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Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon

Dog training is an unregulated industry in which dogs and humans suffer.

Dogs and humans beware:

Early this year I wrote an essay called "Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It." In this piece I wrote about the fact that dog training is an unregulated industry—anyone can do it—and because of this, dogs and their humans suffer when people go to trainers who know little or nothing about dog behavior and dog-human relationships. Different people have different needs and dogs are unique individuals, so it's essential that a dog trainer/teacher be well versed in dog behavior and various principles of ethology/animal behavior and psychology. They also need to be able to assess the nature of dog-human interactions.

I was shocked when I learned that anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, so I queried a number of trainers and they also agreed that there really is a "dirty little secret" about which many, perhaps most, people are unaware, as I was. And, of course, it's not a little secret at all, but rather a huge one, because of the incredible damage that can be done by someone who isn't trained to be a dog trainer. As I was writing this essay, I received an email from a former student of mine who noted, "A friend of mine got her dog training license off the internet, I kid you not." She's hardly the first to inform me of so-called trainers hanging a shingle and going to work.

Because of what I do for a living and because I often write about different aspects of dog behavior, I get a good number of queries from people who are having a problem with their dog. The first thing I say very clearly is that I am not a dog trainer and that they need to talk with someone who is certified and can legitimately call themselves a trainer. Some push me for an answer to their problem, but I'm very firm in not offering solutions because there are people who are far better trained than I am to handle a given situation. While I might know something about the behavior of which they're asking such as peeing all over the place, pissing matches between dogs (for details, please see "Pissing Matches in Dogs: Territorial, Lots of Fun, or Both?"), barking when strangers come by, or other aspects of dog behavior, I am not trained to train people and dogs how to remedy them.

Pick a dog trainer as if you're choosing a neurosurgeon

Because of my interests in giving dogs and their humans all the help they can have when a problem arises, I was thrilled to see an essay in the New York Times by Brent Crane called "How to Find a Qualified Dog Trainer." The essay is available online so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more.

Mr. Crane begins, "The world of dog training can be a bit like the 'wild west of professions,' where anyone can advertise being a trainer without necessarily having gone through proper education or licensing, said Jean Donaldson, director of California’s Academy for Dog Trainers." Ms. Donaldson goes on to say, “It’s kind of like if there were kidney specialists but there was no need to go to medical school or get a medical license ... That’s not O.K."

In Mr. Crane's essay, other dog trainers and I agree about how important it is to pay attention to the person to whom you are entrusting your dog's life and also yours. Techniques that won't work can cause or increase fear and stress, for example, and do more harm than good. Thus, it's essential to do a very careful background check. I freely tell people that they should be as picky in choosing a dog trainer as they would when choosing a neurosurgeon, another doctor, or their dog's veterinarian.

Of course, certified dog trainers also can cause harm, but that goes beyond what I want to write about here. Along these lines, well-known animal behaviorist and dog trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar notes in Mr. Crane's essay that "Certifications, however, are not a guarantee ... It is not unheard of that such credentials might be faked. Moreover, these programs tend to focus more on theory than practice." Ms. Donaldson agrees and urges people to check directly with the organization from which a trainer claims to be certified.

Here are a few more tips on how to choose a trainer. Find someone who is good with dogs and good with people. Mr. Crane quotes me as saying, "Look at the relationship you have with your dog because that’s what it’s all about.” A good trainer will say, “Tell me about you and your relationship with your dog: Do you work at home? Are you home a lot? How many people are in your house?” It's important to get as many details as possible before trying to work on the problem at hand.

Words also matter, and it's important to listen carefully to what a potential trainer says and how they say it. It's perfectly also okay to preview a session and watch a trainer at work with another dog.

It's also important to note that anyone saying things like it's okay to be heavy-handed or that food or toys shouldn't be used isn't paying attention to what research has shown, points out Ms. Donaldson. Dr. Dunbar notes, "It’s a scientific fact that reward-training is quicker and more effective than punishment-training.” This is because you only have to teach what's right, whereas in punishment training you've got to “punish each and every mistake.” If you err with punishment, it's likely you've done a good deal of damage.

Dog training that harms dogs is abuse: Cruelty can't stand the spotlight

Let me end by saying that it's well worth getting involved in requiring dog trainers to be certified by approved programs. In "Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It" I wrote about the very sad and tragic case of a young dog named Sarge, a three-and-a-half-month-old Shih Tzu/Pekingese mix. Sarge died because of being harshly treated when he wouldn't heel at a daycare that had previously been cited for abuse. Because Sarge wasn’t heeling, the trainer grabbed him and held his mouth closed with his right hand while holding his neck with his left. The trainer said, “That’s normal. Because he’s a puppy, he exerted all his energy,” and “I won that battle, but you may not next time because he is strong.” Sarge thrashed and collapsed and later died. Sarge died in May 2015.

Bringing attention to Sarge's tragic death has resulted in some good news. I received the original email about Sarge in January 2017 and in March 2017, almost two years after Sarge died and two months after I got involved, there was some movement to regulate dog trainers in the county in which Sarge had lived (for more details please see "'Sarge's Law' could bring new rules for dog trainers in Hillsborough, entire state"). Cruelty can't and shouldn't stand the spotlight.

The bottom line doesn't settle for smoke and mirrors when it comes to selecting a dog trainer. Not only does your dog's life depend on making a good choice, but so too does yours and others who will live with or interact with him or her.

The Academy For Dog Trainers rightfully has called for transparency. They write:

What should owners look for in a dog trainer? If you ask us, the most important thing is **transparency**. If a dog trainer is not willing to fully disclose, in clear language, exactly what will happen to your dog (in the physical world) during the training process, keep shopping. Look for verbs, not adjectives. Demand to know what specific methods will be employed in what specific situations. Don't settle for smoke and mirrors.

When we betray our companion's innocence and trust our actions are ethically indefensible and we become less than human; it's simply wrong, so let's not do it -- ever. Much pure joy will come our way as we clear the path for deep and rich two-way interdependent relationships based on immutable trust with our companions and all other beings. Companion and other animals often need more than we give them.

All dogs who need training depend on their humans to make the best choice possible. We owe it to them to do the best we can and to be sure that when we entrust our dogs' well-being and lives to someone who calls themselves a trainer, that they really are qualified to work with these highly sentient beings and their human guardians.

Dogs and humans beware.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at

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