There is a huge range of people who call themselves dog trainers and/or behaviorists. And unfortunately, there is actually no clear definition for either. The world of animal behavior isn’t regulated and there are a zillion certificates out there. And even if someone passes a test and earns a certificate, how much experience do they have? What methods do they use? There is a lot of homework that goes into finding a qualified person.
A recent poll actually produced data that shocked me. In order of preference, people registered for training by: 1. How soon they could start 2. Location of training 3. Price 4. Trainer’s qualifications 5. Methods & techniques used 6. How long was each session 7. How many weeks came in a class. What’s sad is the methods can have a direct impact on long term results, and in some cases create other problems like aggression (such as owner facilitated aggression). The trainer might have an immediate opening because they are not in demand and don’t have a lot of experience. Their class curriculum might be 10 weeks because classes move very slowly and you only learn two things per class. Or the price is right because you’re at the “McDonald’s of dog training.” Without looking past the convenience factor of when, where, and price – 9 times out of 10 you cost yourself more money in the long run. I have seen loads of people who just go somewhere else after the first place didn’t work. Which in turn costs more money. However, my favorite laughable marketing “you’ve got to be kidding me” is when companies guarantee results. “If it doesn’t work the first time, you can just train with us again free of charge.” You can’t guarantee another being’s behavior. That’s like me guaranteeing your mother-in-law’s behavior this holiday season. Not possible. Training only increases the probability of desired behaviors, it doesn’t guarantee them. Also, isn’t that the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results? No thanks.
Now, I’m not saying everyone should run out and find a professional who is two hours away, with a three month waiting list, that you have to drain your kid’s college tuition savings to afford them. That would have its own set of drastic consequences. However, you need to know who you’re about to learn from! This simple choice can affect the rest of your dog’s life.
First, know what type of training you are looking for. Obedience? House manners? Field work? Search & rescue? Hunting? Service dog work? Behavior modification? Problem prevention? Aggression issues? Separation anxiety? Phobias? Resource guarding? Potty training? Socialization skills? Fear issues? Conformation? And the list goes on and on and on… All dogs are not created equal, nor is everyone’s living environment. “Cookie cutter” training programs can miss out on a variety of needs, but can be sufficient if all you want is basic obedience.
So, how do you find a good trainer? Oh let me count the ways. There are a zillion articles out there, and my favorites are by: the Association Of Pet Dog Trainers, Pet Finder, and the Whole Dog Journal. If you want more information on all the various certifications, the APDT has a nice list of the most popular ones.
So let’s pretend you need more than just basic obedience, and house manners. The more specialized your needs are, the more qualified the professional you will need. And if there is any liability or safety concerns you want to go to the top of the trainer food chain, or as far up as possible. Pretend Case Study: Fluffy is a five year old dog with a hypothyroid problem, aggression, bite history, and has seizures. He just tried to eat the pizza delivery boy, and now you’re being sued. You’ll want to find a veterinary behaviorist. At the time of this post there are currently 54 in the USA & Canada combined. And you can find them at the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. There is also a directory at the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, (roughly about 160 in the entire USA) just input your search parameters for location.
Realistically, because there are so few veterinary behaviorists in the country, it could be hard to find one. Most trainers who handle behavioral cases can (and should) work directly with your veterinarian. And in my personal opinion you don’t need a degree in veterinary medicine to be called a behaviorist. However, you need to be affiliated with or have the certifications to back up the claim of behaviorist. There are two other major organizations to consider when you are in need of a professional with additional expertise. The first is Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, and the second is the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.
So when should you call in the big guns? My answer: before behavior problems get to the point you are at your wits end. It’s a whole lot easier to change behavior without a strong reinforcement history. So, if things don’t get practiced for an extended period of time, the cost of training will usually be significantly less because it takes far fewer lessons to fix things. Plus, new undesirable behaviors don’t creep up into the mix either.
And why should you call in the big guns? In the dog world, experienced trainers have seen inexperienced trainers cause more harm than good with good intentions. They accidentally strengthen behaviors that need extinguished by accidental random reinforcement schedules, they don’t use (because most green trainers only use food) the correct amount and type of reinforcers (such as leaving something scary), and they accidentally punish the dog by placing the dog over threshold, they kill basic obedience by asking for a sit around an aversive stimulus not understanding counter conditioning, etc. If you need more than just basic obedience and house manners, I’d call on someone more qualified if it were me.
One last thought, there are more options that can help besides veterinary and behavior services. I have seen marvelous results from TTouch, acupuncture, Thundershirts, and even nutritionists. Keep an open mind because sometimes solutions can come from the least likely of places!