So, you’ve got a new puppy, or a newly adopted dog — or you just want to work on some behavior or other things with your dog. How do you find the “right” or “best” trainer?
Get recommendations … but use caution. Ask a lot of questions. Ask both the person recommending the trainer and the trainer:
What approach does the trainer use?
Is it a clicker trainer, a mostly dog sports or competition oriented trainer, an obedience trainer, a trainer who works with all kinds of dog/human teams from pets to service dogs to dog sports nuts?
Trainers who use mostly or entirely positive methods are the best choice for most dogs — certainly for puppies — and for most people. A trainer who is expert in a specific type of training is a good choice for advanced training.
When you are just getting to know your dog, the focus should be on building a connection and communicating. A positive trainer will help you develop skills in communicating to the dog what you want her to do and also in understanding your dog’s communication with you. That is the best foundation for your relationship.
A more “traditional” or obedience focused trainer might introduce punishments for “bad” behavior — things the dog does that you don’t like. At any point in your relationship, but especially at the beginning, this has the effect of cutting off communication with the dog. The dog begins to worry about what might trigger the next punishment. Often, you’ve given the dog little or no (or very unclear) information about what you do want her to do. On the other hand, when she does perfectly normal doggy things, like having accidents, if she’s a young puppy, or eating some interesting smelling thing, unpleasant and scary things happen. This does not build trust.
Red flags to look out for: Trainers who advocate using harsh tools, like prong collars, on puppies or very early in training; trainers who routinely use shock collars or who expect you to use them for an extended period of time (more than 1-2 uses); trainers who emphasize the need to “be the alpha.”
Does the person do classes, private training, or board-and-train? A combination?
You may have preferences for a class vs. private; board-and-train might sound tempting. Think through the options.
For a puppy, a great combination is a puppy play with short training classes. The opportunity to play with other puppies in a supervised, appropriate (size, age, play style) group is essential to developing good doggy social skills.
If you have an older dog, classes and private training are good options. Private training is ideal for focused work on a specific problem. Classes that focus on reactive dogs or trick training or scent training or some other fun or serious topic can also be helpful. It’s good to see how other dogs and their humans do things, it’s fun to meet the other people and make connections. General manners or basic obedience classes, Canine Good Citizen training, or classes geared toward teaching manners for dogs who are out and about with their humans are all fun and helpful. They tend to focus on things that every dog needs to learn: walking nicely on leash, staying calm around other dogs and people, not jumping, settling quietly. Your options may be limited, depending on where you live, but I hope you can find something that works.
Board-and-train might be a good choice for some adult dogs for some types of training. I do not recommend it with puppies because the puppy should be forming her primary bond with you / your family — not with a trainer. Obviously it can work; many service and guide dogs spend their puppyhoods with families and then transfer their bond to their new partner. But given the choice, I think your new puppy belongs with you.
Choosing board-and-train to work on a specific problem or if you need to leave your dog for a time period anyhow (maybe during a 2-week no-dog vacation) could work out well — if you are realistic in your expectations.
The trainer, likely an experienced professional (choose carefully), will probably make a lot of progress with the dog during the training weeks. But when you get back, you and the dog have made no progress at all. That is, the dog has no reason to behave any differently with you in your home environment than she did before you left.
Many dog owners mistakenly assume that the trainer imparts knowledge to the dog and the dog then knows exactly what to do in similar situations from that time forward.
For example, your dog goes nuts when she sees another dog, a squirrel, or a cat when you’re out for walks. The trainer spends 2 weeks working on this, and is able to walk the dog calmly through a park filled with squirrels, cats, and other dogs out for walks or even playing off leash. So you’ll have no more problems, right?
Your dog is going to go just as nuts with you as she did before the training, unless and until you work with her to change that.
The trainer has taught your dog an alternative behavior, but the dog still needs to learn that she has to use that behavior with you. That requires undoing an established pattern (the dog going nuts, you freaking out …) and learning a new one. This will be much easier since the dog has already learned the new pattern, but…
Board and train is not a replacement for work, lots of hard work, with your dog.
I’ll cover more trainer-selection criteria in another post.