Did you know that to become a dog trainer you need exactly ZERO credentials? Did you know that the woman who does your hair or nails has to jump through more hoops to be able to work than someone who wants to work with your dog? Did you know that there have been trainers who have caused the death of a dog due to abuse or gross negligence, and were not liable to animal abuse and neglect charges because they could hold up a dog training book from the 1950's and claim it was the industry standard? (Information for just one case of this abuse can be found here: "Sarge's Law could bring new rules for dog trainers") If you didn't know any of the afore mentioned, then you are like the vast majority of consumers. Most people have no idea that there is NO consumer protection out there for people and their dogs, and that they are taking a gamble with their dog's physical and emotional well-being when hiring a dog trainer. Just like you would never trust any old schmoe from the street teach your child, you should be careful when hiring a dog trainer.
The following are some red flags to watch out for when hiring a dog trainer:
1) Guaranteed Results
Run. RUN the other way when you see these words. Guaranteeing results is unethical, irresponsible, and blatantly misrepresenting what we as trainers are doing. We are not reprogramming a computer. We are not fixing a broken pipe. We are attempting to change the neurochemistry of another living, breathing being. You'd never expect your therapist, psychologist, or school teacher to offer guaranteed results, so if someone who calls themselves a trainer guarantees results take note. And run.
2) "Self-taught" without certifications
I almost included just "self-taught", but I decided I'm going to say "self-taught" without certifications because the fact of the matter is that most dog trainers are at least somewhat self-taught. There is no university for dog trainers, and no central certifying body for trainers, so most trainers do have an amalgam of educational experiences, from books, webinars, unpaid internships, and possibly a few more regulated schools for dog training (Pat Miller's Dog Training Academies (where I have studied personally), Jean Donaldson's Academy for Dog Trainers, and Karen Pryor's Academy come to mind). However, many responsible dog trainers will belong to professional organizations such as the Pet Professional Guild, The Association for Professional Dog Training, and be certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, and membership with these organizations is a nice way to find trainers who probably work hard to continue their education in some way or another. Note: The International Association of Canine Professionals is well known for allowing punitive methods to be used by their members, so if I saw that a trainer was certified by the IACP I would definitely decide not to use them.
3) Words say one thing, pictures say another
Most trainers know that customers are looking for a "positive" dog trainer because that seems to be the buzzword, so when talking with prospective clients they may try to omit the fact that they are corrections based but sometimes use food treats. When investigating a trainer, make sure to look at all pictures in their gallery. If a trainer tells you they are positive or won't hurt your dog to train them but even one dog is wearing a prong, choke, or electric collar in their gallery, they're not being honest. And, if your dog doesn't comply quickly enough, chances are that trainer will fall back on aversive tools.
4) "Master" trainer certifications
I have never actually met a positive trainer who uses this term. Most positive trainers I've worked with understand that "mastering" behavior is a journey more than a destination, and that calling yourself a "master" is silly, with all of the new emerging science for us to explore.
5) Board and train or Bootcamp programs
There are positive board and train programs, however they are few and very far between so when I see trainers who board and train first and foremost I investigate to see if they are force based. Board and train programs allow trainers to do whatever they want to your dog without you being there to intercept, so I'm not usually a proponent of them. Additionally, if a trainer tries to sell you a board and train package for any severe behavioral issues such as fear, aggression, or reactivity, do not use them. Modifying these behaviors takes time, consistency, and relationship building, and the dogs family has to learn all of the techniques to modify and manage these behaviors.
6) "Every dog learns differently"
This is simply not true. ALL organisms on this planet learn the same way: operantly and classically. We can use these principles to train any species that has a functioning brain (seriously, read "Reaching the Animal Mind" by Karen Pryor. She trains a hermit crab!) Now, do all dogs work for the same thing? No, some dogs love food, some dogs love toys, some dogs love sniffing. But ALL dogs have something they love and will work for. And that is what we will use when we train our dogs positively.
7) Dominance or pack terminology
Any trainer who says you need to be dominant or the alpha is SO behind on current research about dog behavior that it's inexcusable. We know now that "dominant" is NOT a personality trait, it has more to do with access to resources, and that it has VERY little to do with modifying behavior and training. This is a complicated topic that deserves it's own blog post, but for more information right now check out this website.
8) Overuse of the term "energy"
Do dogs read our energy? Absolutely. Will changing your energy to "calm, assertive" totally change your dog's behavior? Absolutely not. Dog training is about SO much more than just energy, it's a gross over simplification to dwell on this.
9) Unwilling to disclose all methods
Every trainer should be willing to fully disclose what they will be doing to your dog. What tools will they be recommending? What does the trainer do when the dog is right? How about when they're wrong? If you ask a question and the trainer seems hesitant to answer, why was that?
Another great post about this issue can be found here.
Remember, you are your dog's advocate. Demand transparency, never leave your dog unattended with someone you don't trust completely, and if you see the trainer do anything to your dog that your dog seems worried or afraid of, run the other way. Training should be fun. For ALL parties involved.