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How Do I Find a Dog Trainer Who is Science Based?

Me with Sonic
Me with Sonic

Trying to find a dog trainer is serious business. Consider for a moment the significance of the event. You are choosing someone to be your guide with regards to “raising” your dog. Their methods are going to help shape your dog’s life from that point on. You want to find someone who uses an approach that facilitates not just acceptable behavior, but also nurtures your canine companion’s emotional health. Science-based dog training does just that.

Science-based dog training leverages canine learning theory to facilitate a dog’s development. It uses tools (store link to gear) and methods (link to behavior issues page) that target the specific needs of the dog being worked with. I would presume that most dog trainers are in this day and age at least partially informed by the recent research done with dogs. Just because they are influenced somewhat by science doesn’t make a trainer a “science-based” dog trainer. A good, science-based dog trainer will also consider the wider consequences of those tools and methods before using them, as revealed by research. While working with one issue, you don’t want to be developing others.

Before you hire anyone to work with your dog, make sure to ask questions. Here are some that you might find helpful. After you have your answers, you will have to determine whether the trainer meets your standards.

What Methods Does the Trainer Use?

It’s easy to answer “are you a science-based trainer?” Most dog trainers would probably answer “yes”. It is possible that they may not understand the significance of what you are asking, or may not know what that means. It is also possible that they may simply say what you want to hear to get your business (welcome to the wonderful world of marketing). So, if you want to ask that question, go ahead. But I recommend that you use it primarily as an icebreaker. If they say they are not, follow up and find out what they do. It never hurts to ask.

If they say “yes”, then you will probably want to double check that answer by asking about methods. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how people identify; what matters is how they are going to work with your dog.

Generally speaking, a science-based trainer will focus on reinforcing (they may say “rewarding”) good behavior. Of course, other trainers may say the same things. So, while discussing the methods the trainer uses, you will probably want to drill down a little more until you get to the question: “what do you do if a dog does something wrong?”

What you’re listening for here is whether the trainer uses methods that leverage intimidation, fear, pain, or violence. You might get vague answers, such as “It’s important to let a dog know when it does something right, but it’s also important to let them know when they do something wrong.” I have actually heard this. It’s an attempt at avoiding the question. If you hear that, ask for an example. If they start using language about “correcting” a dog, ask for a specific example of what that would look like. Of course, any dodging of the original question should be a red flag, but it’s not a bad idea to find out the specifics of the trainer’s methods. At least, then you know why you would want to avoid using that person’s services.

What Tools Does the Trainer Use?

When I train, I primarily use two tools: a clicker and food. The clicker serves as a “marker” to say “zomg, that thing you did right there, I love it so much I’m going to give you a treat!” If I don’t have a clicker, I use the word “yes” (clicker trainers don’t actually need to use clickers). Then, I use the food as a reinforcer for the behavior that I liked. These are staple tools for the science-based dog trainer. The purpose they serve is to identify and reinforce desired behaviors.

Other kinds of trainers use tools that are meant to physically punish “wrong” behavior. These tools include such things as choke chains, prong collars, and shock collars. It is possible to use these tools effectively. However, that requires an incredible amount of precision that even most highly-skilled trainers don’t have, let alone pet owners. Furthermore, while being used to suppress unwanted behavior, their use can lead to undesirable issues in other areas. Indeed, we are now seeing that use of aggressive methods in training can lead to aggressive behavior in the dogs

And, even if punitive training tools and methods did cause problems beyond the current behavior, do you really want a trainer working with your dog who considers the use intimidation, fear, pain or violence more appropriate or loving than giving treats or affection for good behavior. The latter has proven to be more effective anyway. Using pain to motivate a dog during training isn’t a necessity. It’s an active choice.

It’s important to note that many dog trainers are shifting to force-free methods because of science. An example of a cross-over trainer is John McGuigan (Aka, “Glasgow Dog Trainer”), who used to be a traditional trainer. In this video, he explains how prong collars work, then he goes on to explain why using them is a bad idea. 

What about Credentials?

If you are looking for a dog trainer who has taken a test and proven their skills to an evaluative committee, then there are a couple of certifications that you will want to watch for. The first is CPDT-KA, which stands for “Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed”. The designation is the result of passing an internationally-approved exam. If a CPDT-KA has also passed a skills test, then the designation changes to CPDT-KSA, when finishes with “Knowledge and Skills Assessed”.

Some well-known trainers have their own academies to train dog trainers according to their philosophies. Pat Miller’s academy tops my list, mainly because I took a course with her. She is with Peaceable Paws (https://www.peaceablepaws.com/) and a Pat Miller Certified Trainers get to use PMCT after their names. Karen Pryor has her Karen Pryor Academy. And Jean Donaldson has her Academy for Dog Trainers.

There are also professional guilds that allow like-minded trainers to gather and learn. My top pick would be the Pet Professional Guild, because they strongly advocate for force-free training. My second pick would be the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

For what it’s worth, I don’t place a lot of stock in credentials. Just because a trainer has passed a test or joined an organization doesn’t guarantee that the trainer will not use intimidation, fear, pain, or violence. Therefore, I’m more concerned with uncovering the specific methods used. Of course, I may be biased since I (like many other trainers) have not sought out any credentials. But if certification and other credentials are important to you, I would look for the ones I’ve listed. They will give you the best chance of finding a force-free, modern dog trainer.

Zak George on Picking a Dog Trainer

Now that I’ve said all that, I want to highlight another dog trainer’s thoughts on the matter. I’ve supported Zak George in the past through his Patreon campaign (and I recommend others to support him as well).  He’s doing great work when it comes to getting out the message that training doesn’t have to be aversive to a dog. In this video, he goes out there even further by recommending that you avoid using any trainer that uses more aversive, traditional methods. I would agree.

I Can Help

If you are looking for a modern, science-based trainer who does not use intimidation, fear, pain, or violence to motivate a dog, I would be glad to work with you. If you live in the Beloit, WI area, I can come to your house. If not, we can work over Skype.

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