How To Find a Good Dog Trainer

When I say our dog trainer helped change our lives and drastically improved my relationship with Shiva, I am not exaggerating. I highly doubt I would even have started this website if it hadn’t been for the advice she gave. I would be too exhausted. With a dog like ours, with as many issues as she had, the right trainer was crucial. I only regret waiting as long as we did to find her.

Honestly, we got lucky with our choice. We could just as easily have gone with somebody else who may not have understood our needs and our lifestyle. Back then, I had no idea what to look for. It’s not a decision that should be made lightly.  That’s why I thought I should put a list together to help those still searching.

Things to Look For in a Dog Trainer

An Appealing Website

I know I may spend more time on the Internet than the average person, but I think a majority of people now search for most of their products and services on the web. When was the last time you opened a phone book? Therefore, every good trainer should have a clean website that outlines who they are and what they are about. I think you can get a good feel for someone’s personality based on how they present themselves online. It’s an important first impression.

Here are a few examples:

Unleashed Potential

Dan the Dogfather

Sublime Canine

Voice 4 Dogs

Notice a big difference? I am sure  you have already formed opinions after a few clicks. In this case, I’d trust your instincts. A dog trainer, at least a good one, will become an important part of you and your dog’s life. If you don’t like them online, when they are working to show their best side, you probably won’t like them off.

Genuinely Cares About Dogs

After dealing with so many negative reactions to the wild behaviour of my new rescue dog, I was pretty nervous to invite a stranger into my home. The thing that struck me from the moment our trainer walked through the door, is that she actually liked my dog. She was the first person not to recoil or look at me like my dog was a monster. Instead she cared about my dog’s comfort and didn’t move any further than Shiva could handle. Prepared with a bag of treats she knelt down and took the time to help Shiva relax. She didn’t even seem to think my dog’s barking was that bad. If anything, she seemed excited at the opportunity to work with her.

Communicates in a way you understand

A good trainer knows it usually isn’t the dog that needs the most help. It’s the human. If a dog trainer is not able to offer suggestions or explanations that make sense to you, that’s a problem. You are the one who is going to be doing the bulk of the work. Your trainer should be able to offer advice that fits your lifestyle. They shouldn’t go off on scientific tangents to explain why your dog likes to eat pop if all you care about is keeping said poop out of your dog’s mouth. Remember, you are the one paying them for their time. You don’t want to waste it. A good trainer is able to answer your questions, no matter how silly they may seem.

Sense of humour

It may just be me, but I feel a lot more comfortable around someone who can laugh. Dogs are pretty goofy. A good trainer should be able to appreciate that. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t smile. Especially when that person works with puppies for a living. Can you say dream job? If they don’t seem to enjoy what they are doing, that’s a pretty big red flag.

Validates your concerns

When our trainer first came by our house it was late October and I was unreasonably panicked about Halloween. I knew Shiva was going to freak out every single time a child knocked on the door. I knew it was going to be a huge disaster and I worried constantly as they day approached. Even though I had kind of gone off the deep end, our trainer didn’t look at me like I was insane. She understood my concerns and agreed it was important to have a strategy. Her advice not only relieved my worries but it actually turned what could have been a nightmare of an evening, to one of our earliest successes. I still look back on that Halloween with joy.

Methods Match Your Beliefs

A good trainer should never make you do something you are not comfortable with. The reason you hired her is to help you communicate better with your dog. If you ever feel like what you are doing is causing your dog stress, you need to speak up. A good trainer knows that pushing a dog further than he is capable does more more harm than good. She also knows what stress signals to look for in your dog. If you don’t think your trainer’s techniques match what you are prepared to replicate yourself, and your trainer doesn’t validate these concerns, it may be time to part ways.

Affordability

This is a tough one. Good trainers rarely come cheap. Everyone has a budget and everyone has a limit of what they are able to pay. Good dog trainers understand this and they will do their best to come up with a schedule that works for you. Many also offer discounts to owners of rescue dogs. Our trainer charged a specific amount per home visit. She was only supposed to stay an hour but she ended up hanging around for two. After the initial visit, we could email her at any time with questions, no charge. We ended up only needing the one visit.

