Resources for Finding a Dog Trainer

In last week’s post, I described some things to consider when choosing a dog trainer for your puppy or adult dog. Here, I’ll provide a few resources to help you locate a suitable trainer.

Professional organization listings

Two professional dog training organizations that I have been involved with have directories of positive trainers. These are a great place to start your search — or continue it if efforts to get recommendations from dog-obsessed friends have failed:

Pet Professionals Guild — This is a 100 percent positive trainer group that is very serious about continuing education. They publish a journal and a blog; have regular webinars, workshops, and conferences, and are a truly dedicated group of professionals.

Their mission statement: The Pet Professional Guild is a membership organization representing pet industry professionals who are committed to results based, science based force-free training and pet care.

APDT (Association of Professional Dog Trainers) — The APDT is dedicated to “least intrusive, minimally aversive” training approach. This is a mostly positive approach that emphasizes humane and effective strategies to change behavior. They offer a ton of resources, have huge (really fun) conferences, and are also very dedicated professionals.

Dog training clubs

Many cities and counties have dog training clubs. These vary widely in their size, philosophy, and what they offer. St. Petersburg, Florida, has a very active club where you can find puppy classes, obedience, Rally, agility, other dog sports, and much more. Google, ask fellow-dog owners, and dig around to see what your city offers.

Shelters

Many shelters offer classes, especially to people who’ve adopted their dogs. But most are open to the community, reasonably priced, and focused on basic manners or obedience.

Ask lots of questions

Whichever path leads you to a potential trainer or class, ask about the approach used and what equipment is recommended. If anyone says to bring a choke or prong collar to your first class, run! If you’re advised to do something that seems off, ask for an explanation. Follow your instincts; your role is to teach and protect your dog. You do not have to hurt him to get him to behave!

Most trainers love to talk dogs. If you have questions about (mis)behavior, problems, or simply are new to dog-parenting, ask, ask, and ask more questions.

Don’t be put off if the trainer suggests more classes. Building a relationship takes work and time. Training classes are a good place to learn what to do. And, realistically, most people don’t practice much between classes, so continuing to attend ensures that you continue to work on behavior problems in a calm place where you have help — which beats yelling at your dog in frustration whenever she does something “bad.” Even “frivolous” classes like trick training and scent work are great for building your relationship, improving communication with your dog, and just having fun together.

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How do you choose the “right” trainer?

A tiny black lab puppy learns to sit on cue
Even very young puppies love to learn

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?

Wrong.

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.

 

How do you choose a boarding facility?

A white golden retriever, Jana, reclines on a sofa
Leave your dog in the lap of luxury when you travel

You’re going on a trip. Hooray!
Your dog isn’t. Now what?

First, consider your options.

You could have a sitter stay at your house. Advantages include less disruption of the dog’s routine — this was my go-to when Jana was elderly and anxious — and it’s convenient. No drop-off or pick-up. But you do need to prepare the house, maybe make up a guest bed, and be prepared for a relative stranger to live in your space. You have to really trust the person.

You could leave the dog at a sitter’s home. This is easy, and often less expensive than a boarding kennel. The dog is likely to get lots of attention (if you’ve chosen your sitter well). You also need to really trust the person.

Some sitters take only one or two dogs at a time, while others board multiple families’ dogs. Find out how many other dogs will be there, and decide whether that will work for your dog. Clarify what exercise and play opportunities the dog will have. Ask about sleeping arrangements, and ask how much time the dog(s) are left home without human supervision.

If these options don’t work for you, you might look at boarding kennels. These range from a few cages at the back of a vet hospital to luxurious pet ranches. The price and the amenities do not always correlate, so visit any place you are considering and ask a lot of questions. Basic, essential questions include:

  • How many dogs are boarded at a time, and how many staffers are on each shift?
  • Is someone on site overnight? If not, what time do they leave? What time do they come in? Does someone come in in the late evening to let the dogs out? Or do the dogs have access to a potty area? Your goal is to find out how many hours the dogs are in their kennels or crates. In some places, it’s 12+ hours!
  • Where do the dogs sleep?
  • What exercise and play opportunities are included? What costs extra?
  • How many hours a day is the dog kenneled / crated?
  • Where do the dogs sleep? Do they have blankets / beds or are they in bare runs?
  • Are they fed their own food or does the kennel feed everyone an in-house food (should be dog’s own diet)?
  • What vet do they call if there’s a problem (should be your own vet)?
  • How are dogs grouped for play? How are they supervised?
  • How do they handle special diets / medication and avoid mistakes?
  • Do they send you updates or photos?

Look at the kennels and play areas. Do they look secure? Kennels should have solid walls and, ideally, be separated. Long rows of mesh fences are a bad sign. Being kenneled right next to other dogs, with no way to “den” or get away from the other dogs’ gaze is very stressful for most dogs.

