It is important to ask ourselves, “What is a dog trainer?” Is it someone who just works with your dog? Someone who says so on their website or business card? Is it someone who has worked in the military or police force and has handled dogs there? Is it someone who claims they are self-taught?
When I am first introducing myself to a potential or new client, the very first thing I explain to them is that unfortunately, dog training is an unregulated field. That means that there are no laws, rules, or regulations for someone in the dog training profession. And the most shocking thing about it is that no one really thinks to ask. Think about it: would we want teachers in schools teaching our children who didn’t get any type of diploma or certification for teaching? Would you hire a lawyer with no law degree to handle your case? A surgeon who was just “self-taught” to work on your heart? I’d certainly hope not. So why do we let just anyone claim they are a dog trainer, come into our homes, and handle our beloved pups?
Also, don’t just assume anyone who says they are certified is an up-to-date trainer. Just like a lot of other professions, there are ways of getting “certified” through much less reputable organizations or schools. For example, I’ve met certified fitness trainers that are overweight. Would you want that person to be coaching you on losing weight and living a healthy lifestyle? Make sure that someone you hire is following the latest in the dog training field and is certified from a legitimate school that follows what science has told us works most effectively.
If you are looking for a dog trainer, consider it a delicate matter. Ask for references, ask to see their certification, ask what school they went to and look into it, and get to know them a bit before allowing them to be a major influence over how your dog will act or react for the rest of his or her (and your) life.
Positive Reinforcement and Why It’s Important
I’ve written a previous piece on the benefits of positive training, and you can view it here. In essence, modern dog training has completely moved to positive reinforcement. This method is based upon rewarding your dog for desired behavior (with things like treats, praise, attention, petting, toys, and life rewards) and ignoring, redirecting, and not rewarding undesired behavior. Extensive research and scientific studies have proven that positive reinforcement is the best and most effective training method. This is extremely crucial to know because there are many uncertified “dog trainers” who use punitive methods (shock collars, prong collars, choke chains, alpha rolls, spraying your dog with water, etc.) and will claim you should also. Positive reinforcement is the only one that will strengthen the bond with your dog. How can your dog trust you or your trainer if you are using methods that cause fear, pain, or intimidation to get them to act appropriately? Adult dogs have the same learning capabilities of a two or three year old child and there is no debate on this as science has over and over again proven this as fact. The bottom line is that positive reinforcement training’s main goal is to create trust and a bond with your dog. Any method using any kind of force on your dog is immediately damaging and severing your bond with your pup. Our dogs give us unconditional love, so why not treat and train them with the same respect, love, and dignity that they give us daily?
Beware of “Dog Trainer”
As an example, I was at a pet store recently and got into a conversation with an older woman who labeled herself a dog trainer. Since I know the battle brewing in the dog training community (those who used science-based, force-free dog training and those who use punitive methods) I decided to continue speaking with this woman. I asked her from what school she got her certification. After a couple seconds of thinking of what to say, she finally responded with, “Well I’ve been doing this for many years. Back when I first started there were no schools. But uh, ah, I’m certified. Yeah.” So I already knew this woman had no schooling or legitimate background. And even if she started out years ago, wouldn’t you want to get a legitimate education on a profession that you are involved in?
She asked what methods I use and when I got done explaining I asked her the same. “Oh, I have my own method,” she said. I explained how I use positive reinforcement. “Oh, yeah! Definitely. That’s what I use. It’s the only way to go,” she replied. I was a bit confused, as she just said she used her “own method.” So I asked more about her method, specifically. She went on to explain how she utilizes a choke chain and does a snap and release method with it to get the dog’s attention. Folks, this means that she uses a metal chain that chokes the dog’s neck when pulled on and snaps it back quickly to make a loud noise and scare/choke the dog. I was yet again, severely upset and disappointed by yet another “dog trainer.” She added one last nail in the coffin and proudly said, “And I don’t use any food whatsoever!” So the dog gets choked and then gets absolutely no real reward. Sounds like a lot of fun for the dog, doesn’t it?
So here’s a woman who is fooling people into using her for dog training services, choking and scaring people’s dog family members, and then essentially not rewarding them in any way whatsoever. The very worst part about this entire story is that she tried to take her punitive methods of inflicting pain and scaring the dogs into cooperating and call it “positive reinforcement training!”