Reputation

If you have friends with dogs who have hired trainers, ask them what they thought. Word of mouth recommendations are just as important as good websites. Check in with your local shelters or rescue organizations. They usually know who all the positive trainers are in your community. Many vet clinics often host obedience classes and may be a good place to ask advice. I never would have even thought of contacting a trainer to come to our home if it hadn’t been for a recommendation I received from someone during a company barbecue. I ended up going with somebody else, but that conversation inspired me to look. If people you respect like a certain trainer, chances are you will too.

Empathy

Does your dog trainer have a dog with similar issues to yours? Does he get it? One of the things that set me most at ease was when my trainer not only wasn’t afraid of Shiva, but told me she had several dogs at home much worse. She knew what I was talking about because she had been there herself. It made me feel less alone.

Lack of judgment

I had several fears about hiring a trainer. My first was that she would tell us we were already doing everything we could. The second was that she would tell us we were horrible owners and that we should re-home our dog. Fortunately, she did neither. When I explained everything we had tried, she didn’t judge us for making mistakes. She didn’t roll her eyes or scold us for using techniques we had seen on television. She listened without judgment and kindly explained why our attempts had not worked. The alternatives she suggested not only helped but also fit in with our lifestyle. She didn’t expect us to take Shiva on four-hour walks and she didn’t berate us for having to work outside the home. There was no picking through our toy box or finger wagging about letting our dog on the furniture. She didn’t stand there and list all of the ways we were doing it wrong. A good trainer is kind to people as well as to dogs.

Of course, the most important question is:

Does your dog like your trainer?

I try to have faith in my dog’s instincts. If Shiva doesn’t like someone, it’s pretty useless to expect her to work with him. If your trainer isn’t able to develop a relationship with your dog, no matter how much you may like her, it might be a sign you need to find somebody else.

I hope this has been of some help. As with everything else in the dog world, a dog trainer doesn’t have to be perfect. In my opinion, it’s not even necessarily about finding the best dog trainer in the world. It’s more important to find a person you can work with. The right trainer for my family might be the one to drive you and your dog crazy!

What do you look for in a dog trainer? Did I leave anything out? Are you as lucky as I am to call yours a good friend? Do you have any horror stories to share? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

37 thoughts on “How To Find a Good Dog Trainer

  1. Yep, I have a great trainer who helped me with Barbie… we are not at the point where Barbie accepts pats and snuggles from friendly strangers – today she got great neck scritches from a random woman who had already tolerated Bender’s over boisterous reaction to being spoken to.

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    • That’s fantastic! I still get excited when Shiva accepts attention from a stranger. She is not the type of dog to seek it out. She doesn’t even like it when I pet her if we are outside of the house. But she is learning that pets from strangers = treats so she is willing to tolerate it.

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      • It’s hard to have an adorable pet that doesn’t want to be patted! When we first got Barbie everyone on the street was like ‘oooo is that a Greyhound’ and then getting a bit offended when she pulled back from their hands.

        And yes, I would consider my dog trainer to be my friend. We get along really well, and have a lot in common it seems.

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  2. I think your list is fairly comprehensive. However, I would disagree with the first one. Maybe it is different with field training, but a website was not a consideration for us. When we were looking for a trainer to help with our field work, THE most important thing was to watch them running dogs in the field. Do the dogs work the way we want ours to work? Do the trainer and the dog work as a team? Does the dog look like it is worried it is going get punished if it makes a mistake? (There were more, but the last one was probably the most important.) It was not a quick process (took about 2 years), but in the end it is well worth the time it took.

    I would add…A good trainer just wants to work with dogs and has a natural gift for it. The best trainers I have known, don’t do it for the money, but just because they love doing it and are very good at it.

    I am so happy that you were able to find a trainer that worked so well with you and Shiva. You are right in saying that a good trainer can change lives. 🙂

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    • Fair enough. I suppose I should have qualified my reasoning a bit better. The reason a website is important for me is that when I was looking for a trainer I was far too intimidated to pick up the phone. It was much easier for me to go online and check out what local trainers had to say. The idea of calling someone made me incredibly nervous. Emailing was much more my speed. And even then it took me hours to work up the courage to press the send button. 😛

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you 100% that the best trainers are the ones who do it for love.

