How Do I Find a Good Dog Trainer?

A prong collar
When choosing a trainer, ask what equipment they recommend.

New dog, adolescent dog, older dog who has suddenly started doing something you cannot live with … when people need a trainer, where should they turn?

First, a caveat: If an adult dog’s behavior changes suddenly — uncharacteristic aggression, for example, see your vet to rule out any underlying health issues before deciding it’s a training issue.

I can make specific recommendations locally, where I know several excellent trainers. But more generally, here’s what I would suggest:

  • Look at the trainer’s credentials. Anyone can advertise as a dog trainer. In a recent review of trainers in one area, nearly all of the websites I looked at gushed about the “trainer’s” love for animals and how they had dogs their whole lives. So what? That doesn’t make you a qualified trainer. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers has widely recognized certifications that check knowledge or (much better but far less common) check knowledge and skills. A number of small or locally focused programs teach people training skills and knowledge; the APDT website has a helpful matrix comparing these.
  • Look at professional memberships. Organizations like APDT (Association of Professional Dog trainers) and PPG (Pet Professionals Guild) require that people meet specific criteria to become professional members. While membership alone does not guarantee that the trainer has specific knowledge or skills, it does show that they care enough to learn and to jump through a few hoops more stringent than setting up a website or getting a business license.
  • Trainers who also have some education on animal behavior and psychology get bonus points, especially for complex issues like aggression or anxiety.

When you’ve identified one or more possible trainers, interview them. Ask what their training approach is and what, if any, equipment they recommend. Avoid anyone who talks about “being the alpha” or showing the dog who’s boss. If a trainer tells you to put a prong collar on your puppy, run the other way. If you’re having a specific issue, such as high prey drive or excessive anxiety, ask about their experience with that problem. If they offer classes, ask if you can watch one.

Other resources to consider:

  • Local dog training clubs — these can be wonderful or very disappointing. You might find a great selection of classes from trainers with broad-ranging experience. If there’s one where you live, it’s worth a visit.
  • Recommendations from your local humane society or pet rescue — there might even be classes onsite, and shelter trainers are likely to have experience with dogs with a wide range of issues.
  • Recommendations from friends with well-trained dogs — be careful here; your dog’s needs may be very different and your friend’s trainer might not be a good fit. But it’s certainly a place to start.

Notice that I am not suggesting that your vet is a great resource. She might be. She might not. As with nutrition, behavior and training are not areas where vets tend to get a lot of education — unless they specifically seek it out. Some do; many do not. If your vet is also a certified animal behavior expert then by all means, consult with her. Otherwise, she might not know any more about the local trainers or what would help your dog (behaviorally) than you do.

When you choose a trainer, pay close attention to your dog’s reaction as well as your gut feelings about how the first lesson(s) unfold. If your dog seems scared, don’t go back. I remember a friend telling me once that her dog ran and hid whenever the trainer came over. Clear sign that that was not the right trainer! And, obviously, if you don’t feel like you are making progress after several meetings, you might need to look for someone else. There are lots of great trainers out there, but it might take a few tries to get the right match for you, your dog, and the specific issues you need to resolve.

Is It My Fault if My Dog Is Overweight?

Golden retriever Cali eats an ice-cream cone.Yes.

That may be a little harsh. A recent Whole Dog Journal article on dog obesity is a little kinder to the dog owners, apportioning blame between the dog and the human. But … the humans control access to the dog’s food, so I lean toward blaming the humans. And, since multiple studies have reported that half or more of the pet dogs in the US are overweight, we need to address this problem.

Obesity can reduce your dog’s already-too-short lifespan by as much as three years.

The WDJ article describes a study of pet owners who are involved with feeding their pets. Nearly 80% of the respondents were women aged 50 or older. Hmm. Many said they determined the amount to feed their dogs “based on perceptions of their dogs’ body weight” and most of the rest by following the feeding guidelines on the dog food packaging or their vet’s recommendations.

Those are not reliable methods. Most dog foods recommend giving more food than a dog needs. It’s a vicious cycle, too. If your dog weighs 60 lbs. and you feed the amount recommended for a 60-lb. dog, you think you’re doing the right thing. But… maybe your dog should weigh 50 or 55 lbs. See the problem? And, many people’s perceptions of what their dogs should weigh are skewed.

For instance, Cali, who is a svelte and very fit 56 lbs, looks thin to many people who are accustomed to seeing fat golden retrievers. Because most golden retrievers in the US are fat. Very fat.

