Dog training can easily run upwards of $2,000 depending on where you live, the nature of the problems you’re experiencing, and the type of training necessary. In many cases, people are making a large investment in their dog’s future and the trainer’s expertise. With the high cost of training, and the even higher cost of working with a “bad” trainer, finding a dog trainer that is the right fit is extremely important.
The highly competitive nature of the dog training industry means lots of choices for consumers, but the fact that the industry is so unregulated can also create confusion and difficulty when trying to compare all these choices—there are very few apples-to-apples comparisons. That’s why, while price should be one factor you consider, it’s so important to find out what you’re really getting for the price you’re paying, and also understand if what you’re getting will even effectively address your dog’s behavior problems.
Prior to selecting a trainer, it’s important to do your homework and Find a Training Approach that’s Right for You. Once you’ve done some training method research and “soul searching,” it’s time to consider the specific trainer you’ll be working with. Below are some things to think about when considering that person.
What do you want to accomplish with your dog?
Are you serious about instilling solid obedience training or are you viewing it as more of a social experience for your dog, or learning experience for your children? Your ultimate training goals have a big impact on the training environment best suited for you. As with many things in life, you typically “get what you pay for” when it comes to obedience training.
If you are serious about training or have a specific behavior problem to work through, look for a trainer that offers private lessons, residency training (aka “boot camp”) or in-home day training. These options provide the most one-on-one and/or hands-on work with the trainer with the fewest distractions, creating an ideal environment for real learning and behavior modification to take place.
If you are taking a more casual approach to training, have a puppy or a young dog without any major behavior problems, a group class might be more your speed. You won’t get a lot of personal help, you’ll be expected to do the bulk of the training and trouble-shooting on your own at home, and there will be a lot of distractions, but your dog will get the chance to be around other dogs in a relatively controlled environment. This option is usually less expensive.
Where do you want to invest your money?
There are lots of different dog training companies and models out there, including franchises; small, local businesses, and big box retailers that simply offer training among the myriad of other products and services they host. Some training companies, like Bark Busters and Sit Means Sit, are franchises, meaning there’s a larger umbrella company pulling the strings. This could result in certain limitations on the training that’s available from the company. When considering a franchise, make sure you read reviews about your local trainer and not a franchise from a different city or state as customer experience may vary drastically.
The classes at big box retailers are simply another avenue for that corporation to make money off you since you’re already there to buy pet supplies, have your dog groomed, vaccinated, or boarded. While each trainer is an individual and some may have more experience, for the most part, they are ill-equipped to handle dogs with behavior problems and must follow the company’s policy for dealing with such dogs. Dogs exhibiting anything outside of completely normal behavior are often excused from these classes.
As the owner of my own small, local dog training business, I encourage you to find a local trainer. Regardless of the industry, small businesses value each individual customer much more than big corporations or franchises, and spending money on small, local businesses puts the money back into your neighborhood. It’s imperative to small business owners to make their customers happy so that you recommend their business to others, since word-of-mouth advertising and organic growth is what small companies largely rely on to sustain themselves. As the owner of my business and also the trainer in the field, I have 100% control over all aspects of my business, meaning I can make whatever adjustments necessary, especially if it means earning your business and making you a satisfied customer.
Sit in on a class and/or visit the facility
I’ve seen some places online say that if you can’t sit in on a training class you should disregard the trainer because they probably have something to hide. This is probably not the case 99% of the time. Many trainers (including Paws n Motion) don’t offer group classes either because there’s no commercial facility, or because they simply feel it’s not the most conducive environment in which to teach a dog. That said, you should get the opportunity to meet the trainer, get full disclosure about the training approach, see a demonstration with a dog the trainer worked with, and ask questions prior to making a big financial commitment.
Can the dog trainer provide a “sample” of their work?
Many trainers have testimonials posted on their websites, some tout decades of experience, the number of dogs trained and AKC titles received, and some march out the local customer satisfaction awards they’ve earned (however prestigious). These are endorsements, but they ultimately don’t tell you what you can expect for your dog. Request the trainer perform a demonstration with a dog they’ve trained (this will likely be their own dog). If the trainer cannot or will not do this, keep on looking.
If the trainer is willing to do a demo:
Find out how long the dog has been in training so you know the level of precision to expect; a dog on his second week of training should look different than a dog on his second year.
Many dogs are fluent in hand signals and verbal commands; request the trainer use verbal commands so you can follow the action. If the dog and trainer are communicating with hand signals alone and you don’t know what they mean, it’s easy enough for the trainer to cover up a mistake.
Is the dog in a “working” frame of mind when he’s in command, focused on the trainer and responsive, or is he clowning around? Remember, this is how your dog will look if you work with this person.