A kennel I used a long time ago had several small garden sheds set up for the dogs’ sleeping accommodations. Each had its own dog door to its own potty yard, available all night. The dogs were “tucked in” at night by a staffer, who stayed on site overnight. That’s a great setup.

Another kennel I used had regular wire-fenced kennels (not for my dog!) and a few separate rooms. With actual walls. Our dogs could share a room (with no non-family dogs), and have their own bedding. They were away from the chaos and stress of the kennel area. It was still stressful and not ideal, but it was an acceptable solution.

Finding the right place requires doing your homework. You might visit several kennels or interview a half-dozen sitters before choosing. Get recommendations from picky friends if you can. Once you’ve been to a kennel or sitter, pay close attention to your dog’s reaction. Is she dragging you out of there or happily interacting with the staffers while you settle your bill?

Oh, and have a great trip!

 

Can my dog be vegan?

Cali turns away from her food bowl and faces a fence
Cali doesn’t want to be vegan!

I’ve been asked several times whether I think it’s OK to feed a dog a vegan diet. The short answer is that dogs can survive and even thrive on a vegan diet, but it’s not easy and it’s not the optimal diet. Cats cannot be vegan, by the way.

A recent article in Wired addressed this question from the perspective of dog owners’ conflicting beliefs: They are vegan because they oppose using animals for human benefit but they also want to provide the best lives for their dogs (which means letting the dogs eat meat …). I understand the dilemma.

Premium pet food companies understand the dilemma, too. More and more, they are advertising the humane and sustainable nature of the ingredients they use. Is the advertising accurate? I don’t know; my hunch is that some companies are better than others, as with human food producers. Maybe the Whole Dog Journal will add sustainability to its list of criteria in future dog food evaluations (wouldn’t that be great?).

From a nutritional standpoint, I’d advise choosing this path very carefully. Consult with a canine nutritionist or a vet who has studied pet nutrition extensively. That is not a given; many vets take one or no courses on nutrition in vet school and many vet schools receive a lot of funding from large pet-food companies. That is to say, what many vets “know” about nutrition is heavily influenced by the makers of often not very good kibbles. I’ve gotten truly terrible nutritional advice from many otherwise excellent veterinarians.

If your vet is on board and knows a lot about canine nutrition, you can probably work out a vegan or mostly vegan diet that will work for your dog. But it’s not something to do casually; don’t just switch to a vegan food and forget about it. For example, your dog might need more frequent blood work done to test for key nutritional elements, as the recent scares over taurine levels illustrates.

One hypothesis with the many dogs showing low taurine levels is that foods with high levels of vegetable-based proteins and low or no carbohydrates made it harder for the dogs to get full nutritional benefit from the meat-based proteins in those foods. While I haven’t yet seen a definitive answer to that question, it suggests that boosting the amount of plant-based proteins in a dog’s diet has implications beyond whether she’s getting enough protein … which means going vegan or mostly vegan could have health effects that you’re not anticipating, and that even if the dog is a healthy weight and seems to be fine, serious problems could be developing.

So. The long and short answers get us to the same place, which is this: If you’re serious about moving your dog to a more vegan diet, proceed carefully and make sure you’ve got a knowledgeable vet’s supervision and guidance.

 

 

 

How do I provide mental stimulation for my dog?

Cali sleeps on her dog bed, cradling a tennis ball with her paws.
A tired dog is a good dog.

Trainers are great at telling dog owners that their dogs’ “bad” behavior is due to boredom. The trainers might not always be as clear about what those dog owners should do about it.

Many people who have dogs also have jobs. Jobs that actually require them to show up someplace other than their home and work on things other than entertaining the dog. Unreasonable, right? So says Cali.

Fortunately for all of these dogs, a multibillion-dollar industry exists for the sole purpose of convincing us humans to fork over lots of money to purchase toys to entertain our dogs. Toys aren’t the only way to offer mental stimulation to a bored stay-at-home dog. Here are some ideas:

