If you’ve read the previous 3 pieces in this series and/or follow our Facebook page, you know that we have a strong bias towards reward-based training. As with any bias that a person holds, we believe ours to be the right one. The reasons for our bias are clear: we don’t believe in hurting dogs in the name of training. Actually, we don’t believe in hurting dogs period. Our education has given us knowledge and skills to show us that training doesn’t have to hurt to be successful and our hands-on experience proves it to us time and time again. Dogs are more successful when they are reinforced for the things we like. They are also more successful when we are able to offer them an alternative, like sitting instead of jumping to be greeted. They are also more successful when we can desensitize them to something that causes them to react, rather than pushing them over threshold.
So, now it’s time to talk about finding the right trainer. Be aware that not all are created equal, even if you have chosen a reward-based, force-free, positive reinforcement based trainer. Some will have more skill in certain areas than others. Your job is to decide if a particular trainer can meet your needs, your trainer’s job is to decide if your needs are within their scope of expertise. Our job is to help you figure out both. Our hope is that we can help you, average dog owner, know what questions to ask when deciding to hire a trainer.
Where did you receive your education?
One of the first things to ask a trainer who you may want to hire is about their education. Some trainers may not have a formal education. Maybe they apprenticed under someone and worked their way up the ranks. Either way- you want to know. This information is extremely valuable. What seminars or workshops have they attended? Who are the trainers they look up to? What books have they read? Those trainers who don’t have a formal education, but have attended seminars or workshops with leaders in the field can be just as knowledgeable and skilled as those who attended a school like The Academy for Dog Trainers or Karen Pryor Academy because they were able to learn the concepts and then put them to good use. But, you want to know. A person who has always lived with dogs does not a trainer make.
What are your credentials?
As mentioned in Part One, the CCPDT is currently the only large certifying body, though trainers may be certified through a school. This leads back to the same questions you asked about education. Since dog training isn’t regulated, a trainer does not have to be certified and if they are not, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t any good (just like being certified isn’t a guarantee that they will be good), but it does give you some information and may indicate how committed a trainer is to gaining more knowledge. As mentioned in Part One, a trainer who has received the CPDT-KA certification is required to meet continuing education requirements. Continuing education is a very good thing, particularly in a field where there is just so much amazing stuff to learn!
What methods do you use?
Reward-based trainers may vary a bit in some of the methods we use, but we all use positive reinforcement as a primary means to increase behaviors that we want to see more of. Some of us may use lure-reward training, some may do clicker training, some may do a bit of both, depending on the dog or the behavior we are working on. As far as we here at YPBY are concerned, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it is done competently. When we talk about competence, we are talking about things like good timing and mechanics and understanding what actually is reinforcing for the dog, not what we think should be.
How will you motivate my dog?
Training is work for dogs. We believe they should be paid for that work. Will your trainer use food, play, toys or pain, startle, shock, fear or intimidation? Some trainers consider themselves “balanced” and will use a bit of all of the above. We are firmly of the opinion that there is nothing balanced about causing pain. The idea of Informed Consent was brought forth by our mentor, Jean Donaldson, in a webinar for the Pet Professional Guild. The idea is that trainers need to be transparent about the methods they use and the potential side effects. For instance, as someone who often uses food, I often tell clients to use part of their dog’s daily rations for training to avoid over-feeding and potential weight gain. There may come a day when regulation is in effect and a trainer is sued for using a shock collar that caused harm to a dog, when a skilled reward-based trainer could have gotten the job done with chicken. And, the person would be right to ask the question, “Why wasn’t I told this could be achieved without harming my dog?” or worse, “Why wasn’t I told that one of the potential side effects of shocking my dog could be increased aggression?” Our friend, Lisa Mullinax, who was featured in our Trainer Spotlight, has first hand experience with this and it’s quite the cautionary tale.
We use operant conditioning to build behaviors and classical conditioning to address emotional states through desensitization and counterconditioning. Other reward- based trainers may use techniques such as BAT or LAT, they may “Click the Trigger.” None are invasive or painful and all can be utilized competently or not.
There is no free lunch in behavior. Every being with a spinal cord requires motivation to “behave.” At the current time in the United States, you get to choose what is used to motivate your dog. Choose wisely.
What tools will you use?
