Teaching pups to sit and stay is a fraction of what certified dog trainers do. They also help modify unwanted behaviors and work to build trust-based relationships between pet parents and their canines.
“I really just want everyone to have the same relationship with their dog that I have with mine (which is pretty awesome),” says Jenn Fiendish, a certified dog trainer and owner of Happy Power Behavior and Training in Portland, Oregon.
We asked Fiendish and eight other certified dog trainers to share the things that they wish all pet parents knew about their work and their profession.
Here’s what they had to say:
Not Every Dog Trainer is Qualified
Before choosing your dog trainer, make sure to do your research. Not every person who claims to be a dog trainer is actually qualified to do the job.
Dog training is not regulated by the government and doesn’t have any formal licensing requirements. “Literally anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and charge people money for it,” says Ben Lee, a trainer and certified obedience instructor who owns Concerned Canines in Pensacola, Florida.
A trainer who’s not current on science-based techniques can cause more harm than good. “It often leads to the use of harsher training methods which have been proven to increase anxiousness, fear, and aggression,” says Fiendish.
Titles Don’t Always Translate to Ability
Certification labels can be misleading, says Robin Bennett, a certified dog trainer from Stafford, Virginia. “Trainers who use titles and labels should be asked to explain what they mean.”
She recommends asking about educational credentials and an independent, third-party certification from an organization like Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT).
“The CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA, and the CBCC-KA mark shows that the professional has demonstrated competency and is accountable for abiding by the CCPDT Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics, but consumers need to make sure the individual is a match for them and their dog,” says Bradley Phifer, CCPDT’s executive director.
Techniques Have Changed Over the Past 15 Years
As we continue to learn more about dogs, training techniques will evolve—which is why finding a trainer committed to continuing education is recommended. The industry used to couple “balanced” training (rewarding good behaviors and punishing bad ones) with dominance theory, where the human holds a higher position than the dog, says Fiendish, who also serves as executive director of the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians.
Today’s dog trainers use positive reinforcement along with learning theory, which focuses on understanding how animals learn, then applying that knowledge to training, Fiendish says.
“This is important as the use of outdated training methods (using force and punishment) has been proven to cause increases in fear and anxiety in dogs, a decrease in positive relationships between dogs and their owners, and an alarming increase in aggressive behaviors,” she says.
Veterinary Behaviorists and Dog Trainers Are Different
Dog trainers work to resolve non-aggressive behaviors like separation anxiety, or unwanted ones, like re-soiling the same expensive rug or jumping on strangers.
“If your dog is having moderate to severe problems with their behavior, like anxiety, fearfulness, and aggression, it is best to see a veterinary behaviorist,” says Fiendish. “They will be able to work with you on behavioral modification training as well as the use of supplements or medications that can be helpful.”
Veterinary behaviorists are veterinarians who have been board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Ask your veterinarian if you’re unsure which type of professional to consult.
Training Should Ideally Start When Your Dog is Young
While dog trainers can help you solve problems for canines of any age, working with a certified positive reinforcement trainer for at least the first year of your dog’s life can be extremely beneficial, says Nikki Finn-Loudenslager, certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, and founder of On The Right Track Professional Dog Training in Navajo County, Arizona.
“Preventive training is much more effective and fun, compared with trying to fix bad behaviors that are driving you and your family crazy,” she says.
Pet Parents Are a Key Part of the Training Process
A trainer can teach a dog new skills and help modify behaviors, but pet parents have to be willing to actively participate, says Phifer, who also runs his own training business. “In most cases, owners have to change their behavior in order for their dog’s behavior to change.”
Successful dog training also requires a time commitment. “Be prepared to practice 10 to 20 minutes per day in between training lessons with your dog trainer,” says Bennett.
Punishment Doesn’t Work on Dogs
Negative training has the potential for unintended consequences, says Brenda Belmonte, a certified dog trainer who owns Two Paws Up Dog Training, Inc. in Lake Bluff, Illinois.
