Choosing a Dog Trainer – Understanding the Business End of the Leash

I dread going into the auto mechanic’s shop because all I can do is open the hood and stare. Sure, I know what an engine looks like and I even know how it works, but when it comes to fixing it I’m completely at the mercy of the car expert and that’s not a good feeling!

It’s similar for most folks when it comes to dogs and dog training. We all know they bark, pee, eat, walk on four legs and have a brain, but getting that brain in alignment with the family dynamics is extremely intimidating for most. Good thing there’s the local dog training place!

Unlike the auto mechanic, the dog training people are friendly. They greet you, treat your dog like royalty, adore Fido with attention & treats, make friends with your dog and most importantly, they tell you what to do. You’re relieved to know that all you need is to sign-up for a class (or perhaps allow them to train your dog for you), buy what training gear they recommend and all is GREAT! Right…?  WRONG!!!!!

Well, just like my not-so-personable auto mechanic, there are a few more things you need to learn before blindly following the advice of that really nice dog trainer you just met and you definitely need to understand the business end of the leash BEFORE you drop your dog off for the day.

  1. Running a Business vs. Training Dogs – As with auto mechanics, just because they have a building, a website, offer up coupons and greet you with the fancy title (in this case one that says Dog Trainer), these things do NOT mean they’re qualified to train dogs. Don’t be fooled by shiny things – dig deeper.
  2. Guarantees – If they offer a guarantee that your dog will be trained, RUN like the wind! Why? Well, any time you’re working with a behavior-based situation that involves a living, breathing, cognitive being (human or canine) there are never any guarantees as to an outcome. A real professional knows this and an honest person won’t make false promises.
  3. Hobbyist vs. Professional – For years it was commonly accepted that dog training was merely a hobby career. However, those days are long gone and over the last decade even the most experienced hobbyist should have grown and developed themselves into the modern day dog training professional. Ask your trainer this two-part question: a) how long have they been training dogs; and b) what specific professional education have they recently completed to improve and modernize their skills. After all, if the last ‘diagnostic engine class’ my auto mechanic took was 10 years ago, there’s no way in hell I’d let him work on my current vehicle (not even a simple oil change since a little mistake like the wrong oil could potentially cost me thousands for an engine replacement!). Using the same theory, if you find yourself talking with a 20+ year veteran dog trainer who has failed to stay current in their chosen profession, MOVE-ON! After all, you and your dog deserves an up-to-date professional trainer – one who cares enough to stay current in their chosen career.
  4. Science-Based Training vs. Myth – One of the biggest changes in dog training over the last few decades has been the shift from myth-based training to SCIENCE-based training. Science-based training is exactly what the name indicates – it is a proven, scientifically researched, positive & reward-based means of training that focuses on creating and developing wanted behaviors. Science-based training has been in use for over 50 years and is achieved by clearly ‘marking’ a correct behavior and immediately pairing it with a reward that ‘pays’ the dog for choosing to do that behavior. In contrast, myth-based training waits until the dog is wrong and then administers a type of punishment (some examples are physically correcting the dog, shaming the dog, hitting the dog, luring or allowing the dog to do the unwanted behavior and then surprising them with a correction, etc.).  While Science-based training creates a new & positive behaviors (before a bad habit can start), myth-based training tends to focus on and requires that the handler (you) constantly correct the dog. To complicate things, some myth-based trainers use correction methods and then follow up with food/praise, claiming they are ‘balanced’ and use positive training methods. So the lesson here is educate yourself first and clearly KNOW which type of training you want for your dog BEFORE you interview prospective trainers.
  5. Mission Statement On Dog Training Style – To help decipher what type of training a facility utilizes, type of trainers they have on staff and to help determine the facility’s level of professionalism, ask to see their dog training guidelines or mission statement. If they use terms like “we welcome all types of training methods” or “we have different styles of trainers” be sure to do your due diligence as these can often be unofficial code words for “we don’t have a formal training style…” or “we hire whoever we can and let them decide…”. Look for words like ‘relationship, positive, science-based and mutual’.  Be sure to ask what procedures and policies the facility has in place and as always, meet your trainer in person so you can ask questions and observe a class to be sure they follow their own guidelines.
  6. Independent Contractor vs. Employee vs. Owner – Before you begin to discuss your dog’s training, know who you’re talking to when you enter a facility. If you’re talking to a business owner, find out if they also train dogs. If they don’t, remember that their job is to SELL you on the services their facility provides and while they may have the best of intentions, beware of owners who may be wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to their facility’s capabilities. Next, you’ll want to talk with the actual TRAINER who will be working with your dog…while you will want to ask them some of the questions above, you’re also going to want to inquire if they are an employee or an independent contractor. Why? Well, an employee is often held to a higher standard since they take all direction (including dog training curriculum) from their employer (the dog training facility). However, by legal definition, an Independent Contractor is hired to come up with their own curriculum, training style, etc. and there is often NO accountability from the facility owner. I’ve heard facility owners say “They’re an Independent Contractor, there’s nothing I can do….” so avoid the middle man (the owner or front office) and meet directly with, interview and determine for yourself if the I/C dog trainer meets your personal criteria.
  7. Payment Structure, Flat Fee, Hourly Rate or Percentage and Worker Turnover – Understandably, inquiring about how an employee or independent contractor is paid can be a sensitive topic, but this may be important information for you to know. For example, if an I/C is paid a small percentage of their class enrollment and there is only one or two dogs in class, it’s possible that I/C is being paid less than minimum wage. If you were to factor in the price of gas and time commitment, it’s likely your new trainer won’t be at the facility very long and you’ll end up experiencing the frustration of starting over with a new trainer in a few weeks.
  8. Training Done ‘In Public’ vs. Training Done ‘In Private’ – One of the harder things to gauge is the behavior/training your dog is subjected to when you leave them in the care of a dog trainer. I’m embarrassed to say that I have seen some well-liked ‘dog trainers’ administer painful techniques on dogs to squelch a common behavior and another who physically roughed up a dog because they were frustrated at their inability to get a collar on the dog correctly. In both cases, these trainers saw no problem with what they were doing (even though it caused the dog pain) and one even said “Well, I wouldn’t do that in front of the client, but it worked….” While there are no guarantees, I suggest you put in writing unacceptable behaviors or guidelines for the trainer when it comes to working with your dog. This could be as simple as a list of Prohibited items (i.e. shock collar, scruffing, hitting, use of pain in training, etc.)
  9. Qualifications – While this one seems obvious, be sure your instructor is QUALIFIED to train you in the skills you’ve signed up for. For example, if you are interested in Agility, be sure your trainer has achieved the appropriate agility titles (such as a Masters Championship title). Titles and achievements can be clear indicators of success as well as proof that they have been through the trials and tribulations you may soon be experiencing on your road to success.

While this post only begins to scratch the surface of the business end of the leash, the moral of the story is clear – YOU are your dog’s advocate. Take the time to do research and don’t assume that the dog trainer who presents you with a happy smile while offering your dog the enticement of food is a quality trainer. Ask more questions, observe a class and understand the different types of dog training methods.

Happy Handling!

Lisa

As a 20+ year dog agility coach, I am passionate about producing quality resources for dog agility teams by promoting self-development and delivering clear and specific training solutions that enable teams' to perform with clarity and confidence!

My unique experience as a hands-on trainer and 18+ year dog agility judge led me to create Sequencing For Success and the highly successful 2on-2off Contact Training DVD.

Our household has included Dalmatians, Labradors, Belgian Tervuren, Border Collies and engaging cats.

Contact Lisa via email AgilityOne at Gmail.com (replace at with @ sign)