Selecting a Dog Trainer

Finding the right dog trainer for you and your dog can be a big decision. To locate a trainer in your area, click on our Locate a Trainer link. When selecting a dog trainer or behaviorist it is important to remember that there are a variety of different organizations that educate, train, and certify dog trainers and behaviorists. Each of these organizations has a philosophy that shows up in the education and training options provided.

As you look for a trainer, you will encounter people with different approaches and expertise in particular facets of dog training. You will also find a variety of program offerings and pricing structures. Members in the NK9DTA use varied training methods, tools, and approaches. The NK9DTA does not set standards of skill or competence for members. Membership in the NK9DTA is open to all National K-9 School for Dog Trainers’ graduates who pay membership dues and are currently in good standing. The NK9DTA directory includes individuals with a wide range of experience, knowledge, and varied skill.

To assist you in your search, here are some questions for you to consider. Also remember, in addition to these questions, you should feel free to ask a potential trainer anything that comes to your mind. Although every trainer may not meet all of the following criteria, you should feel comfortable that the trainer you select has met the criteria most important to you.

Has the individual participated in a program or course that has provided professional certification or other degree?

If so, determine what areas did the individual receive instruction and is the school approved by the appropriate State Board of Education in which it is located. Anyone can call himself or herself a dog trainer, so certification can be important. There are currently no State laws that require a Dog Trainer to have any special license or education.

Is the trainer affiliated with reputable professional associations, organizations or training clubs?

While this is not mandatory, it's certainly a plus. Ask the trainer if they are active in continuing their education about dog training and behavior?

Has the trainer attended professional schools or apprenticed with other trainers? Is the trainer affiliated with reputable professional associations, organizations and training clubs?

Ask if the trainer regularly attends conferences, seminars, or workshops in order to continue their education.

Were you referred to the trainer by a reputable source?

Was the trainer referred to you by your veterinarian, another satisfied customer, or another reputable trainer or dog professional? Some trainers will provide you with references of satisfied customers upon request. Check with the Better Business Bureau for complaints and whether or not they were resolved.

Does the trainer obtain background information about you and your dog before determining your training options and the cost of training?

Beware of a trainer that begins to give you possible solutions or a training approach before accurately assessing the situation.

Does the trainer offer you some type of pre-training evaluation in order to assess your dog and your goals before explaining different training options and approaches?

There is often not one approach or method of training that fits all dogs and their families. Before beginning a dog’s training a professional trainer should consider the following:

  • The dog’s individual personality;
  • The dog’s past and present behavior patterns;
  • The dog’s aptitude for learning and training;
  • The dog’s breed characteristics, health, and age;
  • Current and past interaction with people and other animals;
  • The health and limitations of the owner or handler;
  • And most importantly the goals of the dog’s owner.

For example, a shy five-year-old Chihuahua will often require a different training approach than a well-socialized active six-month-old Lab puppy. A qualified trainer should have the ability to modify their approach in varied situations. Professional dog trainers have a responsibility to understand that not every dog can fit into a singular “method” of training. In addition, before starting any training the trainer should make the owner understand the importance of owner education regarding dog behavior and proper handling skills.

Many of our members will do an initial evaluation of your dog or puppy with no obligation to sign up for training. In this evaluation, the trainer will discuss your goals, get a history of your dog and any behavior concerns that you might have; answer your questions; give you a demonstration with a dog that has been obedience trained; and provide training options for you to consider. Often our members will offer this evaluation at little or no cost.

Can the trainer explain the training approach, methods, or tools that they recommend for your dog in a way that you understand?

Does the explanation make sense to you? Do you feel as though it will result in a reliably trained dog? Does it seem fair to you and your dog?

Can the trainer knowledgeably explain any questions that you have regarding their approach, method, or tools?

If your questions are avoided or not answered satisfactory, look elsewhere.

If asked, can the trainer knowledgeably explain any questions that you have regarding other training approaches or tools?

Does the trainer appear knowledgeable in his or her explanations? Is the trainer willing to admit when they have not had experience with a particular method or tool? Beware trainers that are quick to condemn particular training methods or tools, especially when they cannot provide an efficient explanation or lack experience with that approach or tool. Training tools in of themselves are not harmful to dogs; it is how they are applied. Most training tools have the potential to be useful if used correctly.

