It’s not uncommon to see dog training blogs trying to help pet owners find a quality trainer (Montreal Dog Blog, Positively, Companion Animal Psychology, BCSPCA, etc). The advice they give typically includes a list of criteria or questions that you can ask a trainer to find out if they are qualified or not.
But more often than not, I find that these lists can be lacking; not only is it possible for a good Force-Free trainer to not “qualify” by some of these standards, but sometimes sneaky, aversive-based trainers check off a lot of the boxes.
In the first part of this blog series, we will be examining some of the more common questions usually asked when looking for a trainer. We will look at ways that these questions work, as well as ways that they may be lacking.
First, a look at different types of dog trainers
Though there are many types of trainers, and they fall under many different names, the three main groups are “traditional,” “balanced,” and “modern.”
The basis for “traditional dog training” is that the dog must “respect” the owner and obey all of the owner’s wishes. Many traditional dog trainers are under the (false) assumption that dogs are pack animals who need an alpha to lead and control them; this is called Pack Theory. Traditional, also called classical, trainers often also believe that, unless dogs are “put in their place”, dogs will do everything in their power to gain the upper hand and dominate the human.
Because of this, traditional dog trainers view many behavior problems as the dog struggling to take hold of the alpha position. And, unfortunately, for a human to regain that control, a traditional dog trainer will rely on intimidation, threats, pain, and coercion to scare the dog into “its place.”
They also often vehemently refuse to use any rewards what-so-ever, since that would supposedly diminish the trainer’s place as alpha. Therefore, they are sometimes called “Punishment-Only trainers” or “Aversive trainers”.
As reward based training started gaining more traction, people started to mix the old and the new ways of training into something called “Balanced training.” Although the term “balanced” sounds good and friendly in theory, they call themselves that because they use a “balanced” approach of training which uses all four quadrants of learning theory.
This table shows and defines all of these terms.
The main approach for balanced trainers is to use treats and lures on puppies or simple tasks like obedience training, and to fall back on more aversive techniques when faced with more complicated behavior problems. They are generally for punishing a dog that gets a behavior wrong and are often seen using tools such as choke chains, prong collars, and remote shock collars to get their intended results.
Like traditional trainers, many of them also believe in Pack Theory.
Finally we have Modern Dog training.
Although there are variances in different Modern trainer’s styles and techniques, the most common trait among all of them is that they rely on modern, up-to-date science and research as the basis for their training techniques. Because of this, they absolutely need to keep up on advances in dog behavior, ethology, and animal psychology.
Modern trainers will disregard any information having to do with “Pack Theory,” which was proven to be false, and they avoid aversive techniques that can cause the dog fear or pain. They also tend to subscribe to ethical or non-intrusive methods, such as following the Humane Hierarchy and LIMA (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive). This is why a lot of Modern dog trainers use the term “Force-Free”.
Back to the Questions and Criteria
As I mentioned previously, there are many blogs on the internet mentioning all sorts of questions that can be asked to find a good dog trainer. A few of the more popular questions include:
- What types of methods and tools do they use/recommend/require? Do they mention positive reinforcement? Do they mention being your dog’s “alpha” or “pack leader”?
- How many years of experience do they have?
- Do they have an education? Are they continuing and maintaining that education? Where is there education from?
- Do they have accreditation or belong to any professional organizations?
These are great questions to ask, and can already tell you a lot about what kind of trainer you will be working with. But they can also be flawed, as there are a lot of ways for traditional and balanced trainers to answer these “correctly.”
This is why we will be examining these 4 questions one by one.
1) “What types of methods and tools do they use/recommend/require? Do they mention positive reinforcement? Do they mention being your dog’s ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’?”
It may seem obvious, after reading about the different types of trainers out there, that you should:
- Avoid trainers who make any reference to packs, alphas, and dominance
- Pick trainers that mention positive reinforcement, science-based training, and force-free methods
- Avoid trainers that do NOT mention positive reinforcement or other key words
However, because of balanced trainers, it’s possible to stumble across a trainer who uses aversive methods and still mentions positive reinforcement on their site.
Not only that, but balanced trainers are also getting trickier and trickier with their wording. They will mention all of the good, positive “buzz words” to catch your attention, as well as replace words that dog owners want to avoid (such as “punish your dog”) with friendlier less obvious synonyms (such as “correct your dog”). With softer words like this, well-meaning dog owners can fall into the trap of using punishment on their dog without knowing about it.
