Dog Trainers Who Get It Right


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Canine Principals is a blog, apparently based in the UK, that does a great job writing about all things dogs and dog training.

One recent post – which I think is brilliantly fun – 10 Reasons Why Not to Follow (Dog Whisperer) Cesar Millanauthored by Sally Gutteridge.

I can go further – and want to elaborate and comment on how these same principals are relevant for any dog trainer. If there is a puppy season, this is! And the good news is that more people than ever seem to be going to dog training classes. if that’s the case, better for dogs (and families) IF they choose the right trainer. Spread the word – some trainers can do more harm than good. And those ‘bad trainers’ may be personable, and may offer seemingly rational answers for their methods. But you can know better and perhaps the following will help:

Qualified or Unqualified

Pet expert Steve Dale writes about what to look for and not to look for in a dog trainerThere’s something to be said for “hands on” experience, but dog training, like all professions, evolves and changes over time. Learning from other professionals and attending continuing education events (in person and/or online) is important.  Also, it’s necessary for trainers to understand basic learning theory.

The primary certification organization is Association of Pet Dog Trainers, so trainers should at least have that – but pretty much anyone can join this group. If you seek someone with more knowledge and understanding, and who will certainly use positive reinforcement, seek out a Victoria Stilwell certified trainer, Karen Pryor Academy certified trainer (who will focus on hands-free training using a clicker), International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (expertise in solving behavioral problems) or Pet Professional Guild.

Never Ignore How Dogs Feel

It’s important for trainers to understand one size doesn’t fit all. All individual dogs are just that – individuals. Having a toolbox (a term I believe trainer Terry Ryan first coined) to use various methods, depending on the individual dog’s personality, and mood on that day. Yes, just like we have moods, so do dogs. How a dog feels is important to pay attention to. Trainers who push tentative dogs with explanations like, “He has to understand I’m in charge” or “She has to realize I’m dominant” are total red flags. Don’t walk away, run away! Pet expert Steve Dale writes about what to look for and not to look for in a dog trainer

Never All Physical Punishment or Abuse

NEVER is it acceptable for a trainer to physically “alpha roll” a dog over on its back, kick a dog, or physically admonish a dog in any way. Screaming is also ridiculous and should never be acceptable. These methods aren’t only antiquated but might also be considered abusive. Usually dogs “requiring” these methods (as explained by the trainers), are fearful. These sorts of methods only serve to increase fear (even if the dogs comply with the wanted behavior).

Pet expert Steve Dale writes about what to look for and not to look for in a dog trainerScience Matters

Science is not a bad word. Today, we know how dogs (and other animals) most efficiently learn, and actually the same is true for people. Motivation works. Force does not work.

Encourage the dog, and offer reward and praise – it’s not only most humane, its the most effective way to teach.

Always audit classes first (especially puppy classes), and if you don’t see happy dogs wagging tails, and smiles on human faces – try another trainer.

Dogs Are Not Wolves

not a wolf - I don't think....

not a wolf – I don’t think….

This is huge, as many trainers suggest training do as mother wolves treat their pups. That’s about as true as using techniques chimpanzee, gorilla, bonobo or orangutan mothers use to raise our own young.  Absolutely, we have much in common with great apes, but our diets aren’t the same, our psyche isn’t the same, etc.

In truth, dogs never developed directly from wolves in the first place. Dogs developed from a now long extinct species related to wolves which we only know about through limited archeological evidence.

Simply put, while dogs do genetically have much in common with wolves – they are not wolves.

Wolves Don’t Fight For ‘Alpha Position’ Anyway

Alpha in wolves isn’t what Millan and other espouse anyway.

Two issues:

Wolves typically don’t require “alpha,” at least not as described by many dog trainers. Captive wolves may be another matter, but when left to their devices, wolves typically live as family groups. The parents lead and the youngsters follow and learn. They are highly bonded and as a result actual aggression is a rare event.

Secondly wolves may not be territorial at all, in spite of what Millan and others offer to explain dog behavior. While some wolf packs to do have specific broad territories, defended from other wolves….Wolves may also simply follow their dinner. So, they may follow reindeer herd (for example) as they travel to follow their available food sources. There is no territory involved.

Use of Nasty ToolsPet expert Steve Dale writes about what to look for and not to look for in a dog trainer

I love watching petite ladies, barely 5-foot dog trainers work. Sheer strength and power or ability to intimidate doesn’t make a dog trainer. What makes a trainer is ability to interpret dogs and communicate with them. So, yes, confidence matters. But unlike the 1950’s and 1960’s when most dog trainers were big, tough guys – today we know it’s not about physically being able to over-power dogs. In fact, that approach is detrimental.

For enlightened trainers who understand their real tools – Prong collars, electric shocks, choke chains are almost never, ever required. We’re no longer living in the 1950’s. In fact, shocking or hurting a dog that’s fearful does nothing to reduce fear and anxiety, and mostly increases fear and anxiety. Force has the opposite of the intended affect, never mind a real welfare or humane issue.

Pet expert Steve Dale writes about what to look for and not to look for in a dog trainerDogs are Co-Operators

The original blog’s author notes, “We only need to look at books such as “The Genius of Dogs” by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, or In Defence of Dogs by John Bradshaw to really see how co-operative our dogs are.” I agree and want to add “Decoding Your Dog,” authored by American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (I concede, I co-edited this book with Dr. John Ciribassi and Dr. Debra Horwitz).  Of course, there are many other terrific dog training books available. And there are many books which are based on ill-conceived and outdated notions as well, which are dreadful. I can’t here list all the books which I suggest, of course anything by Karen Pryor, Dr. Sophia Yin, Victoria Stilwell or Dr. Ian Dunbar. One new one is “Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0,” by Grisha Stewart.

Dogs are IndividualsPet expert Steve Dale writes about what to look for and not to look for in a dog training class

Dogs have their own personalities – and as I referred to earlier – trainers need to adjust depending on the dog breed or mix and most upon the individual, even on that very day compared to another day. “Cookie-cutter” approach trainers aren’t effective for many dogs.

Cesar Is A Crappy Translator

Here’s what that blog says, “When Cesar tells us (from our TV screens) that we must dominate our dogs, he is taking us further away from proper communication, not closer to it. It might look successful on TV but the dog often has a serious breakdown afterwards.

In actual fact, if you look through educated eyes, the dog usually has a serious breakdown on the program too (Which Cesar claims is submission on the dog’s part) and in reality is emotional shutdown due to a huge amount of stress hormone flooding the body and brain of the animal. The same hormone shuts off the digestive and immune system whilst activating the fight, flight or freeze reaction….If you are having problems with understanding your dog, then learn how to do it properly. You will find that your best friend may be feeling very different to how you thought. Take a look at the Dog Decoder App, or even better, watch an episode of ‘The Dog Whisperer’ with the sound down whilst using the Dog Decoder to Interpret the dog’s feelings.”

Seeking out an appropriate puppy class (or any training class) enhances communication from one end of the leash to the other. Some trainers can nip behavior issues in the bud. I fully suggest and support training classes. However, a training using harmful methods may indeed harm a dog. And if the relationship with the family is also harmed, the dog might be given up to a shelter.

It’s really important to choose a positive reinforcement trainer.

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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