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What Makes a Good Dog Trainer?

When it comes to choosing a dog trainer, it can appear to be quite straight-forward, there are so many options, all of whom will tell you how skilled and experienced they are. You would assume it’s like anything else, surely a trainer is qualified to do their job and it’s just a case of who’s most convenient, who’s available soonest, or who has the best reviews.

Unfortunately, it’s far from simple. The industry is completely unregulated and anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, the concept of ‘behaviourists’ is somewhat more specialised but regardless, anyone could give themselves that title too if they wanted. It’s not easy to understand the technical jargon and terminology, so trying to unpick the information to find the right trainer can be challenging.

The risk of choosing the wrong trainer is far beyond simply wasting your money, you risk damaging your relationship with your dog or ending up with bigger problems than when you started out.

The methods a trainer uses are key when it comes to choosing a trainer, it’s a minefield of information and differing opinions, so knowing a few things to look for will help you choose the best person for you and your dog.

Broadly speaking, dog trainers can be grouped into two areas, those who are ‘force free’ and those who use ‘aversive methods’. Within these labels, you will find all manner of other terminology and descriptions, and it becomes incredibly complicated and emotive for many dog professionals. For simplicities sake, and the purpose of finding a trustworthy trainer, you can more-or-less put everyone into either one of these sides.

Force-Free Trainers

Let’s look firstly at force-free trainers, since it’s no secret that this is the side Adolescent Dogs takes and one which we promote.

You may also see force-free trainers describing themselves as ‘science-based’, ‘positive reinforcement trainers’ and many other terms, but the absolute key you’re looking for within this group is that they don’t use force, pain, fear or intimidation to train a dog.

This group of trainers will be aiming to keep your dogs (and your own) emotional state at the centre of everything they do. This means considering the reasons WHY your dog is behaving in certain ways and using this to find appropriate methods and strategies to help you and your dog. Without understanding why a behaviour is happening, we are at risk of forcing a dog into a stressful situation or using methods which cause increasing fear, stress or frustration. All of which will potentially do long-term harm to our dogs or generate minimal long-term progress.

With this in mind, a good force-free trainer will have the knowledge to use a variety of reinforcement methods and understand what will work best for your dog, based on their individual and breed traits, the behaviours they are displaying and your training goals.

When working with a fearful dog, even if they display fear with confident-looking barking, lunging or aggression, a good trainer will understand that adding further fear (e.g. by shouting, yanking the lead or applying an electric shock to the dog) is only going to increase their fear further.

No one has ever felt less fearful about something by experiencing further pain or intimidation when faced with their fear, so why do we think dogs are any different.

A fearful dog needs support and guidance, they need to be able to have choices in fear-inducing situations and be able to trust their handler to help them out. This is achieved by keeping their emotional state at the centre of any training and following carefully planned out methods.

Force-free training isn’t all free treats and endless rewards, it often involves appropriate timing of food rewards but also using our dogs intrinsic motivations to reinforce desired behaviours. For example, using sniffing or exploring as a reward for recall or lead walking, using choices to help build confidence or management strategies to minimise unwanted behaviours being practiced.

Ultimately, force-free training is centred around science, the knowledge we have of how our dogs work, how behaviours are reinforced, and how we can channel their needs and motivations to reinforce more desirable behaviours.

It also involves understanding why behaviours are happening and using this information to help our dogs cope better in our lives.

Aversive Trainers

Within this group we can put anyone who doesn’t fall into ‘force free’, there really isn’t such a thing as a grey area here, either a trainer doesn’t use force/fear/intimidation, or they do. Some trainers will claim to be ‘balanced’ or ‘minimal force’, meaning they aim to use positive reinforcement like treats and toys to reward good behaviour, but they will also use force or fear-based methods, like lead jerks/corrections, tools like rattle bottles, pet corrector sprays, or physical interventions like physically handling a dog into a position or ‘scruffing’ them to correct a behaviour.

Some aversive trainers will be very open about the fact they use much stronger aversives like e-collars, prong collars or choke chains. Many will use this as a selling point, and many dog owners will choose them for this very reason.

Other trainers will be more subtle or less open about it, they may throw in the odd lead correction or suggest methods which are more inconspicuous, like putting your dog into situations which he’s not ready for.

Think: the people-reactive dog who walks calmly and never barks when in a busy town centre … why?

Not because he’s been beautifully trained but because he’s so terrified he’s actually flooded by triggers and completely shut down, unable to display his fear with barking.

Where aversive trainers and force-free trainers are fundamentally different is in their understanding of dog behaviour and the emotions involved. Perhaps aversive trainers are aware but they choose to ignore it, but in reality, why would any good trainer choose to inflict further fear or pain on a dog when there are proven successful methods which don’t require this?

What To Look For

Hopefully you will aim to choose a force-free trainer, looking for someone who is knowledgeable and understanding of dog behaviour and with a varied toolbox, which doesn’t include any fear-inducing methods!