Does the trainer encourage you to ask questions and then satisfactorily answer them?

A good trainer will encourage questions and the answers to your questions should make sense.

Is the trainer willing to admit when your requests or goals are beyond their expertise?

If your dog has complicated behavior patterns (aggression, excessive shyness, etc.) or requires services that the trainer is not capable of providing, will the trainer willingly admit that they are unable to help? A qualified trainer will not hesitate to tell a dog owner when they feel that they cannot help someone. If they cannot help, can they refer you to someone that possibly can?

Does the trainer have experience in a specialty area of training that you might want to consider?

If you are interested in a special area of training such as Therapy Dog Testing, Schutzhund, Search and Rescue, Agility, Personal Protection, Conformation, or others; determine if the trainer has experience in these areas. If the trainer can help you with an obedience training program, but is not involved in the special area of training that interests you, can the trainer help you find an individual that is an expert in that field, if and when needed?

Does the trainer offer to provide a demonstration with a trained dog?

Don’t just take the trainer’s word for it, have them show you. A qualified trainer should not hesitate to provide you with an opportunity to view his or her own personal dog or a dog they have trained. This will give you an accurate assessment of how the trainer defines a “well trained” dog. Does the dog respond reliably to the trainer? Do the commands or tasks appear useful to your situation? How do the trainer and the dog interact? Does the dog appear to be happy? You may want to avoid working with a trainer that will not offer you a demonstration or makes excuses for their dog. A trainer’s dog is often an accurate reflection of the trainer’s abilities.

If the trainer has a facility or does board and train programs, will the trainer provide you with a tour of the facility?

Does the facility appear clean? Do the dogs there appear well taken care of?

How old should my dog be to start training?

Although we recommend beginning your dog's training as early as possible, dogs of all ages are able to learn at different levels. Most puppies between the ages of 7 to 16 weeks benefit from a puppy preschool program that focuses on preventing unwanted behaviors and the benefits of socialization. Most dogs are ready to begin obedience training as early as 14 to 16 weeks of age. In some situations a puppy can begin obedience training earlier or later. Upon completion of a pre- enrollment evaluation of your dog and circumstances, a trainer will better be able to advise you as to whether or not your dog is ready for training.

What type of training service is best for my dog and situation?

A qualified trainer believes that fair, effective, and reliable training and communication is the key to improving and enhancing the relationship you have with your dog. NK9DTA members believe that the training of each dog and owner is best approached on a case-by-case basis. A qualified trainer should be able to explain the options available to you and your dog. The following is a list of training services a trainer may offer and a brief description:

  • Private Lessons scheduled at a location provided by the trainer.

    Private lessons are designed for owners who have the necessary patience and time to work closely with their dogs. This approach is for dogs whose personality types work better when they remain in their home environment or learn with their owner. In each lesson a trainer will teach you and your dog a new command once or twice a week. You and your dog will then practice at home between sessions. A commitment by the owner practicing at home each day is necessary for this approach to be most effective. The number of lessons required will be determined by your goals, the dog, and the time and energy invested.
    In-Home Training Lessons is where a trainer will provide lessons at your home or business. Similar to private lessons but the trainer will travel to you.

  • Residential Training Programs (Board and Train) is where the dog stays with the trainer for a period of time in boarding setting and follow-up lessons are provided to the owner after the dog has achieved certain desired training goals.

    Residency programs meet the needs of those owners who simply lack the time or patience to complete a training program on their own or who wish to put their dog's training into the hands of a professional trainer. These programs prove especially effective for training overly hyperactive dogs, complicated behavior problems, or dogs with aggressive tendencies. These programs are also useful to individuals whose health may limit their participation in certain segments of training their dog. The length of training time is based upon your dog's personality, behavior patterns, and your goals. Once a trainer has evaluated your dog, they are better able to recommend whether a residency program is ideal for you and your dog. In order for a residency-training program to be effective, dog owners will be provided with a series of follow-up lessons in which the trainer will provide instruction on how to handle and communicate with their trained dog. In order for all training programs to be successful, it is imperative for owners to commit to incorporating what their dog has learned into everyday life.

  • Group Classes are meant for dogs and owners that are suited for learning in a group environment.

