Dog Training or Dog Behaviourist?

The question of how to find a good dog trainer is best answered by asking another question: Do you really need dog training, or does the problem require a dog behaviourist?

Both dog trainers and dog behaviourists can provide you and your dog with invaluable services, but there is a distinct difference between the two. Finding a good dog trainer hinges on finding the right person to help you correct the problem you and your dog are having.

There’s a really simple formula that will ensure you always find the right help for your faithful friend. If your dog has problems with obedience, and you struggle to get her to do as she’s told, you need a dog trainer. If your dog has behavioural issues that go beyond a lack of obedience, and are rooted in emotional or psychological problems (such as separation anxiety), she needs a dog behaviourist.

Obedience = Dog Trainer
Behavioural Issues = Dog Behaviourist

Once you have ascertained what kind of help your pampered pooch needs, finding the right person becomes a lot easier. Many dog owners go looking for a trainer when what they actually need in a behaviourist. They spend time and money working with dog trainers and never get the results they need, because they’re using the wrong tool for the job.

“Okay, fine,” you say. “Now I know which i need…how do I find a good one?”

There are a few guideposts you can use to aid you in your search for the perfect dog trainer or dog behaviourist for your dog…

Warning Signs For Cowboy Dog Trainers

Here are a few common red flags that should tell you the dog trainer/dog behaviourist you’re considering is a poor choice:

1. The use of the phrases like ‘pack leader’ and suggestions that all your dog’s issues are rooted in their need to ‘be dominant’ should set off alarm bells. In recent years a lot of new research has been conducted into pack theory, which has soundly debunked much of what came before. There is still a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation out there. The short version is this: there are as many reasons for dogs to act in a given manner as there are reasons for humans to choose a course of action. The reasons are different, but no less valid. Hanging your hat (and training) on the catch-all belief that everything can be solved by asserting dominance is outdated, and a sign that the trainer has not kept abreast of training techniques.

2. Any punishment-based training or behaviour correction such as choke or prong collars, shock or electric fences are an immediate sign that you should scoop up your pup and run for the hills. Such techniques are ineffective and cruel. This also includes things like leash jerks and so-called ‘alpha rolls’; anything involving punishment, whether physical, verbal, or emotional, is not the sign of a good dog trainer. Instead, look for positive-reinforcement techniques and humane discipline, such as the withholding of treats, timeouts, and the removal of toys.

3. Any trainer without references is a bad idea. If someone is lacking references, do a bit of digging – are they a newly minted trainer or behaviourist, brand new to business and looking for their first few clients? If so, you may give them a chance if their methods check out and they answer all your questions to your satisfaction. If not, question why – most clients are happy to offer testimonials, provided they were happy with the service. If they have no references, and they’re not shiny and new, this indicates they either have no happy customers, or the reviews they have received were poor (and they’re hiding them!).

4. A lack of interest in your dog’s history is another warning sign. A good dog behaviourist will go into your dog’s past in detail. Trainers may not go into quite the same depth, but they will still require information and details about your dog’s past. Anyone uninterested, or claiming it has no bearing on teaching your dog is at best misguided, and at worst negligent.

Questions To Ask Dog Trainers and Behaviourists Before Hiring

“How do you correct misbehaviour?”
The answer to this will tell you a lot. Remember, punishment is bad, positive reinforcement is good. If they can’t answer the question don’t bother asking anything further. Look elsewhere!

“Can I speak to some of your happy clients?”
Any behaviourist or trainer worth their salt will have a collection of testimonials from happy clients. They will also be more than willing to ask current and past clients if they would mind speaking to you to share their experience with you.

“Do you have insurance?”
All trainers and behaviourists should have insurance.

“How can medical problems affect my dog’s behaviour?”
Medical conditions can and do feed into dog behaviour. One reason dog trainers should be asking for a history of your dog is to ascertain if there is anything medical causing the problem.

“Does the food I feed my dog affect his behaviour?”
This is another no-brainer. Nutrition is as important as a medical history and can affect your dog’s behaviour. Avoid any dog trainers or dog behaviourists discounting the impact of nutrition.

“Do you use rewards?”
If the answer is yes, follow this up with, “What kind?” This is a bit of a trick question. Old-school training methods were against positive reinforcement and trainers who are using outdated, punishment-based methods often trip themselves up answering this. If the answer is a straight out “No”, look elsewhere. You might hear “Yes, but not food”. This is another cause for concern; food has been proven to be very powerful when it comes to changing your dog’s brain chemistry. The ideal answer is, “Yes, rewards are a vital part of training and I use the form best suited to your individual dog.”