This still unfortunately isn’t enough to guarantee a good trainer, and as we know, anyone can claim to be anything they want in the world of dog training, so you still have to look further and choose the right person for you and your dog. It’s important to note here, someone who isn’t right for you and your dog, may be perfect for someone else, when it comes to working with a trainer, you need to find the right fit and this will depend on you and your dog.

Think about your main struggles with your dog is a good place to start, with this in mind you can choose a trainer who has more knowledge or experience in this area. For example, a trainer who specialises in overseas rescue dogs, one with particular interests in spaniels, or someone who has been working with fearful dogs. If a trainer has more experience in certain areas or with certain breeds, they are likely to have a wider range of ideas or proven strategies to help you with your dog.

Given the variety of dog breeds and problem behaviours, it’s understandable that trainers gradually develop particular interests or areas of expertise. If your dog doesn’t have huge struggles or you just need some general advice and support, you may not need a more specialised trainer, but it’s still worth checking their education, qualifications and past experience. Reading reviews or talking to other people who have worked with a trainer is always a good place to start, but also check their education/qualifications and make sure they match up to trustworthy education providers.

Some trainers will use their ‘real life experience’ as a big selling point, perhaps via winning competitions with their own dogs or by having trained X number of dogs in X number of years. Unfortunately winning competitions and training a million dogs means nothing if they’re using aversive methods to achieve these accolades so don’t get sucked in by fancy headlines or impressive results.

Be aware of ‘breed specialists’ who will tell you things like ‘the only way to train a German Shepherd is by showing him who’s boss’ or ‘Labradors are gundogs and therefore must wear a slip lead and never a harness’, and other such nonsense.

You need to see real-life results but also realistic ones. If every dog trained by someone is appearing to behave perfectly but they also look tense and fearful, this isn’t a great sign. A snappy minute long social media clip of extreme behaviour to perfect dog, is not going to be a reality. What you really need is a realistic, honest plan for your dog, and if a trainer tells you it will be a ‘quick fix’, they are probably lying to you.

Using aversive methods can give the appearance, especially in a quick social media video, of an amazing transformation, but the fall-out from these methods is a considerable risk. Thinking about it logically, if every time your dog tries to communicate he’s worried about something, you yank his lead or force him to sit down quietly, sooner or later he’s either going to completely shut down (not a happy dog at all) or he’ll snap (this can be very scary).

On the other hand, if every time your dog tries to tell you he’s worried about something, you listen to him and you either help him get out of the situation or you offer him support and guidance, he’s likely to feel much more positive and relaxed. It might appear to take longer, because you’ll be working on the underlying emotions and creating long-term positive associations, but your dog will be happier and their behaviour will be more consistent.

Aversive training would be like forcing someone with a fear of spiders to stand in a room with hundreds of them and then hitting them every time they try to run away. The person may stop trying to run away, out of fear of the consequence, but internally they are still terrified of spiders. In the same way with our dogs, if we don’t consider the underlying emotions behind a behaviour, we may appear to stop an unwanted behaviour happening but without addressing the reasons behind it, the dog will be mentally and emotionally worse off.

Being a positive trainer isn’t the whole story, a good trainer is also a good listener and someone who is able to take into account your dog’s personality and needs as well as your own. It’s no good jumping into a situation and dictating everything that must change, a good trainer will discuss expectations, your needs, your dogs needs and find a way to work together.

Remember though, it also requires you to be willing to adapt to your dog and make compromises where necessary, a dog trainer can’t wave a magic wand and turn your dog into exactly what you want, there will always be an element of balancing your wants and needs with your dog’s capabilities.

A good trainer will help you understand the reasons why your goals may not be achievable, they shouldn’t simply laugh and tell you you’re being unrealistic or delusional, they should give you the knowledge to see what IS achievable and what you need to compromise on.

You must be able to communicate effectively with your trainer, this is where you may have personal preferences, you may need to meet a couple of different trainers to find someone you connect with best. Perhaps the best trainers are able to adapt more readily to individuals, but you also have to be willing to work with them and see it as a collaboration. A trainer isn’t there to ‘fix’ your dog in a matter of hours, it takes time and commitment, especially if you’re looking to change behaviours or teach new habits, and you have to be open to taking advice and putting the effort in.

A good trainer should motivate you to do this by helping you understand your dog better, it can be hard to see the point in maintaining training or sticking with methods which inconvenience you or require a change of your own mindset but if you are working with a good training who is using force-free methods and keeping your dog’s emotional state at the forefront then there should be no excuse of why you can’t commit to the training plan.

At the end of the day, we all want our dogs to be as happy and stress-free as possible, so why choose a trainer who uses fear to manipulate their behaviour, when you could choose someone who uses positive reinforcement and avoids fear when changing behaviours.

Force-free methods may not always have dramatic transformational results in a short space of time, but in the long-run you will have a much happier dog and much stronger, healthier relationship with them

Written by Naomi White

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