Updated: May 14, 2020
A quick guide to finding the best help for you and your dog
A daily scroll through social media will regularly feature appeals for assistance in choosing a dog trainer or behaviourist. Asking for recommendations is a great way to find tried and trusted practitioners, but how do you go about evaluating who will provide the help that is best suited to you and more importantly, to your dog?
Dog trainers and behaviour practitioners are on a spectrum where some are truly excellent, some awful and the majority somewhere in between. Working your way through websites and social media pages, trying to find the best can be an overwhelming experience.
Using my 19 years of experience in this industry, I have put together this quick guide to help you.
What you must know before you start
Dog training and behaviour is an unregulated industry*. This is vitally important and if you are looking for help you need to know this. Anyone, I repeat, anyone can set themselves up as a dog trainer, a dog behaviour consultant or a dog behaviourist, no qualifications or experience are necessary.
You also need to know that we can call ourselves anything we wish, there is no recognised standard exam that qualifies us as a behaviourist*, behaviour therapist or behaviour consultant, these titles are meaningless and often misleading.
If you are lucky the person you choose will have a deep connection to dogs, made the effort to educate themselves, joined a recognised organisation and abides by their code of ethics at all times. However, even with all this in place you may still not be in safe hands, so what else can you do to protect yourself.
Critically Analyse the information you can see
We live in a world that understands marketing. There are plenty of courses that teach dog trainers how to sell themselves whether the ability to be able to train a dog exists or not. The key skill for any dog owner in this digital age is to be able to critically analyse the information you are being given.
Always bear in mind that social media allows any of us to present a carefully edited image, whilst photographs, blogs etc may give you an idea of the philosophies underpinning the trainers work, it will never be a full picture.
Reviews can be useful, but reviews can also be edited or bought. Reviews also tend to be posted in the first flush of a relationship, after one or two sessions. The evidence of successful behaviour change therapy is a happy dog and owner one or two years later. Try to find people who are still happy to recommend after this length of time.
Price is no indicator of quality. Being unregulated means there is no industry standard in regard to pricing. A high price does not mean you are dealing with an expert, no matter what they tell you.
Keep yourself safe
Studies show that we are prone to let our guard down in the presence of people who are with a dog or pretend to care about dogs. Sociopathic and predatory people can use dogs as a prop, convincing us that they are kind-hearted and trustworthy. There is plenty of advice given to trainers about personal safety, but surprising little information for clients. Although your chosen trainer or behaviourist may have a convincing profile, remember they are a stranger working in an unregulated industry and you need to be careful.
Begin to Assess
The following list has been put together to help you begin the process of assessing dog trainers and behaviour change experts.
Can you question the trainer Asking questions is essential to getting the best care. Trainers are busy people, but will take time to answer questions or refer you to other resources to get you the information you need.
Are you receiving reports and notes Behaviour reports and training session notes are part of the job; as professionals we need to keep records and you are entitled to receive copies. Notes and records may be required by your vet or another trainer if you need further help. Always ask.
Can you work out the ethics or values Who does your trainer learn from? Who has inspired them in the past or teaches them today? Are you comfortable with the ethics of these teachers and trainers? Look at videos the trainer has made of their work, videos of them working with their own dogs and photos. These can give you some information on how the trainer is likely to work with you and your dog, bear in mind these can be edited. Most trainers write blog posts these days, it is a quick and easy way to educate and share information. If your trainer doesn't write their own blog, check the type of blogs they share - do the ethics and values match your own?
Watch the language Take note of the language used - words like 'commands' or 'control' can be (but not always) evidence of a more traditional approach. Words like 'cues' or 'connection' can be evidence of a trainer who has been exposed to more modern teaching - beware language can be used in a politically correct fashion!
Are you being blinded with science It is essential that all modern dog trainers have a good grasp of the science of behaviour however they also need to be able to apply the practical skills. If your trainer uses a lot of scientific terms ask them to explain them clearly and how it relates to the practical work with your dog.
Does the trainer know your breed If they don't are they willing to find out all about it? Understanding a breed and how they instinctively behave can be essential in behaviour modification.
Do they practice what they preach Has your trainer trained a dog to a high level, their own or someone else's via a class or consult? Do they participate in dog sports or work with dogs in breed specific settings. Dog training and behaviour modification is more than just theory, a good grasp of the practical skills is essential.
Are the terms and conditions clear Do you understand how to get a refund? Are you being consulted by the trainer you expected to see? Is the cancellation policy clear and fair? Do you understand the social media policy and what will happen to the images of you or your dog?
Is the relationship professional It is not appropriate to receive suggestive messages or communication that makes you feel uncomfortable whilst paying a trainer. It is not appropriate for a trainer to touch you during a session without asking your permission. It is not appropriate for a trainer to become verbally or physically abusive towards you. If you feel any boundaries have been crossed you need to stop the session and report the behaviour as soon as possible.
*Veterinary behaviourists may be regulated by the veterinary industry, please check.
If you need to report abusive behaviour experienced whilst training your dog, please contact your local police station or email for further advice firstname.lastname@example.org
Resource: The Empathy Trap Dr Jane McGregor and Tim McGregor