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What You Should Ask a Dog Trainer (and What Their Answers Should Be)

Author: Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Published: September 9, 2019

Updated: May 21, 2024

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dog trainer with akitaBefore you hire a dog trainer, you want to do your homework to make sure that you and your dog will be in the right hands.

Training is an important part of dog ownership as it can keep your dog safe in certain situations, help them cope with stressful experiences, and builds the trust needed for a strong human-canine bond.

The dog training industry is unregulated, meaning anyone can call themselves a professional dog trainer, behaviorist, dog whisperer, behavior consultant, or pet expert.

Unfortunately, this has led to a regression in the types of dog training methods used to teach our furry friends, as uneducated and uncertified "trainers" are not up-to-date with the latest behavior science, humane methods, and are not held to any standard of business practice.

These "trainers" tend to rely on the outdated alpha, pack theory, or dominance-based philosophies even though these have been shown to actually increase fear and aggression in dogs.

Before signing up for a puppy class, group obedience class, board-and-train, or hiring a dog trainer for a private in-home lesson, you'll want to interview them to make sure they are qualified, use humane and science-based methods, and are the right match for your learning style. Below are questions that you should ask when interviewing a dog trainer:

1. What Dog Training Education and Experience Do They Have?

It's a great sign if a dog trainer has completed a professional dog training program, and fortunately, there are more and more high-quality programs available. If they completed an online course, ask if they also completed a hands-on externship with a local affiliate trainer of the program, if they were required to attend an in-person training retreat, or if they were asked to submit video of their training for review.

Dog training is a hands-on activity and trainer education should evaluate the physical skills needed as well as the "book smarts." Here's a list of some reputable dog training programs currently available for dog trainers:

Not having completed a formal dog training program shouldn't preclude someone from a possible partnership. Many great dog trainers learn through self-education and hands-on experience by working under another dog trainer. It's promising if these trainers are working towards certification and/or a member of professional dog training associations.

four dogs on the end of a leash on a walk

2. What Professional Certifications or Memberships Do They Have?

If a dog trainer holds a certification, it's a sign that they have invested their time and money to prove their knowledge and skills through an often rigorous process. To learn more about what different certifications mean and the requirements for each, read our article "Alphabet Soup: What Does That Dog Training Certification Mean?"

Below is a list of the most common quality certifications for dog trainers and behavior consultants:

Membership in one or more professional organizations is another good sign that a trainer is holding themselves to a higher standard than required by law in order to train dogs professionally.

Memberships not only provide opportunities for continued education (through online forums, journals, and conferences), but many also require their members to agree to follow the most up-to-date, humane, and science-based methods in order to maintain their membership and listing with the organization. Reputable dog training and behavior organizations that offer memberships include:

Certification and membership in a professional association or guild do not guarantee that a dog trainer will not use aversive training or rely on outdated behavior philosophies, but it is a step in the right direction.

3. What Training Methods and Philosophy Do They Use?

A dog trainer should do everything possible to set a dog up for success, meaning they don't intentionally put a dog in a situation that will cause an unwanted behavior (such as jumping on people) to occur.

They then work on teaching the dog what to do instead of the unwanted behavior. The best question to ask a trainer to get an idea of what methods they use is: "What happens to my dog if they get something wrong?"

At the same time as teaching what to do instead, a trainer will also pinpoint what it was about an unwanted behavior that was rewarding to the dog and then make sure that that is no longer happening. Behavior always has a function, and often dogs do things we humans don't appreciate because it works to get them what they wanted.

For the example of jumping, teaching the dog that it's more rewarding to greet people with four paws on the floor or by sitting for attention, and asking the dog for this alternative behavior before the dog starts to jump.

While removing any inadvertent reinforcement that was previously happening — the owner no longer gives the dog any attention when they jump, instead they turn and walk away. Positive reinforcement and force-free training are all about rewarding good behaviors and preventing bad behaviors through clear communication and consistency.

dog training school

Pick a different trainer if their methods or philosophy includes any of the following:

  • The use of shock, prong, or choke collars.