“While it may seem normal to want to punish a dog for barking, the use of bark collars, throw cans, or other punitive devices can create increased anxiety for many dogs,” she says. “This can result in a dog who becomes afraid of people, afraid of the person applying the aversive, or result in defensive aggression.”
Reinforcing Good Behaviors Is Essential
Dogs repeat behaviors that have been rewarded, says Fiendish. “For instance, if I reward my dog with a treat for sitting, he will sit again because the treat is rewarding to him,” she says. “However, if my dog barks at me and I tell him No, don’t bark, he will bark again because my attention is rewarding to him.”
Don’t Overlook Enrichment
Behavior problems can sometimes be solved or minimized with enrichment, says certified dog trainer Anna Wong, owner of Mutts Have Fun: Training You and Your Dog in Oakland, California. One form of enrichment is exercise.
“But exercise might not be enriching for all dogs, so it shouldn’t be the only way they engage with the world,” she explains. “Enrichment also includes training, doing natural dog things like digging and chewing, solving food puzzles, playing with toys, engaging in canine sports, and being social with people and sometimes, other dogs.”
Understand Your Breed’s Limitations
It’s difficult to train genetics out of a dog, says Finn. “For example, Terriers are bred to dig so if you really love your manicured lawn, then they may not be a good match. They also tend to be quite barky,” she says. “Trying to convince a breed that was bred to guard to happily accept strangers in your home may take more time than you’re prepared to give.”
There Are No Quick Fixes
“There is no magic word that is going to stop your dog from jumping on house guests. What you need to do is practice, practice, practice,” says Lee.
Most quick fixes result in suppression of normal dog behavior, adds Belmonte. “Clients need to understand that dogs have basic needs and complex emotional needs, both of which need to be taken into consideration when training.”
Aim for Short Spurts of Training
“Work in a few minutes of training with your pup each day and always be on the lookout to catch the dog being good, then reinforce that behavior,” says Wong. Look for opportunities to train during the course of a normal day, like during a stretch or commercial break, she recommends.
Learning Your Dog’s Body Language is Important
Trainers say body language is how dogs communicate, so knowing what those behaviors mean can help you better support your dog and form a lasting bond.
“It’s such an important part of establishing a dialog with our dogs,” says Wong. “I encourage all dog parents to learn about canine body language and spend time observing their dog’s body language.”
Dog Training Should Be Fun
Training should be fun, says Laura Hills, owner of The Dogs’ Spot, based in North Kansas, Missouri. “It should be quality time spent with your dog, which will maintain and deepen your relationship,” she says. “When people put in the time and effort to build a relationship with their dog, their dog will be more likely to do what they need them to do when they need them to do it.”
How to Be the Best Dog Training Client
Successful outcomes are more likely when the trainer and pet parent work together as a team. Here are a few recommendations to help you become a good client and get the most out of your pet’s training sessions.
Bring Tasty Treats to Your Sessions
“Bring very small, very high value treats with you to class. Save the vegetables and dry dog kibble for low distraction environments,” says Hills. “You’ll need higher value reinforcement in training classes as the environment will likely be more distracting than home.”
Be Ready to Describe your Dog’s Behavior
To help troubleshoot problem areas, take notes on your dog’s behavior, or preferably create a video to share with the trainer, Wong offers.
“When describing the problem behavior, include a description of its frequency and duration, as well as what immediately precedes and follows the behavior,” she says.
Be Committed to Practicing at Home
Behavior modification requires repetition, consistency and patience, says Finn. “I generally see my clients once a week for a one-hour session, and then leave them with training to do in between,” she says. “It is easy to spot clients who have been working diligently throughout the week and those who just rely on their weekly sessions for progress.”
Be Patient With Your Trainer
Trainers have personal lives, too, says Khara Schuetzner, who owns The Doggie Spot in Shawnee, Oklahoma. “If we don’t respond right away to calls or emails there is a reason. We could be with our own families, training someone else’s dog, or training our own dog,” she explains. “We work odd times. Some of us work early hours, overnight hours, and late evening hours. Be patient with us.”