    Many dog owners choose group classes solely due to the cost being less expensive than private lessons or residency programs. In these sessions, a trainer teaches a group of dog owners how to train their own dogs. For some people and their dogs, group sessions may work well. While very rewarding to train your own dog, it often takes a great deal of time and patience. In addition to what is done in class, owners must dedicate themselves to working with their dogs at home in between sessions. In-group classes it can be difficult to fully address a particular dog owner's concerns or a dog’s problems in a class atmosphere. Group classes are often geared towards the owners and dogs that are not having serious problems. You may be able to ask questions after class, but don’t expect to get a great deal of personal attention in a group setting. Some trainers advertise group lessons as an opportunity to have your dog socialize with other dogs. Although this can be very beneficial in some cases, it is often very distracting to dogs especially at the initial stages of training. It is sometimes more beneficial to participate in group sessions later in your dog’s training to assist you and your dog with distraction training.

  • Combination Programs combine a residency program, private lessons, in-home lessons, or group classes.

    These programs are normally helpful for, those owners whose dogs are not suited to begin with a group or private lessons. The trainer will begin your dog's training in a residency program or through private lessons and once you and your dog have achieved a certain level of training you will then continue training through private or group lessons.

  • Puppy Consultations or Preschool Group Sessions are designed to help new puppy owners get off to a good start with their new pet.

    Generally this type of training is intended to teach puppies between 7 to 16 weeks of age and their owners. These sessions often include safe and effective methods for socializing puppies, techniques for successful house training, help on how to avoid unwanted behaviors such as aggression, jumping up, chewing, food/toy possessiveness, play biting, and more. Upon completion of a preschool program or consult, your puppy will be better prepared to participate in formal obedience training.

  • Behavioral Counseling Sessions serve owners who have a generally well-behaved dog, but wish to solve a specific problem.

    Trainers will often advise you on probable causes and assist you with solutions. Behavioral Counseling can also provide you with assistance dealing with a specific problem such as house training an older dog.

  • Specialty Training is often designed for a particular goal or situation.

    Some examples of specialty training may include: personal protection, scent detection, therapy, service animal, conformation, agility, and other dog sport activities.

  • A trainer should be able to explain what services they offer and answer any questions you have regarding their services.

What is the cost of training and what participation is involved on your part?

Once your goals have been determined and your dog has been evaluated, a trainer should give you a better idea of the monetary and time investment on your part. Dog training is only as effective as the owner’s willingness to participate and follow through as instructed by the trainer. Beware of trainers that promise guaranteed results or remote control type responses from your dog. After all, your dog is a living, thinking creature and like you is not capable of perfection.

How does the price compare with the service you will receive?

A lower price with a poor outcome is not always a good deal. A well-behaved and mannered pet is a worthwhile investment.

Will the trainer provide a reasonable amount of follow-up help after the training program?

What type of ongoing assistance does the trainer offer? Do you feel comfortable with the trainer? Use your best judgment to determine if this is person that you wish to work with.

What is the difference between a dog trainer and a behaviorist?

Anyone can call himself or herself a Dog Trainer or a Behaviorist. There are currently no State or Federal laws that require a Dog Trainer or a Behaviorist to have any special license or education.

An Animal Behaviorist is usually someone who has attended an accredited University, completing the education with a degree, generally a Master's or PhD in an animal related field. For example, veterinarians and people with degrees in agriculture, biology and zoology study animal behavior. Many animal behaviorists also have degrees in some form of psychology. The study of animal behavior may require knowledge of several disciplines, including psychology, biology, ecology, genetics, and zoology.

Most Animal Behaviorists teach and/or do independent research at colleges and universities. Many have academic appointments in biology, zoology, psychology departments, or in medical or veterinary colleges. Others are employed in departments of anthropology, sociology, neurobiology, animal science, wildlife biology, entomology, or ecology. Some are licensed veterinarians or work in veterinary clinics or hospitals. This does not guarantee they have extensive experience with dog behavior and there are no State or Federal Standards defining what an Animal Behaviorist is or does.

When meeting with a behaviorist or dog trainer, ask about their education, past employment, affiliations and references (such as The Better Business Bureau) before hiring. Also ask if they have extensive hands-on experience with behavior problem solving and working with dogs and owners in real life situations.

Most competent dog trainers are familiar with canine behavior problems and can assist you with behavior counseling and modification. Make sure to ask the trainer about their past experience with the behavior problem(s) that you are experiencing with your dog.

NK9 School for Dog Trainers