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  3. I haven’t used private training sessions – only group classes so far. So the thing i’d add, if you’re looking for a group class is this: are they willing to let you sit in on a class before you sign up? One place even invited me to bring Gwynn and participate. Regardless of that, though, they should at least be willing to have you come in and see their training style, how they interact with the dogs and owners, and how the dogs/owners are responding.

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    • I agree, that’s a great addition! We did actually attend group classes before the private session. It was required we pay for classes before we were allowed to bring Shiva home from the shelter.
      I chose THEM based on their proximity to our house – and their cute website. 😛 Luckily, they also turned out to be pretty great and we learned a lot. I would recommend that school to anyone.

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  4. Great list! I would just add coming up with a list of questions for the trainer. Basic ones like how long they’ve been a trainer, what kind of education/training do they have, why they decided to use the training methods they use, etc. And if you didn’t find them via a recommendation, asking them for references is a good idea as well!

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    • Very true. It’s definitely a good idea to interview a potential trainer if at all possible. A good trainer won’t mind answering your questions and will have a long list of references to share. They would probably even be impressed you care so much.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  5. This is a decision on personal preferences. I’ve had trainers I loved and trainers I hated, because they didn’t “get” my dog. However, a lot of my friends really like those trainers that I “hate”.

    My bottom line… if I leave your training session feeling like total crap….I won’t be back.

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    • Agreed. My trainer has become a very good friend. Perhaps that isn’t the norm but I hope it is. Any training session should leave you feeling happy and energized. Sometimes certain personalities work better with one person than with another. That’s why it’s important to find someone you like – and who your dog likes.

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  6. This is such a great article!

    Just like anyone should spend a lot of time matching the right dog to them, they should also spend a lot of time matching the right trainer! As with anything, the extra work pays off.

    There is one point that I think has been touched on, but maybe deserves its own mention: Inclusiveness.

    This may be a personal pet peeve of mine, but as soon as trainers start to discriminate against a dog’s breed, age, size or history, major red flags go off for me.

    It’s really quite rare, but I’ve heard anecdotal accounts from friends with dogs of certain breeds, or who had certain challenges to overcome, and they have encountered some trainers who either wouldn’t take them at all as clients, or who wouldn’t let them participate fully in class, segregate them, or not provide them with the support they require.

    When someone calling him or herself a trainer discriminates on breed or diagnoses “lost causes”, I do actually see that as a sign that they may not be the best – or most educated, experienced, or competent – trainer out there.

    There’s a chance that’s an unfair assessment, but even so, the difference of opinion on this issue would fit right into them not matching my beliefs.

    Again, great article – great advice!

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    • Thanks for adding this. I agree that it is definitely important. If a trainer refuses to work with a certain dog for any of the reasons you mentioned, then the dog is probably better off. I don’t think it’s unfair at all. I am sorry you have had friends who have encountered this. It makes me sad – and kind of angry.

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  7. Your trainer sounds like a gem. Not just a good trainer, but an empath and a listener and a sensitive soul. I think that’s really what we all need–it’s so stressful to have a troublesome dog, and the more stressed we get the more poorly we handle our dogs! Someone who can help us feel better about ourselves, while helping our relationship with our dogs and helping our dogs make better decisions, is a true find!

    I do need to find more guidance for Fozzie. I’ve consulted a million trainers and tried a zillion different things to help him with his leash reactivity, with no real progress. I need a miracle worker like it sounds like you’ve found!

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    • Exactly! A good trainer should help give you confidence as well as understand what your dog needs.

      I am so sorry you and Fozzie have had such a difficult time finding something that works. Sometimes it’s all in how something is explained. One person can say something one way and then another person can say the exact same thing but in a different way and it will be that different way that clicks in my head. The trick is finding the person that communicates in your own language. You have done so much for poor Fozzie. It’s inspiring. I hope you both can catch a break soon.

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  8. Fantastic article!

    My only point of disagreement is also about the website. There is a a local trainers I respect highly and often send my own clients to, and she doesn’t even have a rudimentary website. It seems a little crazy, but while the Internet is apparently not her thing, her people skills and her behavioral knowledge are fantastic. I’m sure she does lose business by not having a website, but people are missing out when that happens.

    And on the other side, I’ve seen some gorgeous websites for businesses where I would never, ever send a dog. Just because someone is good at slick marketing does not mean they know anything about behavior. (Of course, I could say the same for kennels, hotels, restaurants, vehicles for sale, and anything else that markets online)

    One thing I definitely look for in websites is coded language. For example, if I see anything that suggests any kind of guarantee, I know they’re a huckster. I’ve yet to see one example of a trainer with a “perfect track record of fixing every dog” that doesn’t simply blame the owners or the dog when something goes wrong. I could probably write up a whole post on all the little code words you could watch for on a site. Hmm, that might be interesting…

    I’m so glad you found such a wonderful trainer. She sounds like a treasure, and you’re so right — the trainer / owner relationship is so incredibly important to success.

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    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with what you are saying and I realize now I should have qualified my reasons for stressing the importance of a wesbite as they are primarily personal. Back then there was no way I was picking up the phone and calling someone, even on the recommendation of someone else. If there wasn’t a website for me to look at, and an email address to write to, I was too scared to try. For some reason I had it in my head that most dog trainers were like Brad Pattison: big, judgmental bullies. In fact, I even steered clear of one of those awful corporate training companies as a result of this fear. I had sent them an email but they wanted me to give them a call so we could chat over the phone. That wasn’t happening and so I looked elsewhere. Whew!

      I also meant to talk about the coded language you brought up but clearly that fell to the wayside somewhere. 😛 Guarantees, references to “balanced” training methods, any mention of being a pack leader – those are all things that make me raise an eyebrow. It would make a very interesting post indeed.

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      • Yeah, those are all really great points, and I do absolutely agree you can learn an awful lot from the website. I’ve been in those same shoes, especially looking for horse trainers, and it’s so hard, and scary, when you want to get a sense of the person’s personality and philosophy but all you have is a phone number.

        Sometimes I hate being prejudiced by certain code words, but at the same time, they really do tell you so much! Like your example, “balanced” sounds lovely and rational until you understand that “balanced” trainers have a very different approach than I’m willing to take.

        Oh, hey… do you have an RSS feed? I’d really like to follow more of your posts.

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  9. I looked a click or two into the sites and found either red or green flags that would indicate to me whether I would recommend the trainer to someone. As a trainer myself I may have more background in interpreting what some descriptions or statements mean in regard to how a dog will be handled and the trainer’s understanding of behavior. I’d say don’t judge a book by its cover (website appearance).

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    • Very true. I guess I meant more the website content. I wouldn’t recommend all of the sites I linked to above either. In fact, I hoped it was obvious which ones I would recommend and which ones I wouldn’t. I provided the links as an example of how different each site can be and (I thought) how easy it is to tell which ones may be worth a second glance. Clearly I didn’t do a very good job of explaining myself. 😛

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  10. I’ve seen and heard about plenty of good and bad dog trainers. It’s definitely true that not all are created equal. Another important element to remember with dog training is that sometimes you have to be willing to hear what another person has to say, even if it’s not what you want to hear. We help teach a 4H Obedience class every year, and usually, the kids come in with dogs that have a lot of potential, but they aren’t willing to correct the things about themselves that we tell them to do. Sometimes, something as simple as walking at a brisker pace can make all the difference in how your dog behaves when out on a walk. When the kids complain to me that their dog isn’t listening and won’t pay attention to them, I say it over and over that they have to communicate with their dog and tell him or her when they’re doing the right thing. A lot of times, I think , if only I could fix the handler! lol That’s not to say that dogs don’t have issues sometimes — I definitely know from my own experience that they do. Sometimes I need another person’s perspective who’s outside the situation, though!

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    • LOL. Precisely! I know I need a lot more training than my dog does. There is so much to remember and my pesky human brain and emotions tend to get in the way.