Reward-based trainers will use: clickers, food rewards, toys, no-pull harnesses or head halters. We’ll use bait bags and praise. Petting if a dog finds it reinforcing. Lots of happy talk. We won’t use tools that cause pain, fear, shock or startle. Read Kelly’s amazing piece here on the proper way to hurt a dog and this excellent piece from eileenanddogs about the magical attention signal. Be aware that there are trainers out there who call themselves reward-based who may revert aversive tools if they are not skilled or patient enough to work through an issue. This is a problem that we have seen and heard of on more than a few occasions and if you find yourself in this position, it’s time to ask more questions, like what else could we do instead of spraying my dog with citronella or lemon juice or vinegar for reacting? The answer from a skilled trainer would be to increase the distance from the trigger, work at the dog’s pace, rather than our own and protect the training in between sessions by not exposing the dog to the trigger until we have successfully changed the dog’s emotional state. Issues such as reactivity and aggression deserve the time it takes to work through them. Giving them short shrift and not working good protocols does no one a favor in the long run, least of all your dog.
What will you do if you feel my case is outside your scope of expertise?
The answer here should always be: refer. Some trainers have more experience with more complex issues, like aggression, reactivity, separation anxiety and other anxiety issues. If they are in over their head, they should let you know, particularly if there is a danger of acts of aggression or self-harm due to anxiety. In these cases, the support of a behaviorist may be warranted. The good news is that technology gives us lots of options for support. We have a friend who does separation anxiety consults with clients all over the globe via Skype and one who does the same for fearful dogs. Some veterinary behaviorists also offer supportive services this way.
What is your stance on medications for behavioral issues?
Some trainers are very anti-meds. If you have a dog with anxiety issues, meds may be warranted sooner rather than later and a trainer’s bias can have some influence. The use of medication as an adjunct to behavior modification can be very valuable and is a conversation you should be able to have openly with both your trainer and your vet. Trainers obviously cannot prescribe meds, but they can suggest that you speak to your vet about them and knowledge of the various medications available and their effects can be helpful when moving forward with behavior modification.
If you are inquiring about classes, you want to know the following things:
- Can you come and observe a class before signing up? Being able to see a trainer in action with dogs will help you decide if you are comfortable with them and if looks like it will be a good fit for you and your dog.
- How many dogs are in the class? This is important because big classes can be overwhelming for some dogs (and, some people).
- What is the dog/trainer ratio? This is important because you want to know that you will get the attention you need and that the instructor can manage the number of dogs and their people. The more dogs, the more people and likely the more questions and troubleshooting that will need to be done. Does the instructor utilize assistants to help in class?
- Will dogs meet in class? If dogs are to meet in class, will the instructor help students understand body language and how to best have dogs interact?
- What will happen if it turns out your dog isn’t a good fit for a particular class? Will you be referred to another, like a class focused on reactivity? Will you be offered the option of private sessions if necessary?
How accessible is the trainer in between sessions?
Will your trainer answer questions for you if something comes up before your next scheduled session? This is a good thing to know, and as long as it’s not abused, most trainers are happy to troubleshoot issues that may come up from time to time. Some prefer email, some phone. One thing to keep in mind is that a phone conversation or email exchange is not a substitute for a session and in-depth explanations of things are often not possible or helpful. Seeing things in action is much more valuable than a brief exchange via technology.
Many people contact trainers when there is a problem and not as a proactive measure (though we love the ones who want to get a jump on things like new puppy owners or people who have newly adopted dogs), and because of this, the importance of knowing what to ask cannot be over-stated. If you have a dog whose reactivity is getting worse and you are seeking help, you don’t want your dog getting yanked around or forced to sit in the face of a trigger (hopefully, you don’t want that at all!) If you have a dog who is showing signs of fear or aggression, you don’t want your dog alpha rolled and your trainer should understand how to effectively desensitize and countercondition your dog, rather than using pain, fear or startle to modify a behavior. In fact, the use of pain, fear, startle and shock can cause behavior suppression and lead to further problems down the road by causing a dog to no longer show warning signs of fear and aggression and launch straight into aggression.
The bottom line and purpose of the pieces in this series is simple: Buyer Be Aware. The more knowledge and information you have before going into a relationship with a trainer, the better off both you and your dog will be. Remember that when it comes to dogs, we are dealing with beings that have behaviors. Some of them we like, some of them we don’t. We can channel (or greatly decrease the likelihood of) the ones we don’t like and build on the ones we do like. We can do this without causing our dogs pain or fear. We can do it by being consistent and predictable. We can do it by being kind. We can enjoy the process and be amazed at what our dogs are capable of.
Don’t they deserve that much?