The topic of which tricky words a balanced trainer use will be discussed in more details in part 3 of this blog series.
2) “How many years of experience do they have?”
Unfortunately, the number of years of experience a trainer has neither reflects how good of a trainer they are nor what techniques they use. And the question gets a little more complicated when you look at the history of dog training.
Modern dog training barely existed before the 1990’s. This means that most older, more experienced trainers will have, at the very least, started their careers using traditional or balanced training.
This is not to say that all older trainers are still using punishment! There are many trainers who have stayed up-to-date on newer techniques and have given up the “traditional” ways of training (these are called crossover trainers). However, I’ve heard and read from crossover trainers that their years of experience can sometimes be colored by habits formed in their early years. One such quote is:
“Being a crossover trainer can be hard. There are many obstacles along the way and a whole belief system to dismantle and rebuild. Those who have learned modern training from the start have a great advantage.
There are no bad habits to crush and your skills will develop much faster if you don’t have to wrestle with all the assumptions and myths that come parceled up with traditional dog training.”
Of course, there are pros and cons with more novice trainers as well. Like the quote said, younger trainers are much more likely to use Force-Free techniques and to have used them exclusively for their entire careers. On the other hand, bad habits or no, new trainers simply have less experience in the field when it comes to observing and handling dogs. Experience is something that will definitely give you an edge with more difficult cases.
This is why, to me, this question is not a good criterion to look at when looking for a good dog trainer.
3) “Do they have an education? Are they continuing and maintaining that education? Where is their education from?”
Experience alone is not enough to be a dog trainer.
The field of animal behavior is constantly changing, so not only should it be REQUIRED for a trainer to have studied science-based training, but they also need to stay up-to-date on their knowledge by taking classes, attending conferences, etc.
The trouble with this question is that the average dog owner does not know about all the different schools that a trainer can go to. How do you know what type of education makes a good trainer?
And seeing as it would be impossible to make a comprehensive list of all of the science-based schools out there (both the international ones and local ones), it is even harder for dog owners to know whether their trainer’s school provides a complete education or not.
4) “Do they have accreditation or belong to any professional organizations?”
When looking for a trainer, you may see letters following their name. These letters generally represent an organization or accreditation that the trainer is a part of. Whatever the letters represent, they tend to, at the very least, show that a trainer is serious about their business and has put time and/or money into becoming a member.
Like with education, though, it’s hard for dog owners to know about all the different groups without putting in a lot of time and research on the side. Because, like with education, not all of these groups are created equal.
The two examples that we will look at today, and that you might see in Canada, are CCPDT (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) and CAPPTD (Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers).
Both of these organizations have similar goals: they want to certify or unify humane trainers to make it easier to recognize and find good trainers. This sounds great in theory, and, in some ways, it’s great in practice too.
But if we look at the requirements for a trainer to join these two organizations, you’ll see that the two are as different as apples and oranges:
The CCPDT tests your knowledge and skills to make sure that you will be a qualified, and therefore is excellent at indicating a humane trainer’s skills. Meanwhile, the CAPPTD just wants you to agree to their terms and pay a yearly membership fee.
It is therefore possible to find balanced trainers (even those who use prong collars or other aversive devices) who say that they are CAPPTD-approved. I have even seen it myself.
NOTE: If you see a trainer who is not using humane methods mention that they are part of one of these organizations, you should report them to the organization so that they can be taken off of their trainer list.
So what now? What questions SHOULD we ask?
The questions we looked at, though flawed, can still be asked to help you get a glimpse at who a trainer might be. But the best questions are ones that will directly look and examine a trainer’s practices and philosophies.
That’s why I like Jean Donaldson’s 3 simple questions for identifying what kind of trainer someone is. The questions are:
- What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
- What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it wrong?
- Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
These questions easily get down to the nitty gritty of dog training, while at the same time not leaving much room for deception.
In the next blog, we will look at Jean’s questions in more details, and see why they help make trainers more transparent, as well as possible answers from both Force-Free or aversive trainers.
For now, contemplate how you would answer them, how you would like your future trainer to answer, and possibly are there any better answers to these questions?