

When I am teaching a new behavior (which I do with a clicker and food), I do not name the behavior until I get many repetitions of that behavior from the dog. Let’s take a trick like “shake” for example. It would do me and the dog little good to sit in front of the dog and repeat over and over again: “Shake. Shake. Shake. SHAKE DAMN YOU!” Instead, I might lure the dog’s paw up and click for any movement off the ground, or I could capture this behavior if the dog offers it. I get the paw up in the air — click and treating many times — before I ever put the word “shake” onto the action.

5. Never forget that dogs are not four-legged humans

They need different things than human babies, such as great chew toys that may gross us out or a good roll in something smelly. They need daily exercise. They need mental stimulation. They need to be free to be a dog.

Understand your dog’s needs and meet them daily. Dogs, for example, do not just need exercise on Saturdays. Dogs don’t need cute clothes or bejeweled collars — they need your time, attention, and love, and they need to be able to stretch their legs every day. It is not enough to put them in your backyard and let them romp with another dog. That’s like what prisoners get the one hour a day they are allowed out of their cell.

6. Thou shalt not call your dog “stupid”

If your dog isn’t figuring out what you need it to do or not to do, use your above-average human brain and figure out how you can communicate better with an animal who has no words to communicate with. If your dog isn’t getting something you are trying to teach her, pick up a mirror. Look into said mirror. The image you see looking back at you is both the problem and the solution. We say we are the smartest animal on earth. Do you believe this is true? Then you are given daily opportunities to prove it as you train your best friend.

If you get stuck somewhere in your training, call in a professional positive-reinforcement trainer sooner than later. Canine problems tend to expand without human leadership and guidance. It’s perfectly fine to bring in a professional. It’s not fine to ignore the problem or blame your dog or call him ugly names.

7. Owners shall not expect their dog to love all other dogs

Do you like every person you meet? Not all dogs must meet and greet every dog they see. Some dogs are terrified of greeting other canines. Dogster trainers have written about this topic a lot because it is so vital. This goes hand-in-hand with the golden commandment of keeping your dog on-leash in areas where leashes are required. Hint: Leashes are required just about everywhere you go with your dog. They can save your dog from a fight or even a deadly run-in with a vehicle.

8. Owners shall not allow children to climb on dogs, pull on canine body parts, or be unsupervised with a dog — ever

Yes, that’s right: Never allow your young child to be with your dog without your attention on both of them. Teach your child proper dog handling, which does not involve pulling, tugging, hugging or squeezing any part of the dog. If your child wants to do any of these things, please hand the child a stuffed dog.

9. Before you give up on training your dog, check with a vet

Owners shall rule out any potential medical concern that may be inhibiting their dog’s training patterns. If you feel physically sick, are you are your best to learn new behaviors? Neither is your dog. They can look stoic but still feel terrible, so first rule out a medical problem if you detect something is not connecting with your dog.

10. Owners shall extend unconditional love to their dogs because dogs do that for us

Isn’t that fair that we do the same for them? Dogs put up with our bad moods, our family strife, our hating Mondays — all of our trials and tribulations no matter how big or small they seem to us. Can’t we extend some unconditional love to our best animal friends? You say that Fido ate your couch while you were at work? Don’t blame the dog any more than you would blame the couch. Crate train your dog or put him in a part of your house where he doesn’t have access to that yummo couch AND give him plenty of approved items to chew on. Dogs have teeth, after all, and most need to gnaw on things.

We humans can learn a lot from dogs, and the most important lesson of all is unconditional love. This doesn’t mean love without boundaries. It means love with clear, fairly explained boundaries, and it means accepting that a dog has different behaviors than our own human ones. It means we love our dogs enough to recognize that it falls on us to teach them our world and our requirements.

About Annie Phenix: Positive-reinforcement dog trainer and author Annie Phenix never met a mountain she did not love, which explains why she lives in Durango, Colorado, and while she is always smiling since she is surrounded by mountains. She delights in the snowy season here, as do her five dogs, two horses, and six adorably cute donkeys.

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