Did you know that anyone can call themselves a dog trainer? The law does not require any formal training or licensing. It is the responsibility of pet owners to find the best qualified person to work with you and your dog.
Unfortunately, many pet owners don’t quite know what to look for in a trainer, the questions they should ask potential dog trainers and what the answers to those questions should be. This is a topic I feel very strongly about because I believe that this will help to save pet owners from wasting money on one trainer and then having to go to another as well as protect dogs from dangerous and outdated techniques.
This is going to be written as a series of two questions each so as to not overload the post.
1. What method of training do you use?
There are many methods out there to train your dog and they go by many names. The techniques that I use when training focus on rewarding good behavior, prevent rewarding bad behavior while setting the dog up to succeed and not focusing on punishing bad behavior or using methods that will cause the dog to feel pain, fear or intimidated.
Why not punish bad behavior? Your dog could do one thing right or hundreds of things wrong. Wouldn’t it be easier to reinforce the good behavior (by definition making it occur more) than constantly punishing all the wrong things your dog does? Punishing will also inhibit learning because your dog will not want to offer you behavior for fear of being punished.
When asking this question, ask for specifics. What will you do to my dog to teach them? Will you use a food treat to reinforce good behavior? Will you give the dog a leash pop or hold up the dog by the leash (cutting off air) until they do what you ask or stop doing what is wrong? Will you set up the environment to keep the dog from reacting (going over threshold)? What will you do if the dog reacts? Will you remove them and chock it up as more information to help train or will you do something to punish the behavior?
The reason I say you must ask for specifics is dog trainers are trying to sell you a service and this means they are going to try and make it sound attractive. Here’s an example:
“What methods do you use to train my dog?”
“I will work with you and your dog to make your dog see you as the alpha, or pack leader. Because of how dogs behave in their natural habitat, we can use those same techniques to teach your dog to see you as a pack leader. By doing so, we will be able to quickly, easily and permanently solve many of the problems you are having with your dog.”
Sounds nice, right? But it didn’t actually answer the question. Many slick salesmen and advertisements are designed to sound the most attractive to the buyers and doesn’t actually have to answer the question. This is often done because the answer is not nearly as nice sounding. Here is the example above, continued:
“Well that sounds wonderful, but how exactly do you teach me to be alpha? What specifically are you going to do to me or to my dog to get this result you speak of?”
“Well, you see, I will teach your dog that offering any behavior other than the one I want is very unsafe and may result in a leash pop. This way, your dog will only do what you say is okay for him to do.”
This, unfortunately, is not going to be the first response out of the trainer’s mouth but will require more prodding on your part to get. When asking this question to trainers who utilize methods based on the use of pain, fear or intimidation, they are often going to use clever euphemisms to disguise what they are doing because when their methods are explained in plain terms, it doesn’t sound safe, let alone nice.
However, if you ask the same question of a humane trainer, many are enthusiastically happy to explain exactly how the training works. You may have to ask them to explain what some words mean exactly though. The reason for this is dog training is behavior science and many humane trainers, like myself, love the science so much that we sometimes speak in the technical terms. I am even happier when clients ask me to explain further because I want them to fully understand why I do what I do and why it works.
So, ask for specifics about exactly what methods the trainer is going to use to train you and your dog. Poke and prod them until you can visualize what the trainer is going to do. Only then can you make a better informed decision.
2. What are the side-effects of the training methods you use?
Dogs learn by both consequence and association (which is a topic for another post). The associated learning in a nut shell means that dogs associate an emotion with an item/person/environment because of what it often predicts. For example, many dogs get excited when you pick up their leash because leash means walks. Another example is dog is fearful when they go to the vet because the vet office means poking/prodding/shots.
Due to this learning, dogs are always associated emotional responses with things that often occur together. A training example is dog lies down on their own and you give them a treat. With repetition, the dog starts to think, “I really like lying down” because it is so often associated with a happy feeling.
The reason this is significant is because techniques that cause pain, fear, or intimidation can cause the dog to have an unpleasant association with whatever the training is involved with.For example, you have a dog who is excited to see another dog on walks and you leash pop him. Enough times and the dog begins to think, “Hey, each time I see a dog, my neck really hurts. I wish dogs would stay away from me.” and to accomplish this, the dog may begin barking and lunging at the other dogs to keep them away.
Methods that focus on reinforcing good behavior and exclude the use of methods that would cause pain, fear, or intimidation are going to result in a dog who loves training and eagerly performs anything you ask.
Methods that focus on using pain, fear, or intimidation are likely to cause the dog to become (more) fearful of you, the trainer, and whatever else may be around when training. That fear may also generalize outward as an adaptive way of surviving in a dangerous world.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. A bad humane trainer could teach your dog the wrong things, bad/rude behaviors and to be a general butt-head if they don’t know what they are doing. That is why it is important to not just find a humane trainer but a humane trainer who knows what they are doing.
There are side-effects to any training that you do with your dog and by understanding what those are yourself and finding a trainer that both knows the side-effects and how to use them to your dog’s advantage will help you on the road to finding the right person to work with you and your dog.
Tune in next time for part two of this series and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.