I’ve checked in with my vet on Cali’s diet and weight. She once gave me calorie-based guidelines for feeding Cali and, when I looked at the amount of food I’d need to give Cali to meet them, I was horrified. I would have had to almost double what I was feeding Cali. But at the same time she was recommending this enormous amount of food, the vet also agreed that Cali’s weight was fine.

Piling on …

Dogs aren’t much help in this. It’s hard enough to figure out what and how much regular old dog food to give your dog. But the dog then starts asking for other food … your food. And treats.

Dogs are excellent at manipulating humans, as you may have noticed. They are especially adept at convincing us to feed them. They use gaze, nudges, sometimes even whining or barking … The study took note of this: “The data suggest that dogs may have significant influence in overriding their owners’ self-discipline,” it says, with great understatement.

What’s a dog parent to do?

That is the key question.

Start with knowing what your dog’s healthy weight looks and feels like. This chart can help:

Chart shows range of dogs and cats from too thin to obese

When you pet your dog, you should be able to feel her ribs, but there should be a little fat on them. And her hip bones should not stick out. But if your dog feels like an upholstered sofa … well.

Then, watch her diet. And her treat intake. What you’re feeding matters as much as the quantity. I’m pretty fussy about dog treats (not to mention dog food). I don’t buy anything at the supermarket for Cali other than eggs, Greek yogurt, sardines, and occasional bags of wonderful local / homemade dog cookies … large cookies that I break into 4 or 5 small pieces.

A treat for Cali is about the size of a quarter. She rarely gets an entire large biscuit. And no, she does not feel deprived (yeah, right …). She loves getting a jackpot of 5 or 6 little, high quality treats, which happens when she does something really great (like put all of her toys back into their basket). She gets a handful of very small treats in her snuffle mat almost every day. She gets several more when I brush her or tackle her nails or ears. And of course on special occasions, she gets a doggy cone or even (birthdays only) a small dish of ice cream!

Does she want more treats? Of course she does! So do I!

Cali makes frequent, persuasive pitches for her “fair share” of whatever I happen to be eating, for example. She’s convinced me that I should share my eggs and yogurt, and she’s a helpful and efficient dish-washer. We frequently negotiate over small bites of pizza crust. But overall, her treat intake is moderate.

Take a hike

The other piece of the equation is, of course, exercise.

Cali and I walk two or three times a day. We play ball. She swims. We go for a long hike at least once a week. When she was an adolescent, she ran and played a lot more — and got more food and treats. A very active dog could have more food or treats, while a dog whose exercise consists of walking to the back yard a few times a day, taking care of business, and walking back to the house … may need to be a little more careful.

I’m sure none of this is a huge surprise. The hardest piece of watching your dog’s weight is being honest about what she weighs vs. what she should. That and facing down that stare every time you’re eating something yummy.

image of golden retriever with the message "every snack you make, every bite you take, I'll be watching you"

 

How Clean Are Dogs’ Paws?

a dog paw and two human hands connect
My paws are clean. Are yours?

A common objection heard from people who dislike (or fear) dogs and don’t want to allow dogs to enter their space is that dogs are dirty.

In response to too-frequent denials of access to assistance dog teams, some researchers in The Netherlands decided to check into this contention. “The main argument for denial of access is that dogs compromise hygiene with their presence, which could cause a health hazard. Meanwhile, people are allowed to walk into and out of public places freely,” they wrote.

They recruited volunteers — 25 assistance dog teams and 25 pet dog / human pairs. The volunteer dogs and humans took 15-30 minute walks together, then allowed the researchers to collect samples from their paws and the soles of their shoes (respectively). The researchers tested the samples for Enterobacteriaceae (a common cause of hospital infections), Clostridium difficile, and other bacteria.

And guess what?

The dogs’ feet showed significantly less bacterial contamination than the people’s shoes. “The general hygiene of dog paws is better than that of shoe soles,” the report concludes. They speculate that dogs’ habit of grooming themselves, including their feet, could be the reason — even people who remove their shoes before going into their own homes rarely clean the soles of their shoes. Dog saliva contains high levels of “antimicrobial substances,” the study says.

In addition, some people routinely clean their dogs’ paws upon returning home. I do that if we’ve been walking where people have used snow-melt chemicals or lawn “greening” chemicals or if Cali is excessively wet and muddy.

To be fair, dirty paws are not the only reason that people think that dogs will bring dirt into their houses or businesses. I haven’t found a study that compares the amount of biological ick (yup, that’s the scientific term) humans shed vs. dogs but … I suspect that goldens and labs would not come out on top. Then there are the drooly breeds … Let’s quit while we’re ahead.