Does the dog generally appear upbeat and cooperative? The dog’s demeanor should be one of willingness and enthusiasm for the work rather than a dog that is performing begrudgingly, appears “coerced”, or appears to be overly “busy.”
If the dog is not responsive and knows the commands, how does the trainer correct the dog’s mistakes? What tools is the trainer using (e.g., leash, training collar, remote collar, treats) and are you comfortable and willing to use those same tools with your own dog?
Does the trainer interact with you in a way that puts you at ease and promotes productive communication?
The trainer will have to train YOU at some point so it’s imperative that you feel comfortable learning from this person and you trust their expertise. If there’s something about the person that rubs you the wrong way, keep on looking. It will be difficult if not impossible to learn from someone you find to be unpleasant or difficult to communicate with.
Does the trainer perform an evaluation prior to beginning training and if so, what kinds of questions do they ask?
While a preliminary evaluation may seem like an inconvenience, especially when you can go down to your local PetSmart and sign up for one of their classes in the time it takes to finish reading this paragraph, it is actually a service to you that the trainer understand your unique concerns about your dog’s behavior.
Topics typically covered in a preliminary evaluation include medical history, specific behavior concerns, previous training, how the dog interacts with other people and animals in the family, where the dog sleeps and eats, etc. A trainer that prefers not to do an evaluation or does so but spends most of the time pitching their method speaks volumes about how they perceive their clients–not as unique individuals but rather a singular problem that requires one solution.
Does the trainer interact with dogs in a way that you’re comfortable with?
There may be little to no interaction between your dog and the trainer during the initial evaluation, especially if your dog is hyperactive, aggressive or anxious. In fact, sometimes the most appropriate way to interact with a dog is to NOT interact with them so as not to elicit or reinforce the unwanted behavior-and you’d like your future trainer to recognize this!
Even if your dog and the trainer do not interact, you can gauge their feelings towards your dog based on the way they talk about them. Is the trainer distancing herself from your dog by using a clinical lexicon or are they using plain English to discuss the issues? Are they referring to your dog by name or as a “case?” Are they remembering details that are important to you? All of these small details can help you intuit how the trainer will interact with you and your dog down the road.
What techniques do they use, are they effective, and how fast do they achieve results?
No one has conducted a controlled, scientific study to definitively say if one training method is more effective, humane, or efficient, than another. Anyone that refers to such a study is not being 100% truthful. Much of the cited scientific “evidence” is anecdotal, usually a trainer’s observations. Dogs have different personalities, sensitivities, and behavior problems and may learn better under different circumstances and using different training approaches. Each person has different behavior standards and training tool preferences, and will find it easier or more comfortable to use one method or tool over another.
Regardless of method, any trainer you choose should have a solid understanding of dog behavior and psychology, and understand how to read a dog’s body language and be willing to make adjustments in their handling and approach. For more information about different training methods and how they impact training results, read “Finding a Training Approach that’s Right for You.”
What is the trainer’s educational background?
Because there is no national licensure* that recognizes dog trainers, it’s important that you do your homework when selecting a trainer. Formal education (including continuing education via seminars, workshops etc.) and experience are two of the most important factors in shaping an effective dog trainer. Some common avenues for becoming a trainer are:
Apprenticeship with an established trainer. Ideally the person will have spent a considerable amount of time (a year or more) assisting and shadowing a well-established, proven trainer. Dig a little deeper as some people attend a weekend seminar with a well-known trainer and then claim to have “studied” with that individual.
Home study and hobbyists. These folks have taught themselves out of books and (hopefully) personal experience with their own dogs and other friends and family member’s dogs. They might have started out as casual enthusiasts or hobbyists and eventually made a career and/or earned a certification.*
A school for dog trainers. There are smaller privately run courses across the country, but two of the largest and best-recognized schools are National K-9 in Columbus, Ohio, and Triple Crown Academy in Austin, Texas. Both of these schools are approved in their respective states to offer professional studies and certification in dog training.
A correspondence course. There are several institutions that offer home-study or online dog training correspondence courses. The drawback of such a program is that dog training is by definition a hands-on profession; it is difficult if not impossible for these types of courses to offer or regulate the vital hands-on aspect of the training curriculum.
* A note about certification: Certification is a form of optional credentialing and is only as valuable as the minimum requirements of the certifying body. Requirements vary widely from one organization to another, so it’s important to understand what composes a particular certification. Certification is ultimately voluntary and not required, unlike licensing. There is currently no required license for the dog training profession. Please check out this post about optional credentialing for an overview about the different optional credentials you will see as you compare trainers.