Q: After years of denial, my family has finally come to the conclusion that our dog’s antics are no longer cute. She needs training, but we don’t know where to get help. How do I find a reputable dog trainer who will help us fix the problem without costing an arm and a leg?
A: While some dogs go through life without ever soiling the carpet, chewing a shoe or growling at the mailman, others need obedience training or other tools to address their issues. Correcting a problem pooch takes time, patience and a little bit of expert advice. But finding a trainer can be the biggest challenge.
“A lot of trainers have very similar jargon so it can be confusing,” says Chris Redenbach, director of The Park Training Academy in Tucker, Ga. “One thing you can do is really interview several trainers and ask pointed questions about methods and tools.”
Here are some tools to help find a reputable dog trainer in your area.
Rule out any health-related issues
Keep in mind that dogs will be dogs. “Even great dogs can go astray, especially when they’re adolescents,” Redenbach says. “Shelters are filled with dogs given up at 10 or 11 months, when dogs are teenagers and rowdy with no proper training. The biggest thing is to get them started right.”
Basic obedience training sets a good foundation and helps address general problems such as jumping. For positive tools that you can try at home, also check out the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) “Virtual Pet Behavior” database, which is filled with expert advice for problem pets. It also helps to schedule face time with the veterinarian. In addition to ruling out any health-related issues, your vet may have advice or strategies that you can incorporate quickly.
“I would hope the client would ask me for a recommendation,” says Dr. Erin Ringstrom, a veterinarian with East Atlanta Animal Clinic in Georgia. When they do raise concerns, Ringstrom typically recommends trainers who use positive reinforcement. “Studies show that approach gets results,” she says. “Negative reinforcement just doesn’t work very well.”
When searching for expert assistance, animal trainer Kristen Collins of the ASPCA recommends trainers certified through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. “This is a private, not-for-profit organization that is well-respected in the field,” she says, adding that CCPDT features a directory of trainers across the country.
Narrow down your training options
To get the “best bang for your buck,” Collins also suggests group classes in agility, obedience or dog sports. Most group classes last about six to eight weeks. Private consultations typically involve one-on-one sessions with a charge for each visit.
“I like the idea of offering packages,” she says. “They help people commit to a program, like joining a gym.”
Redenbach also is a fan of classes such as agility or sessions on canine scent work, which makes the most of a dog’s sense of smell. Classes allow pets and people to bond, and many of the activities involve one dog at a time, which helps dogs that don’t work well with groups. More serious issues, such as fear aggression or anxiety, typically require private consultations with a certified behaviorist or a veterinary behaviorist — and prices will vary based on experience. If you have a problem that requires medication and a behavior modification plan, the vet behaviorist is your best bet, Collins says, noting that this will be the priciest option.
“The more education your professional has, the more expensive they are going to be,” she says. “It hurts at first, but if you are getting really quality advice, most feel it’s worth it.”
Regardless of the trainer’s education level, Collins stresses that pet owners seek pros who have experience handling their pet’s issue. “Ask for a former client’s information, ask about their training philosophy. That’s important for people to know,” she says. “If you aren’t comfortable doing what the trainer asks you to do, that isn’t a good situation.”
Collins also suggests that you observe a training class before enrolling. “If instructor says ‘no,’ run for the hills,” she says.
Set a strong foundation
Your dog’s trainer will need detailed information to get started, Collins says. Before the first session, sit down with your family and identify the exact problem you want to correct. Be sure to note when the problem occurs. On training day, she says, food-motivated dogs tend to do better if they skip breakfast. Break soft treats into smaller pieces that can be used to keep them motivated during class.
“If you have a fear or aggression issue, we tell people to have a place to put the dog when we get there so we don’t get eaten,” Collins says. “If the dog bites, they want us to see the problem so the dog is out and running free. But for any private session, the pro will want to talk to you first before working with your dog.”
Make training a family affair
Kate Jackson of Jabula Dog Academy in Decatur, Ga., encourages the entire family to participate in training efforts. As a trainer with the Humane Society of the United States’ Pets for Life program, Jackson and her training partner Gill Poisat provide weekly obedience classes to Chihuahuas, pit bulls, German shepherds and human companions who range in age from about 10 to 70.
“Everyone needs to be working with the dog,” Jackson says. “At home, the dog will only respond to who puts work into it.”
Even if your dog goes away to “boarding school,” a pricey option that consists of two weeks of intense daily training along with follow-up care, don’t assume the issue has been resolved.
“Training is a nice, solid foundation, but you won’t live happily ever after,” Jackson warns. “You have to do homework, and that’s for everything. You can’t ever just stop training; it has to be a lifetime commitment, a lifetime commitment to education.”
Redenbach offers the same advice, but in more blunt terms. “Don’t assume your dog is aware of the master plan — that you just paid $2,000 for training and expect it to come home better,” she says. “The dog and trainer may have built a relationship that worked, but the owner has to learn those tools. There is no way to shirk responsibility if you want to get results.”
All the best!
This column previously appeared on Mother Nature Network