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Choosing a good dog trainer

Friday May 8th, 2009

We know too many stories of dogs who have been given to a shelter, or even abandoned, after easily-correctable behaviors were ignored, mishandled, and or grew into big problems. Many of these dogs were rescued and adopted, and, with a good training class, have become the great dogs their original owners hoped they would be.

To avoid your dog becoming another problem dog in a shelter, start off on the right foot by taking him--and the whole family--to a professional dog trainer. Dog training professionals provide classes that can help your dog and your family learn to live with each other. A good training class is one that combines fun and socialization along with lessons on command and control. Here's how to find the trainer and class that best fits your needs.

Do I really need formal classes?

Many dog owners look at that little bundle of fur they just brought home and think, "Oh, I can handle this...he'll pick it right up." Yet a lot of good intentions go out the window, especially if the techniques you use are not working. After a couple frustrating days many owners simply give up. The problem is, whether you're deliberately training him or not, your dog (puppy, adolescent or older dog) is always learning. If you don't help him separate what's right from what's wrong, he'll find his own path, make his own rules, and (surprise, surprise) they may not jive with yours.

Proper, positive training strengthens the tie between you and your dog, while helping him to happily and willingly follow your commands. Proper training also helps pet sitters, vets, and groomers to safely help your dog.

What makes a good dog trainer?

It's crucial that the dog trainer you choose uses humane training techniques that support proper behavior through positive reinforcement. That means rewarding good behavior with food, attention, play, or praise. Stay away from trainers who use inhumane techniques or refuse to give rewards until the dog submits to a command. Training techniques should never use yelling, choking, shaking the scruff, yanking on the leash, alpha rolling (forcing the dog onto his back), or other actions that terrify or cause pain.

Where are the "good" trainers?

The best way to locate one is through referrals. Family, friends, pet sitters, or your vet may have recommendations. Check the Internet or Yellow Pages under "Dog or Pet Training" where you can also see hours and specialties (puppies, problem dogs, etc). Please don't forget to check with the Better Business Bureau for complaints.

Many dog trainers hold memberships in Dog Training Associations. Keep in mind that these memberships do not automatically mean the trainer is the right one for your situation. Qualifications for membership vary and may not meet the criteria you are looking for.

There are no government regulations or licenses specific to dog training.

Therefore, it's important that you personally check out a trainer's experience and qualifications before you pay to enroll your dog. Ask to visit a class and observe the methods used.

Individual or group classes - what's best?

Group, individual (private lessons), self-guided, and dog-only (owners excluded) are the types of training classes offered. Group training offers the best return, as your dog will be taught to intermingle and socialize with other dogs, allow handling by other humans, and pay attention to their owners.

And it works both ways. You and your family learn by seeing other people interact with their dogs. If at all possible, the entire household should take part in the dog's training. By learning to interact humanely and successfully with the family's furry friend, your family will develop bonds that will be the beginning of a life-long companionship.

What do I look for in a group class?

Ask to attend a session before enrolling. Watch for the following:

  • Is class size controlled to ensure personal attention?
  • Are puppy, adolescent, and adult dogs kept in separate classes?
  • Are there different training stages (i.e. puppy, beginner, intermediate, and advanced)?
  • Are the equipment and methods designed to ensure positive and humane reinforcement?
  • Do the trainers use differing methods to adapt to an individual dog's needs?
  • Is proof of vaccination a prerequisite?
  • Do the dogs and their owners seem to be enjoying themselves?
  • Are dogs and owners enthusiastically encouraged?
  • Is praise used consistently?
  • Are positive and kind voice commands used?
  • Are lesson sheets given out?
  • Is information on how dogs learn, grooming, problem solving, and other dog/owner issues discussed?

How much does training cost?

Training costs differ based on several factors - where you live, type of training, length of the program, etc. Private lessons can vary from $30 to $65 per hour; group lessons can start at $75, for a set of classes that can last 3 to 8 weeks. Your local shelter or pet store may offer subsidized programs for the general public and/or people who are adopting from the shelter. These costs may range from as low as $30 to up to $90, again depending on the type and length of the program.

When should I start training?

If your pet is a puppy, enroll him in puppy classes between 8 and 16 weeks of age. These classes teach basic commands, tricks, and dog and human socialization skills. Dogs older than six months should be enrolled in either adolescent or adult classes. Some trainers offer specialized older dog training classes for dogs who have never been formally trained before.

After you have decided on a trainer and program:

  • Be sure to have your vet give your dog a once over to be sure he is healthy and up-to-date on all his vaccines.
  • Skip feeding your dog just before class. Many trainers rely on treats to encourage positive reinforcement of skills. A full dog may not respond to the treats.
  • If your trainer recommends bringing certain toys or equipment for a class, have them ready and available.
  • Remember to continue your training lessons at home to reinforce newly-learned skills.

Bringing yourself and your dog to training classes benefits both of you, as your dog becomes a well-behaved member of your home and your neighborhood.

For more information

For more information on choosing a dog trainer, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) may help, or call 1-800-PET-DOGS.

Source: Adapted from the HSUS

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