  • Long daily walks — This one is good for both of you! Let the dog sniff to her heart’s content. This could mean the walk takes a long time without covering much ground, but allowing for a smell walk every day — or dedicating part of an exercise walk to smell — will offer your dog more mental stimulation and make the walk much more fun.
  • Doggy daycare or hiking groups — Once or twice a week is enough for many dogs. Being with other dogs offers stimulation. Walking and sniffing in new places also does. Several hours of that can tire even the most indefatigable adolescent.
  • A class — You do have to be present for this one, but a rigorous class can provide mental and physical challenges that burn off some of that excess energy. Look for agility, Rally, nose work, basic manners, even prep for social therapy dog certification. Again, being around other dogs, even if they don’t really interact, is stimulating, as is learning new things. And you can practice for a few minutes each evening, giving you great bonding time with your dog and, you guessed it, challenging him and tiring him out. (Sense a theme here?)
  • Play games based on what you learned in that class — after doing nose work classes with both Jana and Cali, I played hide and seek games where I hid their “bait box,” the scent we used in class, and let them search. It takes only about 10 minutes to do 3-4 searches, and the dogs loved it.
  • Home-schooling — A trainer friend recommends books by Kyra Sundance for simple instructions on teaching your dog fun and easy tricks. It’s great for your relationship (unless you lose your patience …). Offer lots of treats, keep it fun, and keep sessions to about 5 minutes.
  • Treat toys — Last but certainly not least, treat toys are a staple. There’s a huge variety on the market. Some are interactive, which means you have to actually play with the dog … but many can be left with the dog when you go to work. Kongs are the most familiar, and there are literally thousands of “recipes” for stuffing Kongs if you Google it. Try several types and see what your dog likes. Experiment to find stuffings that the dog likes enough that she’ll keep working at the toy until it’s empty, but that she can’t lick clean in 5 minutes or less. Each dog is different: Jana could clean a Kong in seconds flat, but Cali loses interest when it’s still half full.
    A caveat: If you see that the dog is able to easily damage the toy, throw the toy away. You want durable toys that your dog loves but won’t destroy. Leave two or three with the dog when you head out to work in the morning. Hide them to make it even more challenging. If your dog loves treat toys, buy a bunch and rotate them. Keep it interesting. One friend who had two black Labs kept a large bin in her freezer filled with stuffed Kongs and other toys so she always had a supply ready. Inspect them every so often and toss the ones that are cracking, have chunks bitten out, or otherwise seem unsafe.
  • Safe chew toys — Identify safe chew toys and let the dog have access to these all the time. Consumables like rawhide are not safe and the dog should not have those when you are not around to supervise. I use antlers, but I know that there are many opinions on what is safe, ethical, etc. so you’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.

Offering mental stimulation pays off; even if you do the stimulating activities in the evening after work, the dog will be less bored overall. This should result in less destructive behavior. If your dog is young, particularly those 6 months to about 2 or 3 years old, there is no amount of stimulation or exercise that will truly tire him out. But the more acceptable options you offer, the less time the dog will spend destroying your home, shoes, and clothing. (Also: Young, untrustworthy dogs should not have the run of the house when you are not there. But that is a whole separate discussion.)

 

 

If You Use Oral Flea Control — Read This

Red circle with a slash through it over image of a flea and a tick, indicating No Fleas or Ticks.As many readers know, I trust the Whole Dog Journal as a key source of information on dog health and welfare. So when the WDJ issues a warning, I pay attention.

A few days ago, they published this: Hold Off on Those Oral Flea-Killing Medications. This came up just after Dora’s mom sent me a link to the FDA warning. Cali and Dora have both been taking Nexguard.

Cali is lucky to live in Montana, where she does not need heartworm preventive and only needs flea control a couple months of the year (we won’t get into the reasons for WHY that is true, but think cold weather …). That significantly reduces the amount of these nasty chemicals that I have administered to Cali over the year+ that we’ve been in Montana. But not everyone is lucky enough to live in a place that has winter for 8 months a year, so …

Flea control is important, and I am not recommending stopping it completely. I do not have an “answer” — a single recommendation for all dogs. I do have some suggestions, with emphasis on this: What you choose depends on the climate where you live, the prevalence of fleas and ticks, your dog’s reaction to both flea bites and to the different treatments and preventives, and on how much time and effort you are willing and able to invest in keeping your dogs and home flea-free. If your dog is extremely sensitive to flea bites and fleas are abundant where you live, you might opt for stronger methods than if you live in a climate where fleas are less of a problem, for example.

Newer oral flea control products like Nexguard, Bravecto, Credelio, and Simparica are the subjects of the warning. If you are using these, stop doing so until more is known. By “neurologic adverse events,” the warning mostly means seizures, but can also refer to tremors or loss of muscle control, which can mean stumbling or falling. These products are relatively new, and the FDA has received reports of such reactions. Most dogs do not have an adverse reaction, but … there are enough other options for parasite control that why risk it?

Other oral flea preventives, like Trifexis, have their own histories of causing seizures in some breeds of dogs or individuals with a history of epilepsy or other seizures. Comfortis, AcuGuard, and ComboGuard use the same medication as Trifexis. I’ve used Trifexis and Comfortis; I am not thrilled with using strong chemicals on my dogs, but for people who live in, say, Florida, where fleas are a huge problem and many remedies simply don’t work, these are an option.

