Silvia Jay: Dogs - Behavior - Relationships

Brings out the best in your dog

How To Choose A Trainer

Group classes are popular, but you don’t have to join a class to have a well-mannered dog. In fact, there are dogs that are not good candidates for a group setting because they are too anxious or too excitable to learn in the proximity of other dogs and/or people, or have a bad association to a training type facility.

However, if you own a pup, or dog who is suited for group classes, it is more cost effective than private lessons, and can be a lot of fun.

Private and group sessions are in reality skill-building lessons for owners. Dog trainers train the people, not the dogs.

Think about it: even if a trainer sees a dog an hour a week for 24 weeks, 3 consecutive 8-week courses, and that is pushing it because most people quit before, that are still only 24 hours. Meanwhile, the dog is with her people for about 370 waking hours – more or less depending on how much one sleeps. Take away an 8-hour workday, it still leaves more than 200 hours cause there are weekends too, right?

So, it always it training the people how to train their pooch, and here is the crucial part: How that is done can determine, or strongly influence, whether a dog turns out great or has, sometimes lifelong, issues.

In essence, there are two types of trainers: The ones who do things to dogs, and the ones who do things for dogs. You want the one who does things for dogs. Dog-centric handling benefits people too, because a dog not under pressure, and not threatened with pain, has fewer behavioral issues.

The big question is: What are the criteria to look for?

Certification can be one, but unfortunately the dog industry, other than veterinarians, is unregulated in North America. Anyone can open a school of some sort and certify whoever dishes out several thousand dollars for a 6-week course in dog training.

Experience is great, but on its own not enough. Without ongoing professional development, being in the business for 20 years can mean doing the same thing for 20 years and being very proficient in that, like correcting a dog like it was taught 60 years ago.

Even academic credentials alone don’t necessarily equal competence if they come without hands-on experience. 

The best pro to hire understands the science behind behavior, has experience with a variety of dogs, and most importantly a genuine interest to continue to learn and grow.

Doing things for dogs and understanding the science behind behavior automatically rules out tools designed to inflict pain: The choke, prong and shock collar. Walk away from a trainer who uses them. Also walk away when:

  • A trainer forewarns you of his methods
  • A trainer sees the need to explains herself to a child – or doesn’t allow children in class
  • A trainer states that it doesn’t really hurt
  • A trainer justifies inflicting pain with it being unavoidable because the dog is dominant, willful, or intentionally disobedient

I am also not a fan of trainers who stipulate certain gear, and I’m referring to the snoot-loop Gentle Leader type nose harness. Many dogs find it highly aversive, even more so than a prong collar, and still some facilities make its use mandatory, including for puppies.

Even the clicker, undoubtedly a positive tool, should be optional. Lay people can find it awkward, and spend more time focusing on the clicker and their own body awareness than the dog. 

Good trainers reveal openly and honestly how they work with dogs. All dogs, regardless of their actions. It should be stated on their website, they should answer your email when you ask, and allow you to watch a class in progress. They explain their method with precise words and not euphemisms that disguise what they really do.

A good trainer understands, and points out, when a dog needs distance or a break, and encourages and facilitates that. That means that the owners will learn to understand basic body language, critical for the relationship.

Relationship and mechanical training are intertwined; with commands you explain to your dog how your life together works, and they can offer support and guidance when he is uneasy and conflicted, but the relationship has priority, because when it is functioning, training is quicker and much easier.

It is the trainer and facility’s responsibility to create a climate conducive to learning, and that means being nice to all humans also. Inter-personal skills are as important as relating well with dogs, including how a trainer treats her staff.

Personally, I don’t particularly like large groups, with many dog/person teams coached by several trainers and assistants. It can get cramped, and the continuity that owners need could get lost. However, if the area is large enough to spread out, and if the head coach makes sure that each instructor relays the same message, it can work fine.

Lastly, I love course set-ups where a dog won’t advance to the next level until skills are solid – however long it takes. Taking it slow at the foundation level expedites success in the end, and good trainers know that. However, sticking to it is not always easy: The owners pay and have certain expectations, so the trainer adjusts and pushes the dog through, instead of explaining, without making the person feel stupid and frustrated, that not every dog learns the same things at the same rate. So, the onus here is more on the owner than trainer to be patient.

Humans make choices for their dogs. They have the power. Humans that are informed make better choices, and if there are many informed humans, trainers are forced to change or go under.

I want to empower you to ask questions, and have the backbone to walk out of a class, and away from a trainer, when something doesn’t feel right. If you feel uncomfortable, imagine what it is like for your dog.