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The Wild West of Dog Training

Recently I met virtually with new clients who had spoken to four trainers before scheduling our session. They compared finding a trainer to navigating The Wild West.

The first trainer they contacted met with them once, and then stopped replying to their messages.

The second simply told them to put hay in their dog's crate to help him be more comfortable there.

The third told them a shock collar is the only solution.

The problem? Separation anxiety and unresolved pain issues in a senior dog.

Now, this isn't even close to the most wild misadventure I've heard of folks having while trying to find help with their dog, but is the one that prompted me to write this post.

This post is about finding a trainer or behavior consultant who can help you and your dog.

This post is about making that experience a little less like The Wild West.

Many folks don't know that dog training is completely unregulated in the United States. But ask a dog trainer how to go about becoming a dog trainer - there's no uniform answer. I usually laugh a bit and get uncomfortable, because frankly, it's not a good look on our profession.

See, there is no one set of steps. There is no gatekeeper. Anyone can say they're a dog trainer even if they don't know the first thing about it. Even if their only experience is that they grew up with a dog or watched some videos on YouTube.

So that's the bad news.

Let's get onto the good news.

The good news is there are a lot of really amazing dog trainers and behavior consultants who want to help and have the ability to do so! It's an absolutely incredible community. Technology and virtual learning continues to make this more and more accessible to pet dog owners.

These folks are interested in the science of how learning takes place and are utilizing that knowledge in a humane and effective way; they are looking out for the best-interest of the dog, their family, and society at large; they are actively learning, growing, and developing their craft.

We also benefit from many wonderful organizations who certify trainers or behavior consultants once they've met certain criteria, and who are actively working to advance our understanding of dogs and behavior.

So how do you choose a trainer or behavior consultant?

Ask about their methods and philosophy. Listen for green flags like "positive reinforcement", "counterconditioning", and "desensitization".

Red flags include talk of "dominance" or "being alpha", "balanced training", or use of aversives like penny cans, spray bottles, "leash corrections", prong collars, and e-collars.

Sometimes folks think that there is a lot of controversy around dog training, but really it's just the lack of regulation making things look that way. We are pretty clear on the science of learning.

Remember the Dunning-Kruger effect. Confidence is not competence. A good trainer says, "I don't know, but I'll find out" when they can't answer your question. They refer up when your problem is out of their scope. They consult with colleagues, they research, they recognize that behavior is complex.

Make sure your trainer knows more than the mechanics. Good dog training takes the dog's well-being into account, and things like reading body language, good management skills, and clear communication is vital. Your trainer should answer your questions and help you learn.

Ask about experience.

Ask what experience your trainer has with your specific goals. I'm a really good choice for dog-dog reactivity or stranger danger, but I'm not the right fit to teach service dog tasks or dog sports.

It takes practice, and working on the same behavior with dozens of different dogs within hundreds of different variables to really be competent. For serious behavior issues be sure this isn't your trainer's first time.

However, don't mistake longevity for competence. "I've been training dogs the same way for decades" is not a good thing. A good trainer is always learning and growing. I am a better trainer than I was a year ago, and next year I'll be a better one still.

Most importantly - trust your gut. If something feels wrong to you, stop. You are your dog's biggest advocate.

To get these conversations started, you might search for a trainer through a reputable organization. There are many organizations and certifications out there, but what they require to be a member or to earn credentials varies.

For example, I am certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT)