There is no doubt that in all professions some people are better at their jobs than others. There are both gifted and poor doctors, lawyers, teachers, salesmen, plumbers and even dog trainers. One major difference between dog trainers and other professionals is that there is no formal schooling, licensing or governing board that monitors the field of canine trainers. Only certain states even require a license to train Guide Dogs.
There are groups of trainers who have attempted to legitimize their profession by offering certifications. There is NADOI (National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors) and APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) which sounds impressive but only amounts to a questionnaire being filled out and approved by other trainers. The problem with the field of dog training is that there are many different ways to train dogs and each trainer feels their way is the best. In some ways, it is a lot like religion. How could anyone govern which is the best religious belief?
There are various ways for people to enter the profession of canine trainers. Many apprentice with accomplished and successful mentors. My instructors mentor with me for over a year. There are schools that say they will train you to become an instructor. They usually advertise in Dog Magazines and for a steep tuition, will certify you as a trainer after you take their two week course. I’m not sure how many dogs you actually get to work with but there is also classroom time and book work. Some colleges offer weekend seminars on special topics like aggression and behavior problems in dogs, but this hardly qualifies someone to hang out a shingle and claim they are a dog trainer. With no license requirement, it can be a daunting situation. How can the average person know how to evaluate and choose the right person to help them train their dog?
Referrals are a good place to start but even they can be misleading. Suppose your friend has a very gentle, easily persuaded toy poodle that was successfully trained by a certain trainer. Should you assume that this trainer would be a good candidate to help you train your German Shepherd who is now three years old and running the house? A truly talented dog trainer should be able to handle dogs of many different temperaments, sizes and ages,
but this is not always the case.
One way to judge the qualifications of a trainer is to find out if they have put any performance titles on their own dogs. There are many registries including the AKC, UKC, USDAA, NADAC, CPE etc. that offer competitive performance events in obedience and/or agility and the dogs earn titles after their names for completing degrees. Even though you may not be looking to compete with your dog, when a trainer earns titles it proves that they were capable of training a dog to a certain level and getting that dog to respond in public without the use of training aids such as food or toys. Trainers who have never titled dogs cannot prove that their training methods actually work in the real world.
Always ask to see the trainers own dogs perform as this is another way to evaluate competence. Pay attention to the breeds of dogs a trainer has trained in the past because different dogs need slightly different approaches to communicate what is expected of them. Ask to observe classes or other lessons before you commit to becoming a student of any trainer. Personally, I invite everyone to come observe lessons at any time to see if this is the kind of training they are interested in learning. Beware of trainers who become defensive when you ask for credentials. Be cautious of those who forbid you to observe them or claim vague titles like “master trainer.” To my knowledge there is no such title as a “master trainer” other than the people or schools who refer to themselves as such.
Do not be impressed by buzz words like “positive reinforcement” and “motivation.” Every trainer uses positive reinforcement to some degree. The question is how do they use it, when is it applied and what else do they use?
Check into multiple schools, clubs and trainers before making a choice. Find a trainer who you feel comfortable working with and whose dogs you admire for their behavior. Dogs and people usually remember best what they learn first so choose wisely.