What Happens When a Service Dog Retires?

Yellow Lab Ryan and Black lab Koala relax in a play tunnel
Ryan, left, and Koala, enjoyed a short vacation in Florida just before Ryan’s 2020 retirement.

When a service or guide dog is no longer able or willing to work, what happens?

Many of them stay with their families, living a life of leisure, enjoying many belly rubs, and watching some young whippersnapper do “their” job. Poorly, of course.

But not all people who partner with service or guide dogs can keep their retired partners. There are many reasons for this: Some are elderly folks or people who live on a very tight budget, and they simply cannot care for a second dog. Some are busy professionals who travel frequently and feel that they owe their retired dog a better life than frequent stays at a kennel and long, lonely days while they — and the new dog — head to work. Sometimes a guide or service dog retires because their partner dies or becomes seriously ill.

Whatever the reason, the guide or service dog’s partner or family often looks for a retirement home for the dog. Often extended family eagerly step up: Deni’s first guide, Oriel, spent a couple of years with family in Indiana before moving to Florida to live with us. Alberta, who retired young due to an eye tumor, lives with Deni’s nephew & family, including her new charge — a human puppy!

If family placement is not an option, many guide dog partners ask dog-savvy friends and acquaintances; I was a finalist in the retirement-home search for a Guiding Eyes dog recently, but the dog opted to stay closer to her partner rather than move to Montana (her loss …).

When neither of those options works out, guide and service dog schools generally place the dog with someone on their extensive waiting lists. These are usually volunteers, donors, puppy raisers (perhaps even that dog’s puppy raisers!), or others with ties to the school.

The dogs never end up panhandling for cookies or living under a bridge somewhere.

Do Dogs Miss Their Friends?

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back
I miss my sister (sometimes)

Koala and Deni left Montana a few weeks ago, and recently a friend asked me whether Cali misses Koala. He then jumped to the next level and asked whether dogs understand that someone has left temporarily versus having “crossed the rainbow bridge.”

Those are pretty big existential questions for dogs to consider, but I think they are up to the challenge.

First, does Cali miss Koala? I think that she misses Deni more and that there are lots of aspects of being an only dog that Cali thoroughly enjoys. Cali has regular play dates with her pal Maisy — and the two of them play better together than the pack of three did. Cali always gets to choose where we walk, as well as where we stop so she can sniff. She gets all of the dog eggs at breakfast and can have her snuffle mat whenever she wants (within reason).

But yes, I think she does miss Koala. Life is quieter and more boring when Koala is not here, and Cali rarely has a playmate. Not that Koala is always the nicest playmate, but the girls do often have a lot of fun together. When Koala is not pulling on Cali’s tail, that is, or scheming to steal her treat ball.

I also think that Cali understands that Koala and Deni have gone somewhere else — and will come back. Cali goes to the airport to see them off; they are healthy; and, I am guessing, Koala lords it over Cali for days before a trip: I get to go on an airplane and I get eggs in the Delta lounge and I get to meet the security team … that kind of thing. Cali knows that Koala isn’t simply ghosting her.

When Jana died after a period with many health problems, Cali’s reaction was completely different. She knew that Jana was gone. She cried and moped and grieved for days.

So, yes, I think dogs do understand different types of separations and have appropriate reactions to temporary versus permanent ones. Though if she did think that Koala was ghosting her, I do not know what an appropriate reaction would look like …

Can Dogs Get (or Transmit) COVID-19?

Several weeks ago, some alarm followed reports of a dog in Hong Kong that seemed to carry the novel coronavirus.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot, but not nearly enough, about this highly contagious virus.

Can dogs carry the virus and transmit it to their humans? Can dogs get sick with it?

  • The CDC states that there is no evidence that pets have become infected from contact with infected humans, but recommends good hygiene around pets (of course!); a small number of pets have been found to test positive after contact with an infected person, but there is no known pet-to-human transmission of COVID-19. Find more info from the CDC on COVID-19 and pets on their FAQ.
  • There is also no evidence that humans can or have gotten COVID-19 from pets.
  • It does not seem to sicken dogs.
  • There is some evidence that cats and ferrets might transmit the virus to other cats / ferrets, but that was in “lab experiments in which a small number of animals were deliberately given high doses of the virus” and not cause for alarm; that information is from a recently published, not peer-reviewed, study.

In any case, humans who are infected should limit interactions with pets as well as with other humans and wash their hands frequently.

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.

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.