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Choosing the Right Trainer

“Training your four-legged best friend is one of the best gifts you can give him, yourself, and the community where you live.”

Today there is no shortage of people calling themselves “dog trainers”; just look in your local phone book or newspaper. Because there is no agreed-upon certification or recognition of this profession, it means that there is no regulation as to who gets to sell their services as a professional trainer. This means that you will see people with masters’ degrees, high school kids, “trainers to the stars”, hobbyists, police dog handlers, people who bought a pre-packaged dog training franchise and people who volunteer at animal shelters all competing for your business. It gets even more confusing when you consider that the high school kid may do a much better job with your dog than the PhD, and that the weekend hobbyist who has titled a few of her own pets will be much more helpful than the celebrity trainer/author whose face peers out of every bookstore window. Add to this confusion the fact that dogs and their training elicit the same kind of powerful opinions as politics and religion, and it’s no wonder that some owners give up the training quest entirely.

So how do you know who to train with? Start out with these “interview” type questions, and don’t feel badly about posing them to anyone who claims to be a trainer worthy of your dog. Training can be expensive and time-consuming, and our client base is filled with people who spent a fortune with ineffective trainers before finding us and getting the results they wanted. Don’t waste time and money experimenting: approach the hiring of a dog trainer in the same way you’d approach choosing a tutor for your kid, or a mechanic for your car.

Do you guarantee your results?

Since dogs are living creatures with minds of their own, some training organizations make a point of NOT guaranteeing their results. However, an effective and honest trainer who knows what they are doing will make something like Olympia’s “mutual guarantee”: if you guarantee that you do your part of the job, we guarantee that you will see the improvement in your dog. Training a dog means teaching his owners. If the trainer does a good job, both parties will be motivated to work, which will make training a guarantee-able endeavor.

Have you worked with my breed before?

Even though there is truth to the concept that “a dog is a dog is a dog”, there are enough significant differences between breeds and breed types to make a difference, especially when dealing with rare “power breeds” or hybrids (think about wolf crosses, and some of the more exotic mastiffs and guarding breeds). If you own a breed which is typically suspicious of strangers or is dog aggressive, you and he deserve a trainer who understands how to bring out the best in him using methods and techniques which complement his temperament and drives.

Have you worked with dogs with similar issues to my dog’s?

If you are looking into professional training because your dog has a behavioral issue such as extreme shyness, dog aggression, predatory behavior or aggression toward humans, it is of the utmost importance that you find a trainer who has experience dealing with these problems. Ideally, training should start early enough in a dog’s life so that these problems don’t have a chance to develop into their worst manifestations. But because dogs are creatures of habit, once they have learned that the behavior in question can be practiced, teaching them otherwise becomes a much bigger job. This is especially true when the dog’s behavior is tied into a genetic temperament issue: you must find a trainer who can separate deeply ingrained behavioral patterns from learned ones, and who can help you to successfully maintain the training and conditioning your dog requires. In the case of dogs who have bite or dogfight histories, this is especially important. Ask your potential trainer to provide references of at least a couple of satisfied clients whose dogs had greater problems than your own. Don’t trust your dog’s and family’s safety to someone whose experience comes mostly from reading some books, attending a seminar, or assisting at a weekly puppy class.

How long will it be before my dog responds to obedience commands?

Even when a dog has significant behavioral “baggage, he can (and should) learn how to communicate with humans through the language of simple obedience commands. This doesn’t mean that he can instantly be trusted off leash at the park, or that he will be getting you a beverage from the fridge after two lessons, but it does mean that he should be able to walk on a totally slack lead around distractions, he should be able to sit and wait at an open door until you give him permission to move, he should refrain from jumping up on people, and he should be able to quietly lie down at your feet as you watch TV or read. If it takes more than six weeks to get these very basic behaviors, then you should look elsewhere. While every dog is different and the training progress will be affected by the owners’ participation and adherence to the plan, there is no reason that a dog shouldn’t be able to walk on a loose lead after one lesson with a competent trainer. A new trend in training insists that the dog must only receive praise and reward for good behavior while undesirable behavior is ignored, and that the dog should never be corrected, no matter how humanely the correction is given. This sounds good to some folks, but it is terribly unfair to the dog, who has to do a lot of guesswork, and who rarely gets to earn the freedom and fun of his littermate who is trained using more balanced methods. Also, these methods tend to take months and sometimes years to be effective. Most of our students want their dogs to enjoy life with them as trained partners sooner than later. Beware of any training classes that take eight weeks simply for loose leash walking, or that are divided into so many remedial programs that a human could get a doctorate by the time the dog can do a one minute sit-stay with a distraction in the room. Dogs are with us for a depressingly short amount of time. The more effective the training, the more of that time will be spent enjoying your dog rather than managing, bribing and restraining him.

Can you show me one of your dogs working off leash?

Today’s dog training world is filled with Internet experts with impressive websites and “trainers” who have been given a certification after taking a multiple-choice exam. These folks often talk a good game, but nothing tells you more about a trainer than his or her own dogs. Is the trainer willing to show you her own dog working off leash and without food treats? How does the dog perform? Is he happy but precise? Is he a dog that you would want to own, based solely on his behavior and responsiveness? Even when a trainer is between dogs, for instance, retiring an older dog and raising a young pup, she should be able to show you a student’s or client’s dog performing at the level you hope for your own companion. Also, does the trainer compete? (See our article "Why Competition Counts" for more information). If the trainer has had success in one of the serious dog sports (such as AKC/UKC Obedience or Schutzhund), that means that she has trained her own dogs to an extremely high standard and been judged well by her peers. No matter what, as Mike Pinksten always says: “even though the trainers have the opinions, the dogs have the facts”. And a trainer who is not willing to let a well-behaved, happy dog do the talking for her is no trainer at all.

We hope that you’ve found the above helpful. Training your four-legged best friend is one of the best gifts you can give him, yourself and the community where you live. We know how we’ll answer all of the questions above, so feel free to give us a call and set up an appointment. Then you and your dog can begin your own training experience with Olympia Kennels!

Article by Michael E. Pinksten and Julia V. McDonough

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