  • A physical correction such as pinching, hitting, kneeing, holding the dog down, yelling, or yanking on the collar.

  • Any mention of alpha rolling, helicoptering, or choking.

  • Statements that the dog's behavior is due to the dog being "dominant" or needing a "pack leader."

  • The need for a dog to be in a state of "calm submission."

  • Forcing a dog to "face their fears" and prolonging stress, anxiety, or fear in the name of training.

4. Do They Offer a Guarantee?

The correct answer to this question might surprise you — a dog trainer should not offer any kind of guarantee for training or behavior modification. Dogs are not machines.

They are living beings with their own motivations, experiences, and reasons for the behavior they exhibit. For a professional trainer to guarantee that their training program will work is simply setting a dog (and their human) up for frustration.

Often these types of guarantees are offered in training programs that utilize shock collars and positive punishment techniques, and in many cases, dog owners feel that the behavior was "fixed." But in most cases, the unwanted behavior (whether it was jumping or even aggression) was simply suppressed, not addressed, and treated.

For example, I won't scream if you hold a gun to my head and make me hold a spider. But that experience did nothing to fix my fear of spiders. In fact, it made it worse because now I've had yet another traumatic experience associated with spiders.

Now, I offer a guarantee in that I will do everything I can as a trainer to set a dog up for success and be there to support a dog owner throughout the training process. But I cannot guarantee that a dog will respond to a training program in a certain amount of time, or that a dog's behavior will change to the extent that a dog owner wanted.

I guarantee that I will seek out help from trainers and consultants that have more experience than I do and might be able to better support a client, which leads to the next question you should ask a dog trainer.

1-on-1 virtual dog training

5. What Types of Dog Training Cases Do They Refer Out?

No one can know everything. A dog trainer should know when a case is above their experience level and offer to connect a client with a trainer or behavior consultant that better matches the dog's needs. This often also provides that trainer with the opportunity to shadow the training program and learn how to approach these kinds of cases for future clients.

In other cases, even if a trainer is qualified to take on a certain kind of behavior, they might refer out a client to another trainer that specializes in those types of cases. It's a good sign if a trainer knows their limits, as this allows them to provide the best training services possible for the cases they do take on.

6. Do They Make Learning Fun?

Beyond the questions above, observe the trainer in action by watching a group training class. This will give you a better idea of their teaching style and if it matches your own personal learning style.

dog agility trainer

Dog training isn't just about teaching dogs — it's also about teaching the people! Do you feel that they explain the techniques well? Do they make training fun and rewarding for the owners as well as the dogs? The more fun you have while training, the more you'll do it and the faster your dog will learn.

If you ever feel uncomfortable with a dog trainer's suggestions or advice, don't feel that just because they are the professional that you should do what they say. Ask your veterinarian or reach out to another certified dog trainer for a second opinion.

By asking a dog trainer the right questions and making sure they align with humane training practices, you'll have better success in building a strong relationship with your dog — a relationship built on trust and communication that leads to a safe and happy life with your dog.

101 Dog Behavior and Training Tips Book

About the author

Profile picture for Cathy Madson

Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

As Preventive Vet's dog behavior expert and lead trainer at Pupstanding Academy, Cathy focuses on helping humans and their pets build a strong relationship based on trust, clear communication, and the use of positive reinforcement and force-free methods. With over 13 years of experience, she has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of dogs on a wide variety of training and behavior issues. Beyond her one-on-one consultations through Pupstanding Academy, she also teaches group dog training classes at Seattle Humane. Her specialties include dog aggression, resource guarding, separation anxiety, and puppy socialization.

Cathy is a certified Family Dog Mediator, and certified through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, holding both the CPDT-KA and CBCC-KA designations. Cathy is a Fear Free Certified Certified Professional, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, and the Dog Writer's Association of America. She has also completed the Aggression in Dogs Master Course.

When she's not geeking out about dogs, you can find her reading, hiking with her two Cardigan Welsh Corgis, or paddleboarding.