Prescription topical preventives (Advantage, Advantix, FrontLine) are an option. In many parts of the world, mostly the warm, humid regions, the fleas are resistant to these and the topicals simply do not work. Where they are effective, and if you do not have to use them year-round, they might offer a solution. They have their own problems; they are potent neurotoxins, after all. You need to be careful when you apply them and when disposing of the containers. They are nasty, toxic chemicals. But if relatively easy, spring and summer flea or flea and tick control is needed, at least look into these. Some dogs react badly to these but, unlike with an oral medication, immediate and repeated bathing can reduce this reaction. I don’t recommend the over-the-counter topicals based on bad personal experience (severe reaction in a dog).

A more holistic approach is also a possibility, but this is far more labor-intensive and might not be sufficient in places where fleas and ticks are more prevalent and hardy. This includes regular (1-2 times a week) washing of rugs, pet beds, etc. as well as some combination of natural repellents. Dogs Naturally has some suggestions and warnings in this article: 9 Tips for Safe and Natural Flea Control. Comments at the bottom of the WDJ article mention Neem oil, beneficial nematodes, food-grade diatomaceous earth, and more. I have not tried these and cannot vouch for their effectiveness. Other comments mention amber collars, Only Natural Pet’s flea repellent tags, and Arava natural pet products. Again, no experience with these, though, having looked at the websites, I’d be most inclined to try the Arava products or the Only Natural Pet topical.

I wish there were an easy answer. Think carefully about your dog’s needs and the options for where you live. Please share your experience in comments, especially if you have tried any of the more natural approaches.

 

Are Doggy DNA Tests Worthwhile?

A Puli dog walks on a dirt road.
Is your dog part Puli? Probably not, no matter what the DNA panel says. Creative Commons photo by Rennender

DNA tests started out as a fun way to try to figure out a mixed-breed dog’s genetic makeup. Many people I know who’ve done them have gotten results that made me a little skeptical — high percentages of extremely rare breeds. I am not a geneticist, though, and it all seemed harmless enough.

But.

People are using — and the testing companies are marketing — these tests in two ways that could be very, very bad for dogs: to attempt to predict dogs’ future health problems and to “tailor” behavioral training. And, according to an excellent column in Nature, the tests are extremely inaccurate.

Let’s start with the problem of trying to tailor behavioral training to the supposed mix of breeds in your dog. Your dog is a unique individual. Whether purebred or mixed, each dog’s behavior is affected to some extent by genetic drives — some dogs want to herd everything; some want to chase whatever moves. It’s also enormously affected by personality and experience. Within a breed, within a litter, even, the personalities and drives can be very different.

A good trainer tailors her teaching to the individual dog, of course, but she bases her work on the dog in front of her — not on some possibly wildly inaccurate list of breed percentages. If a dog is half Lab and half German shepherd, do you reward with food half the time, since the shepherd half might not be food focused? Do you use harsher methods half the time if your dog’s ancestry might lie in a military dog line? It’s silly when you start to parse out what it might mean in day-to-day training and life. A smart dog owner will choose a trainer who uses motivational methods tailored to the dog based on her hands-on experience working with that dog.

But a far more dangerous use of these tests is in attempting to predict future illnesses. The Nature article, and these related articles in the Washington Post and the Undark website explain the problems with this in great detail. In sum:

  • The mapping of a single gene mutation to a specific disease is far from foolproof. Genes express themselves differently in different breeds, so a gene that is linked to a condition in one breed might not behave the same way in another breed. And no one really knows what happens in mixed-breed dogs.
  • Having a specific gene mutation might (or might not) increase the risk of a particular disease. Basing a decision to euthanize your dog on very imprecise data, rather than on the actual dog’s health and symptoms, is cruel.
  • People unnecessarily panic when they get the results that show gene mutations — which might be completely meaningless. They pay for — and subject their dogs to — unnecessary, stressful, and expensive tests, which generally don’t tell them anything conclusive anyhow.

The truth is, genetic testing in humans works much the same way … results are often highly inaccurate; they are not predictive; and they could cause people to panic and get unnecessary “treatment” for a disease they think they might get some day. But as an adult, you get to make that choice for yourself. Subjecting your dog to it — or killing him out of fear of what might happen — is horrible!

The testing companies are businesses. They make money by selling you the tests. They also make money by selling the huge amounts of data they collect on test subjects. Veterinary clinics are also businesses, which many people lose sight of. Some vets are ethical and don’t push expensive tests. Others … not so much. Vets can make money by suggesting further testing, special diets that they sell, treatment … there is a definite conflict of interest that can exploit loving pet owners’ worst fears.

So, if you’re curious about whether your pup has some Puli or Xoloitzcuintli in his past (unlikely), go ahead and do the test. Just don’t base decisions about his medical care on the results. Train, and care for, the dog in front of you — his behaviors, his quirks, and his medical symptoms.