How to Find the Right Dog Trainer

If your dog can do this, you might not need a dog trainer. The rest of you? Read on. pixshots/Shutterstock

Not all dog trainers are created equal, so finding a dog trainer who's the right match for you and your dog can be a challenge. The process of finding a perfect match has to take into account that your dog has a specific set of behaviors to work on, and a unique personality. Additionally, you as an owner have your own personality, skill level and time schedule to take into account when training your dog. So selecting a trainer who can help you set and reach your goals can feel daunting.

We’ve asked Erin Kramer — a Sacramento, California-based professionally certified dog trainer, instructor, and canine behavior modification specialist — for her advice on going through this process. From working with service and therapy dogs to training police K-9s to training and handling dogs for TV and film, Kramer has a wealth of experience in many different areas of dog training, and that includes how to match trainers to owners and dogs.

"Whether it's your new puppy chewing up your couch, your adolescent dog testing the boundaries, or your older dog coming up with new problem behaviors, finding the right trainer for you and your companion is both important and challenging," says Kramer. Here is her advice on navigating the sometimes overwhelming task of selecting the right trainer.

In the United States, there is no set of universal standards or qualifications required to call oneself a dog trainer. As a result, the industry is largely unregulated and includes a mixture of trainers from different backgrounds and experience levels, ranging from folks who simply like dogs and have had success training their own dog, to educated professionals who understand advanced concepts in obedience training and behavior modification. It’s important to know what to look for when seeking a professional trainer, and how to find the right fit for your and your dog's needs.

Ask the right questions

dogs waiting for a dog biscuit from a woman
It helps to know the style of the trainer before you sign on with her. peter verreussel/Shutterstock

1. How long the trainer has been training and where did they learn how to train dogs?

Take the time to look up any programs the trainer has attended and check out their professional affiliations. Are they involved in canine sports and activities? Do they work with any local rescue organizations? Does your trainer have any awards from doggy competitions? Is he or she an evaluator for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test, a therapy dog organization or for service dog work? Affiliations certainly don’t make a trainer automatically effective, however trainers who are involved in the training community show their training on a regular basis, and have resources and peers available to assist them and continue their education. These activities and affiliations are all excellent indicators of a good trainer.

2. Ask the trainer about her training style and techniques. Is there a training philosophy that she adheres to? What type of training equipment does she utilize?

When chatting with a potential trainer, make it a point to discuss training philosophies. Every client, dog and trainer are different, so determining what training style is best for you and your dog is a highly personal choice. I tend to find trainers who can approach training in a flexible manner, and who can tailor their approach to what the dog and owner need, are the most effective trainers. Finding out a trainer’s background will help you understand what type of methods she employs and whether she will be a good potential fit for you and your dog.

If you really want to know what someone is like as a trainer, ask to see them train! You can start by looking at any online videos, but I would recommend taking it a step further and asking to see some training in action or a dog that they have trained. Nothing shows me more about a trainer than watching them in action with a dog, especially their own dog. A great trainer will have an excellent working relationship with her dog. Look for a dog that is engaged with the trainer, eager to work, motivated, happy and ignores distractions. If a trainer cannot take the "demo" dog off-leash, if the dog is antisocial with people or dogs, or if the trainer has to rely on food bribery or correction devices to keep control, consider these issues as red flags. As you watch the trainer interact with the dog, you should be able to get a good sense of their relationship, the trainer’s timing, and overall demeanor so that you can make a decision if that person seems like a good fit for you.

3. Ask what the trainer can achieve with your dog and what her expectations are for you as the dog’s owner.

If it sounds to be good to be true, it probably is! Some trainers try and sell clients on far-reaching results that don’t require any work on the part of the owner. The truth is a good trainer will let dog owners know that the owner, as the dog's constant companion, is an important part of training team and that it’s essential that the owner participate to maintain consistency and learn the rules. As a professional dog trainer, I regularly talk to my clients about setting realistic expectations as well as the work they will need to do to ensure the dog’s success.

By asking questions you will have the opportunity to learn more about the trainer as well as gauge the person's professionalism and communicative abilities. If the trainer can’t communicate well to you, chances are that the communication between trainer and dog will be lacking as well.

Decide on a specific type of training

German Shepherd looks up at dog handler
To know what kind of training would be best for you and your dog, you have to consider all the variables. Nicole Hrustyk/Shutterstock

From group classes and workshops, to private training sessions, to boarding your dog with a trainer for intensive work, understanding your options will help you set a training course for your dog as well as select an appropriate trainer. If your dog or pup needs to learn basic manners and obedience commands like sit, down, stay, and come AND if you are willing to do some homework to maintain your training, group classes with your trainer of choice can be a fun and affordable way to get your dog trained.

Group classes, however, are not the place to work on more complicated behavioral issues like fear and aggression. If your dog has problem behaviors like fear and aggression, if you are seeking a more advanced level of training, or if your time is more restricted, private training sessions or board and training programs may be for you.

Discuss the training options with your trainer and get a feel for what best meets your needs. The less work you do as the owner, the more you can expect to pay — but always keep in mind that you will have to do some work at home to ensure the training lasts.

Evaluate the training as it progresses

Man and dog at sunset practice training
In the end, it's about how you and the dog learn together. Vivienstock/Shutterstock

Once you have selected a trainer, it’s important to reevaluate. If the training isn’t going well, don’t be afraid to discuss it and try and find a solution to get your dog’s training back on track, advises Kramer. "Sadly, after being in the industry for so long, I have seen trainers who do more harm than good in the name of dog training. So in the end, don’t be afraid to speak up if you see something you’re uncomfortable with or that seems counterproductive."

Spending time learning about a potential trainer can save hassle and heartache for both you and your dog. Make the time investment to find a quality trainer who has the skills and personality to fit your pooch and when you find that great trainer, don’t forget to tell your friends and family members so that they know where to find top-notch training too!

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