Happy 2016 to all my readers! I'm sure for quite a few people, getting some training for your dog is somewhere on your resolution list, especially after Rover lifted his leg on your Christmas tree, or Spot took a choice chunk off your ham when no one was looking.
How to go about finding a dog trainer? Certainly the internet is besieged with articles on how to find one, and after reading many of them myself, I am disappointed to see many are written with the purpose of promoting the agenda of the author, whether they urge one method over another, or a specific certifying organization. Some even go so far as to malign other training styles, which in my opinion, does a great disservice to everyone.
In response, here's my contribution the already dizzying array of advice and opinions, based on over fifteen years of observing the successes and failures of average dog owners seeking training.
Does certification matter? Dog training is an unregulated industry; absolutely anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, hang out their shingle, and take your money- qualified or not. It seems a good idea to go with a "certified dog trainer." Unfortunately, not all certifications are made equally. Some are difficult, requiring lengthy essays, case studies, and video of the trainer at work to be reviewed by a board. Some are only written exams, while others are paid for through online-only training courses, and given without anyone seeing the trainer so much as touch a dog.
However, certification does show a modicum of dedication to their field. There is not a single qualified professional out there who isn't capable of earning a certification, getting one is a matter of personal choice. When considering a trainer, ask who they are certified by, then you may do a bit of homework into that organization if you so choose. You can even ask your trainer why they chose to go with that organization. My organizations of choice are due to our ailgned mission statements. Some are quite a bit of work to obtain and show a definite degree of knowledge and experience.
What about a trainer who has earned training titles? If your goal is earning a certain title or degree, working with a trainer who has earned them is, in my opinion, necessity. What if you aren't interested in titling your dog? Chances are, you just want your pet to behave. Should you care about titles?
Yes and no. If your dog pulls you on walks and doesn't come when called, a trainer who's titled in obedience, and whose clients have been equally successful, will likely serve you well. Their skills in obedience training have been proven in a fresh, highly distracting venue, judged by a qualified and unbiased third party, and often an alternative to certifications for some trainers.
Dog training is a broad field with many specializations. If your dog has a problem with resource guarding, a trainer who excels in hunting trials or has many agility titles may not have the skill set you need. If you want to try your hand at dog sports such as IPO (schutzhund), it's unlikely a "big box store" pet trainer will get you there.
Here's where you must start paying close attention. Many seasoned trainers care little for titles or certification, but are still outstanding at what they do. It stands to reason a trainer who has done great work for 10, 20, or 30 years will have an excellent reputation among local vets, groomers, breeders, and average owners. Has no one ever heard of the trainer you're considering? Not so much a whisper of a footprint anywhere online? This could be the sign of a novice who may or may not have the experience to effectively train you or your dog.
Read reviews online, but read them with a grain of salt. Dog training is an emotionally charged subject, so it's not uncommon to see multiple glowing reviews next to multiple poor ones. What that should tell you is that trainer's style may be perfect for you, or completely wrong for you. Some styles are highly polarizing among the entire dog community. The only way to decide for yourself will be to meet with the trainer and observe some training. Which leads me to my next point:
Methods and Training Style
The authors of "how to find a trainer" articles don't know you. They don't know your dog. I don't consider it my place to tell you how you should train your own dog, even though I feel strongly about my own style. Every year, thousands of dog owners have great success and utter failure under a myriad of methods.
More important to me than method is the quality of that method's execution. Read up a bit, get an idea of how you want to train, but keep an open mind. You may not want to train with food, but there could be a stellar trainer in your area who can help you reach all your goals who does. You may be horrified with the idea of a training collar until you see how happily a local balanced trainer's students all work. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone may help you and your dog attain a higher level of training than you previously imagined possible.
Professionalism and Responsibility
After all this, you think you have a trainer you want to try, so you contact them. How engaging is your trainer? Do they answer your questions fully and kindly without condescension? Do they ask you questions about your dog, gathering as much information as possible?
Do they spend more time maligning other trainers and different methods than they do explaining what they can do themselves?
Has your trainer taken the necessary steps to run a legitimate, legal business? Do they require proof of shot records before training? All questions to strongly consider.
Depending on the services offered, you may have the opportunity to observe a trainer at work, in person or in video. Look at the whole body of work in the session you watch, but remember that one session does not tell the whole tale for that dog. Perhaps the dog you see with it's tail tucked at heel was so nervous in previous sessions it could not walk on a lead at all- or perhaps the trainer is confusing the dog.
Be aware of stress signals. Now, I am the last person to call "stress" a dirty word in training. Sometimes, dogs will show signs of stress on the road to being a happier, more well adjusted dog. If you see a concern, ask questions. Does the trainer acknowledge the signs of discomfort in the dog, and explain how they will eliminate them, or become defensive and short when questioned? At the end of a session, a dog should be in a better place not only behaviorally, but mentally and emotionally.
Most important to remember, don't be shy to ask someone when you see a well behaved dog for the name of their trainer. Often, people are happy to discuss it or offer you a recommendation. Talk to your vet. Talk to your groomer. It's not uncommon for them to see well-trained dogs come in over and over who've worked with the same trainer. Training is a financial and time commitment, you owe it to yourself, and your dog, to do some legwork first.