Dog Training is an unregulated profession. Think about that statement for a minute and what it could possibly mean for you as a consumer and dog owner. To help, here’s the definition of “regulate”, as per Merriam- Webster:

  • to set or adjust the amount, degree, or rate of (something)
  • to bring (something) under the control of authority
  • to make rules or laws that control (something)

So, the opposite of regulated, as it applies to dog training would be that it is an industry that is not under the control of an authority and that there are no rules or laws to control how people practice. This is a problem. It’s a problem for people and, perhaps more importantly, it’s a problem for dogs.

There is some history here that is worth noting. Dog training evolved as a profession after World War 2. Methods used at that time were handed down from military trainers as baby boomers began to show interest in formal training for pet dogs. The methods focused largely on the use of harsh, aversive techniques, were based on the assumption that dogs had an innate “desire to please” and over the course of time, more talk of dogs as pack animals emerged. The evolution of dog training has continued since that time and though much has changed, for many, these ideas remain. These old ideas took root even further back in history, but for our purposes, that’s where we are going to start, as the rest of it is pretty sordid. But, there is another root of dog training- and that comes from the work of BF Skinner and Ivan Pavlov. These roots are where those of us who use “science-based” methods take our cues and work from. The early science-based, Positive Reinforcement trainers, such as Keller and Marian Breland (who were students of BF Skinner, and trained a number of species) and Bob Bailey (who is well-known for his “Chicken Camps”, in which trainers learn how to train chickens, a species that is known to be difficult to train) laid out the path for people like Karen Pryor, who transferred her skills from marine mammal training to dogs and Ian Dunbar,  a Veterinarian who recognized through taking his own dog to a class that the methods being used were less than productive. The work of Pryor and Dunbar opened the door for the next generation of science-based trainers, which includes people like our own mentor, Jean Donaldson.

The point of all of this history is to give you some background as to where we are today and how we got here. It’s not really the point of these articles, though. The point of these articles is to help shine a light into an industry in which there is still a lot of darkness, a lot of fuzzy gray areas that can be difficult to navigate for the average dog owner. And, more succinctly, the point is to show the distinction between certified and non-certified trainers and what type of certifications exist and to help people understand that the terms “trainer” and “behaviorist” are not interchangeable.

Let’s start with trainers. Because dog training is an unregulated industry, anyone who wants to can call themselves a dog trainer and set up a business and start taking paying clients. Anyone. It doesn’t matter what they actually know or think they know about dogs, if someone wants to call themselves a dog trainer, there is no one that can stop them. This is important for dog owners to know because the variation in quality, knowledge, education and hands-on experience can be huge. From the guy who thinks he is “good with dogs” to the trainer with numerous certifications and everyone in between, the levels of competence can vary dramatically. This is a huge problem, not only because of the gap in information these trainers may have, but also because of the effect that can have on dogs.

This TED Talk by Ian Dunbar gives an excellent explanation of how dogs work and how to best train dogs:


Click Picture Above to View Video

So, how does one go about choosing a trainer and making sense of all of the credentials vs. lack of credentials issue and making sure that trainer is competent? Looking at credentials and certifications will give you a window into a particular trainer’s level of competence, but it does not give a full picture. You may be wondering how this can be. Here’s how:

Currently there is one certifying body- The Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers and this is the most widely known certification a dog trainer can have. To earn this certification, a trainer must have completed a certain number of hours of hands-on training, provide references and pass an exam. The most common of the “alphabet soup” letters that come with this certification are CPDT-KA, which means Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed. Only trainers who have met the requirements and passed the exam may use these letters and have continuing education requirements they must meet within a certain period to maintain use of the credential. It must be renewed every 3 years and those continuing education hours must be documented. It is important to note that there are no education requirements to take this exam and that the guy who is good with dogs can earn this certification if he has done a little homework as can someone who has gotten a more formal education. This is why some trainers who have certifications through a particular school opt not to earn their CPDT- because of the lumping in with trainers of all education levels and methods of training. Personally, I opted to earn this certification because it is the most widely known and I like being held accountable. Knowing that I have to continue my education helps keeps me invested in continuing to learn.

Trainers can be certified by schools, and not all are created equal. When I was doing research to get more education in dog training, I was pretty naive. I had no idea what “force-free training” was, and thought everyone trained dogs the same way. Boy, did I have a lot to learn. I am eternally grateful to Jean Donaldson for accepting me into The Academy for Dog Trainers and allowing me to learn a new way to train dogs. I often joke that when I applied to the  Academy, I thought I would be perfecting my down-stay. Little did I know that I would be doing that and so much more than I ever bargained for. After lots of blood, sweat, tears and training time, I earned my CTC through the Academy, meaning I am Certified in Training and Counseling. My YPBY counterpart, Kelly earned the same certification and she did so with honors. It is our bias, of course, that this is the certification to have because we received an extremely comprehensive education and believe it to be top-notch in every way.

I am also certified through Animal Behavior College and have earned the credential ABCDT, or Animal Behavior College Dog Trainer. This program focused more on building behaviors in dogs and took less time and was not as comprehensive. After completing this program, I was allowed to use the letters after my name and start training dogs as a certified trainer. At that time, what I didn’t know about behavior problems and how to work through them most effectively could have hurt me, but thankfully it did not.

There are numerous other programs out there of varying levels of difficulty, using all manner of methods. From pack theory to those that focus on using only Operant Conditioning principles, to those that teach both Operant and Classical Conditioning, the variety of of information, education and methodology is pretty vast. Personally, I think this is a problem. We are talking, in many cases, about modifying the behavior of 2 species (human and canine) and we, as a profession, have no common language. If this were the case among, say doctors, it would never fly. Humans would be in big trouble if anyone could call themselves a doctor. That’s something worth thinking about, in my opinion. Here we are, living with another species, and the professionals don’t have a common language with which to address the issues which almost inevitably arise. Add to that the fact that the guy who thinks he is good with dogs can go out and do the same job as someone who has taken the time, spent the money and expended the energy and brainpower to gain knowledge and skills to competently do the job without having to cause pain or fear to get the job done and we are in even more of a muddle.

When it comes to trainers, I personally believe that certification through a school that teaches trainers to use force-free methods should be a minimal standard. I don’t personally care if someone gets the job done via lure-reward or clicker training. I do care if someone has no knowledge of how to treat behavior problems, whether we are talking about leash reactivity or resource guarding. Standards of care for these issues are crucial, because when it comes to behavior problems, we can end up talking about welfare issues if a trainer can not work with them competently. The way a competent force-free trainer is going to modify these issues is tremendously different than one who subscribes to pack theory, or believes in asserting dominance over a dog as a way to modify behavior.

And, then there are trainers with no certifications- and some of them are very competent. Reasons for not being certified can vary. Some trainers do not want to be associated with the CPDT credential, because the standard of taking all comers means they get lumped in with trainers who use force. Some may have learned as they went along, maybe apprenticed under someone and gained competency, having pieced together an education by reading as much as possible, attending seminars and training with another trainer. Some stumble into a career as a trainer by starting as a volunteer at a shelter. All of these things, just like the differences in certifications add to the muddle that the industry is in.

The reason this is all so problematic is because of the lack in standards of care. I don’t know how we fix this on a global level, but in coming pieces, I hope to help you know what to look for so that you can make the best decisions for you and your dog.

Up next: Part 2- What is a behaviorist?