How to Find the Perfect Dog Trainer

Finding the right trainer is an often overlooked but crucial first step. Here's how to proceed.


Editor’s note: To celebrate National Train Your Dog Month, we got together with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers to run a series of posts through January. Read the previous articles: “Dog Training Is Important” and “5 Time-Saving Tips for Training Your Dog.”

If you’re like many dog owners, you may be dealing with a barking Beagle or digging Dachshund, or even an anxious Afghan. You are probably frustrated and overwhelmed. Perhaps you’ve tried a few things, read a few (of the million!) books out there, or even talked to a few pet professionals. It seems everywhere you turn there’s a different (and often conflicting) piece of advice.

In my years working in shelters and training pet dogs, one of the most common questions I’m asked is how to find a great trainer. Seems simple enough, right? Well, if you’ve ever Googled “dog trainer,” you know it’s not simple at all. In fact, the dog training industry is growing every day.

What’s more, many dog owners don’t realize that if you know the difference between a dog and a butterfly, you can start charging for dog training services. There are no regulations, licensing, skills, or knowledge required — and the more trainers there are, the harder it is to find a good one.

So here are a few tips to get you off on the right paw.

First, ask yourself these questions: Is anyone in your household feeling frustrated? Have you tried training on your own, but aren’t getting the results you want? Have you considered giving up your dog?

If you answered yes to any of these, you need a pro. Many issues can be resolved by training the dog yourself — but it can be incredibly helpful to have outside eyes on your situation, and sometimes just a simple tip or brief session will get you on your way. However, severe cases like anxiety or aggression should only be handled by a professional behaviorist.

So, how can you fetch the perfect trainer?

First, get some names

There are several ways to find trainers:

  • Use APDT Trainer Search and Google
  • Ask local pet professionals, including veterinarians, animal shelters, rescues, humane societies, groomers, pet sitters, dog walkers. Be aware: Some referrals may only be based on stacks of cards at the front counter.
  • Ask dog-loving friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors who they’ve worked with.

Now, interview your prospects

After you’ve perused the potential trainer’s site or resources, email or call them to ask the following questions:

1. “Do you use primarily reward-based training?”

If they say no or insist that technique doesn’t work, or claim that rewards are “bribes” or cause obesity, move on. Such trainers do not understand modern, effective animal learning and behavior modification, and are not up to date on nationally accepted and recommended standards.

Techniques based in dominance training or pack dynamics — or that rely on harsh, painful, or forceful methods — are no longer recommended by good trainers. Check out APDT’s “How to Choose a Good Dog Trainer.”

2. “May I contact past clients who experienced problems similar to mine?”

You should be able to access past clients for references. However, if you have a specific need (such as anxiety), be sure to ask to speak to references that had similar needs to yours. Talking to someone who worked on on-leash walking won’t necessarily indicate that the trainer is suited to handling anxiety. If a trainer refuses to let you speak to past clients, kindly thank them for their time and hang up.

3. “May I watch you train?”

If you are looking for a group class, you should certainly be allowed to watch. Private sessions may be trickier, as clients may not want a stranger to come to their home to watch, but you should be able to see your trainer in action in some way.

4. “Can you guarantee results?”

If the trainer says yes, move on. The truth is, it is impossible and unreasonable to guarantee results, when so many unknown variables exist. Success depends on the trainer, communication, the dog, time, and YOU.

If the trainer fails to inquire about your dog’s veterinary history, that’s another red flag.

5. “Do you pursue continuing education? Are you a member of any professional organizations? What certifications do you have?”

While none of this is required, it is relevant. If your potential trainer says no to all three questions, she may not be familiar with new techniques, tools, and practices in dog training.

It’s also a red flag if your trainer makes medical, dietary, or holistic suggestions without consulting with a veterinarian.

For additional tips, check out my book Fetching the Perfect Dog Trainer: Finding the Best for You and Your Dog, which will guide you step by step through this process.

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