Sifting through the ever-changing world of dog trainers

One of my clients called yesterday to tell me that she was getting conflicting advice from another dog trainer. My client’s veterinarian had suggested she see a person the veterinarian called a specialist and the specialist told my client she was a behaviorist, which does sound important. But, when the specialist started giving my client advice that conflicted with what I was telling her, my client was understandably confused.

I feel bad for my client. There is so much conflicting information in the world of dog training. One old adage is that the only thing two dog trainers will agree on is what the third trainer is doing wrong. Sadly, I think that is more often true than not.

So, what is a person with a dog to do? How do you sift through all this confusion?

While this short post is overly simplistic, I hope it will help. First, let’s break the dog training world into two big groups.

1: The group that thinks dogs need a forceful hand that will dominate them and show them their place in the pack. This group may often use a punisher as a means to get the dog to comply. This group often uses words such as “dominance,” “alpha,” “leader of the pack.”

2: The group that uses a positive reward system and does not use punishment as a means to teach a dog something. This group talks about learning to read a dog’s body language, using the dog’s favorite food or toy to get the dog to work and many members of this group are quickly distancing themselves from anything that has the word “alpha” in it.

Each group has dozens (if not hundreds) of sub groups. I have belonged to both groups. Like many trainers I started off in Group 1 years ago. I believed the dog trainer who told me the choke chain was not really hurting my dog; I believed the trainer who told me the electric collar was not shocking my dog the same way it would shock me because my dog had fur around his neck; I believed the trainer who said the prong collar was humane.

Then one day I looked at my dog. He was shivering, drooling and miserable. I was trying to make him do something he didn’t want to do. The trainers around me wanted me to keep pushing the dog and MAKE him obey. My dog was terrified. Suddenly, I thought, “this is my friend, this dog loves me and has given me years of fun and yet I’m making him miserable.” Was it the task I was asking my dog to do that making him miserable or the way I was teaching him the task? I came to the conclusion that it was the way I was teaching him. As I stood on that training field, I realized I felt as miserable as my dog. As a matter of fact, I was crying.  I was hurting him, if not physically, then mentally. In that moment, I changed to Group 2. It wasn’t actually overnight, but it was on that night that the change began. I stopped charging the electric collar, I kept “forgetting” to bring my prong collar and I started going to seminars on dog behavior and training. I became a seminar junkie.

The more I learned about dog behavior the more I moved into the Group 2 camp. Here was a form of training that would never hurt my dog. My spirits lifted. My dog and I began exploring clicker training, which is in Group 2. According to the website, “Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.”

My dog, Batman, could not be happier. In the years since I switched to clicker training, the bond between Batman and I has strengthened tremendously. My younger dog, Condor, only knew a few months of any kind of training from Group 1 and he just certified as a Human Remains Detection Dog.

There are many people in Group 1 who say that clickers are ok for tricks or clickers can’t be used to teach a dog everything. As a matter of fact an instructor at the Human Remains Detection seminar I was at told me Condor actually “hated” the sound of the clicker. He told me “real” working dogs had to be taught using other methods. I ignored him and kept my clicker on. Later that afternoon I sat in the shade and taught Condor to “shake” with both paws with my clicker, and all the while Condor had a big, sloppy grin on his face. The way he kept working and looking at my treat bag did not seem to be the face of a dog who “hated” the sound of a clicker.

My best advice to anyone confused by all the types of training is to do research. Find a trainer who is certified through some type of organization. Then look up that organization to see what they stand for. Some groups allow a trainer to put initials after their name for just the price of an annual fee; other groups actually have classwork and hold their members to standards. For example, I graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy, which is a six month course that requires its students to have a score of 90 or higher in order to pass and become certified.

Talk to any trainer you wish to hire. If you like the trainer, chances are you will like the training. Ask to meet the trainer’s dog and see a demo. I can tell a lot by a person by their dog and I’m sure you can too. Ask the trainer why he or she choose the type of training they believe in and what their training background includes.  Sit in on a class before you sign up with a trainer; make sure you like how he or she teaches. Look at the dogs in the class. Are they happy and working or shut down and terrified?

Above all, don’t get suckered in by words that sound impressive, but don’t mean much. For example, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has this to say about the word “behaviorist.” – “Behaviorist: This term is not attached to any specific qualification or level of schooling unless preceded by “veterinary” or “applied animal.” This term is not attached to any specific qualification or level of schooling. It can be used by anyone including someone with no formal education in companion animal behavior.”

 Whatever you do, don’t despair. Training your dog is important and it is worth finding the right person, even if the search can get confusing.

2 thoughts on “Sifting through the ever-changing world of dog trainers


    I enjoyed reading your blog on trainers. You are right, not all dog trainer’s are ‘certified’ trainers, but I don’t know that they need to be. I worked as an accountant for 27 years, but I did not have a degree. Yet I was still considered and paid as an accountant. I have been involved in the pet industry for over 15 years. I am not certified, but I have the knowledge, expertise, and desire to learn more and teach others the positive methods that I have used to train my own animals to do some pretty amazing things. Selecting a trainer can be tricky and the client unfortunately doesn’t always know the right questions to ask. So I think it is up to us to refer them to the appropriate trainer.


  2. connieswaim

    Thanks for the comment on the post! You are correct, there are some great trainers that are not be certified, but most of them have some kind of background that includes seminars or some type of learning. I just think it is important for a client to check into whatever kind of training the trainer says he or she is offering to make sure they have the background to teach it.



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