By Dr. Beth Leermakers
I need professional help. I finally acknowledged that I need a dog trainer to help me manage my challenging foster dogs. Oliver has to get along with at least one other dog in my house so he doesn’t have to be walked by himself. Oliver is socially awkward and intimidates new dogs by barking and racing toward them (but not aggressively). Introducing two dogs safely is a two person job, and I can’t rely on my neighbors to assist me. Time to bring in a pro!
If you’ve adopted a new puppy, it’s wise to enroll her in puppy school. Like human pre-school, puppy school isn’t primarily about obedience; it’s about socialization. Veterinarians used to recommend that puppies wait until they complete all three sets of puppy vaccinations (usually 12 weeks) before starting group training. However, recent research has found that the risks of under-socialization outweigh the risks of potential illness. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, puppies can start socialization classes as young as 7-8 weeks old — one week after they receive their first puppy vaccination.
Choosing the right dog trainer for your puppy or dog with behavior problems can be daunting. Because no license is required, anyone can call him/herself a dog trainer, animal behaviorist or pet behavior consultant, regardless of their education. Where do you start? The Association of Professional Dog Trainers recommends asking these questions to evaluate a potential trainer:
What training approach do you use? Choose a trainer who uses reward-based training methods — giving rewards (treats, toys, play) for positive behavior and withholding rewards to correct undesirable behavior. The trainer may describe her approach as positive reinforcement, force-free or humane training methods. Food is a powerful motivator for most dogs, so look for a trainer who uses treats.
Veterinary associations, humane organizations (e.g., The Humane Society of the United States) and dog trainers recommend positive reinforcement. According to recent scientific research, positive reinforcement is more effective than aversive techniques involving punishment. Using confrontational methods such as prong, choke or shock collars or “alpha rolls” (forcing the dog onto his back) can make dogs aggressive or fearful — problems that are difficult and time-consuming to correct. Avoid trainers who refer to dominance and submission (using “alpha” or “being the pack leader”) and/or use punishment such as yelling, choking, shaking the scruff, tugging on the leash, alpha rolling or other actions that frighten the dog or inflict pain. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour “endorses training methods which allow animals to work for things (e.g., food, play, affection) that motivate them rather than techniques that focus on using fear or pain to punish them for undesirable behaviors. Look for a trainer who uses primarily or only reward-based training with treats, toys and play. Avoid any trainer who advocates methods of physical force that can harm your pet such as hanging dogs by their collars or hitting them with their hands, feet or leashes.”
What is your educational background (including credentials and certifications) in dog training? Dog training requires good timing, technical knowledge (of learning theory), canine skills (e.g., reading body language) and people skills (to be able to teach the dog’s family how to work with their dog). You and your dog need a well-qualified trainer. There are dozens of certifications in the dog training world. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta recommends using a trainer with one of these certifications:
Karen Pryor Academy of Animal Training and Behavior (KPA) – this program requires coursework and gives students a good working knowledge of operant and classical conditioning (learning theory).
Certification in Training and Counseling (CTC) – Considered the “Harvard of dog training,” the Academy for Dog Trainers’ two-year online program assesses students’ knowledge through assignments, tests and videos of the trainer in action.
Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) indicates that a dog trainer has passed a comprehensive exam and has at least 300 hours of dog training experience.
Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge and Skills Assessed (CPDT-KSA) indicates that a dog trainer has passed a comprehensive exam and an objective skills-based assessment (via video) along with at least 300 hours of dog training experience.
What continuing education classes have you completed recently? You want a trainer who keeps up with advances in research and techniques. Professional organizations (such as the Association of Professional Dog Trainers) have continuing education requirements for their members.
What training tools do you use? Your trainer should use several different collars (e.g., halters, no-pull harnesses), instead of using the same equipment for every dog. The trainer may use a clicker.
Can you provide a list of references? Talk to a client who has a dog that’s similar in size, breed or temperament and issues. House-breaking a Shih-Tzu is very different than training a socially awkward pit bull with fear aggression.
Do you guarantee a well-behaved dog? This is a trick question. There’s no way to guarantee a dog’s behavior; there are too many variables, including the behavior/consistency of the dog’s person (that would be you). If a trainer answers yes, be concerned. Offering to assist you in the future if the need arises is a better response.
An experienced, knowledgeable trainer can give your puppy a solid foundation or help you correct problem behaviors in your older dog. Many trainers say they are teaching the people as much as (if not more than) they are training the dog.
By consistently rewarding desirable behavior, you can help your challenging dog become a pleasant companion. At least that’s what I’m hoping, for Oliver’s sake as well as my own.