Shame on you, woman in the pet store. You are making the lives of us real dog training professionals much, much harder.
Not only do you have to worry about dog trainers not having a solid background in their field, but now they are trying to steal the phrasing and wording from professionals and pass it off as their own.
Bottom line: your trainer should at no moment cause pain, fear, discomfort, intimidation, or stress on your dog. End of story.
The Police and Military “Dog Trainer”
First of all, let me say that I thank our police officers and military for all that they do. This is nothing against the police or military professionals who work with dogs, obviously, because our Vice President, John, has been in law enforcement for over two decades! To put it truthfully, the job of a police or military dog is a very useful and needed one but it serves no purpose in the lives of dogs in our family households. Police and military dogs are used for completely different purposes than those who live with us in our homes. As we all know, the dogs trained for purposes such as tracking down murders, chasing and attacking criminals, or sniffing bombs or drugs in vehicles is a completely different ball game. Most of this training is based upon riling the dog up, greatly increasing their drive, and getting them severely over-stimulated (also a form of stress). It is important to note that in most cases police and military dogs are trained using force in one form or another (as that is a very present aspect of both professions.)
These individuals do get educated on how to train dogs to do these jobs, but this does not make them a certified dog trainer in the areas of obedience, behavior modification, curing aggression, etc. They do not get taught this. Period.
If you needed to get heart surgery done, you wouldn’t want an eye surgeon to do it, would you? Not all doctors are the same. Not all dog trainers are the same. It is crucial to make sure that we set those boundaries on the profession.
Hot Button Words
Here are some hot button words to be aware of that “dog trainers” use. If you notice a trainer is using these words, do yourself a favor and continue searching! The professionals in the dog training community can sniff out those who do not follow the science-based, force-free philosophy by some of these hot button words:
- “Balanced” or a “Well-balanced dog” – This is a popular word used due to some celebrity “dog trainers” on TV. This serves no real purpose in the dog training world and almost always means that the trainer is using forceful methods or intimidation, in one way or another, on your dog.
- “Alpha” or “Pack leader” – I will be writing another blog at some point regarding the myth on dominance and the alpha debate. To put it bluntly, dogs and wolves are separated by over 15,000 years. They are as similar to wolves in the wild as we humans are to apes. I think it’s a huge difference. Dogs aren’t here to try to take over the world or your household. Humans are the main species who try to dominate and use power over others. Dogs are just here to play, eat, and sniff around. Also, we aren’t dogs and please know that your dog is aware of that. Therefore, there is no way, in any universe, that we could ever be the “pack leader.”
- “Off-leash training” – Off leash training can be fun to teach your dog, but usually, trainers using this as a marketing ploy or post it on their websites are almost always using shock collars to “train” your dog to not stray away. If I shocked you in your neck every time you moved away from me, you’d probably be smart enough to protect your own life and not move. This does not mean you're “trained” or that you are so smart now, it means you know better than to purposely harm yourself and your survival instincts will kick in.
- “Total control” or anything of that nature – Would something like this sound appealing for any type of relationship you’d like to be involved in?
- “Guaranteed results!” or any language about a guarantee – Don’t get me wrong, when I go in to train a dog, I’m very confident we are going to get results and accomplish our goals. That being said, it doesn’t mean I’m going to slap a lifetime guarantee on it. Dogs are living, breathing, thinking, and emotional animals. Plus, the results of real dog training are based not only on the trainer but on how much the owner practices, their level of commitment, timing, consistency, distractions, and much, much more. These are dogs we are talking about. We aren’t selling a car.
- Steer clear of anyone doing any of the following: yanks a dog harshly if he pulls, uses a choke, prong, or shock collar, recommends using a bark or spray collar, knees a dog in the chest, jabs the dog in the ribs with his fingers, kicks or "nudges" the dog in his sides to get his attention, etc.
Even though the argument continues on, the debate is over. Positive reinforcement training is the very best way to go. The power of positivity is a powerful (and effective) one and we owe it to our dogs to utilize it. If your dog is your family member, let’s treat them like one. The world's top scientists, behaviorists, and most respected veterinary institutions are now backing positive reinforcement dog training and proactively warning the public against out-dated, punitive methods. Science has proven positive reinforcement to be the best option, and as one of my favorite dog training books states, "the great thing about scientific fact is that you are free to disagree with it, but you'll be wrong."