I went to see a new training client last week whose dog has separation anxiety. She lives in a two-story house, and whenever she goes upstairs even for a moment without the dog, he panics and barks non-stop. When she leaves the house, he howls and howls. In the course of our session, she mentioned that she had spoken with another trainer before she’d called me, and had described to him what her dog was doing. His response? “He’s being a Beyonce.” Huh? This baffled me. What does that mean, I asked? That he howls beautifully on key? No. The trainer had explained that the dog was being “a diva.” Really? I took a deep breath, bit my tongue, and rather than disparage another trainer, explained the difference between “being a diva” and experiencing serious anxiety.
A friend recently told me a story about a trainer she once had, who told her that her dog was being manipulative. What was the dog doing? Squatting to pee frequently. This, according to the trainer, was the dog’s attempt to extend walks and to get attention. Beyond the fact that this makes no sense logically, it turned out that these were the first signs that the poor dog had bladder cancer. A recommendation to see a veterinarian would have been a lot more helpful than the half-baked attention theory.
I could go on and on. And it’s not just me. Ask any professional who’s been training for years and they’ll tell you about the strange things their clients have heard from other trainers. This is no slam on trainers in general. I love trainers. Many of my friends are trainers. Hell, I write books for trainers and have mentored many along their paths. I believe trainers should support each other, not tear each other down. However. Along with the ones who mistreat dogs, the ones I take exception to are the working trainers who have no real training themselves or any real understanding of dog behavior. It might surprise you to know that in most U.S. states, no license is required to open a dog training business. There is no obligation to demonstrate proficiency. Nothing. You could hang out a shingle and start seeing clients tomorrow. (Please don’t.) And just as in any business with zero regulation, practitioners range from very experienced, ethical professionals all the way down to those who don’t even know how little they know. Even if an inexperienced trainer means well, they can endanger dogs if they’re taking on serious issues like separation anxiety or aggression.
There is actually a certifying organization called the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). Becoming certified is voluntary, but is not effortless. It requires having hundreds of hours of training under one’s belt, taking a written exam (as well as a physical hands-on test at higher levels), and providing peer and professional testimonials. The test is not easy; I know, because I took it many years ago. Does having this certification guarantee that a trainer is perfect? Of course not. But it does prove the person has a certain amount of experience and a solid knowledge of modern, positive training methods. There are also organizations whose websites feature a trainer search where you can enter your zip code to locate a trainer in your area. A few that come to mind are the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). (The CCPDT site has this feature as well.) While members are not individually grilled on their experience or training philosophy, these organizations do promote positive, gentle training.
Wherever you find a potential trainer, ask a lot of questions beyond just pricing and availability. I cannot tell you how few people who call for training actually ask about training techniques. If someone were coming to train my dog, I’d sure want to know their training philosophy and whether they use tools I’m comfortable with. Some of this information may be on the person’s website, but if not, don’t be shy to ask. If a trainer is working with you in person and you’re not comfortable with something he does, say something. Just because someone is a “professional” does not mean they know your dog better than you do. If your dog appears scared or uncomfortable, or is becoming reactive with the trainer, that person is doing something wrong. Positive, gentle training does not push a dog past his comfort zone, and you should be comfortable as well.
Years ago one of my training clients told me about a group class she attended where the trainer taught the dogs the meaning of “no” by whacking them over the nose with a piece of rubber hose while shouting, “No!” The woman was appalled. She told the trainer in front of the entire class that she would never do that to her dog. She then took her dog and left. That woman is a hero. Standing up to a professional of any kind can be uncomfortable, and peer pressure makes it even harder. But whatever the scenario, if a trainer advises something that clearly doesn’t seem right, or does something with your dog that doesn’t sit right with you or your dog, just say, “Sorry, I’m not comfortable with you working with my dog.” Because hey, trainers aren’t the only ones who can say the darndest things.
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