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  11. You were definitely lucky for having such a good dog trainer. I am so impressed with the way she handled herself with Shiva and you. I can tell by the way you express yourself about your experience that it was a positive and life changing for you and Shiva.

    I knew the minute I looked at the website of the behaviorist I took Brut to, that I had a bad feeling. She was the only one for miles and I desperately needed help. My instincts were right on. Everything about her was wrong for us, besides the fact she kicked Brut. It was a horrifying experience. I would never recommend her to anyone. I think she was more of a mess than Brut was and all I did was pay for a session of material I already knew and was using. She didn’t listen to anything, kept spraying him with calming crap, (that was never mentioned) and made everything sound worse than what it was and wanted to do another session for dog aggression therapy that was FOUR hours long. Besides the fact I was never going back, I couldn’t imagine going another minute with this lady, let alone comeback for fours hours worth. If I couldn’t do it, then there was no way Brut was going to do it. The whole thing was a nightmare.

    What I did learn out of the whole experience was to trust my gut and two, I had everything I needed to take care of Brut and his issues because I knew him better than anyone at a level that no one else could. And I began to trust my own gut about what I was doing with him, than what others said. As I look back, I’m glad I went to that behaviorist, all I did was prove to myself that I could do it.

    I am sooooo glad you had such a great experience and found someone who understood and really cared. I really wish I could have found such a person, it would have made things so much smoother to have someone who was really there to help and not just prove their reputation. I am really, really happy for you and Shiva.

    Didn’t mean to write a post, lol, just hit a bit a sensitive and sad spot. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  12. This is a great post, Kristine. I think everyone else has said it all. I’d love to find a trainer who could train ME to train Frankie to walk on a loose lead instead of lunging at every blade of grass to smell it, but there aren’t any I’d go to around here. All too ‘pack leaderish’ for my taste. I want to be the team leader:)

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  13. Great post and I think you covered everything. I would probably have put the website last on the list, or omitted it entirely, though from your explanation to one of the other commenters, I can understand why it was important for you.

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  14. This was a very nice post and I really enjoyed reading it. Although it made me really sad. We live pretty much in the middle of nowhere so dog trainers are very limited. And positive reinforcement trainers are nonexistent. So now, thank to our “teacher”, my poor pups wear pinch collars to ‘stop their pulling’. All they do is turn blue in the face because they can’t breath. 😦

    Is there anything I can do?

    ~B~

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  15. Well, you have your “most helpful post” for the next “Seven Links” challenge. 🙂

    We used three different trainers. One was Cesar Millan-ish, one was totally positive reinforcement only, and one was in-between. The funniest part is each one was able to positively change some problem behaviour in Our Best Friend (yes, even the CM-style one!). OBF just likes people; he didn’t hold a grudge no matter what the trainer did, and he just wants to be loved. That helps. A lot.

    The only trainer we turned down was one that wanted to take OBF away for four weeks and turn him into a robot. Hmmm, another blog post I haven’t gotten to….

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    • A trainer wanted to take him away?! For 4 weeks?! That’s sketchy! I wouldn’t be signing up for any program I wouldn’t be 100% involved in. Good call on letting that one pass.

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  16. really, really, really great post Kristine. Thoughtful and chock full of great information. I id look at each of the websites. I tend to be very visual so I liked Sublime Canine the best. Clean white spaces and great colors. But, I also liked the calendars that both Unleashed Potential and Sublime Canine had on their front pages. I have to agree. A website makes ALL the difference. But, then it’s up to all the things you mentioned.
    I was lucky enough to know lots of trainers because of my volunteer work at the shelter. I also had a lot of training experience because of them, but when it came to Jasper, I still needed to take him to a class because it allowed us to work together as a team and I had forgotten a few things.
    I am SO sharing this post!

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  17. Since I’ve always trained my own dogs, I have no idea what I would look for in a trainer. Scratch that, I did attend a show dog handling class with Jersey, but since it was a group class, and it was more for me than the dog, I really don’t count it as “training”. I suppose that I would like to work with a trainer that I got along with and whose training methods that I agreed with. If Dexter shows good ability as a hunter, I might be in the market for a trainer in the future.

    Great list!

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