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  • Sue

Choosing the right trainer

Updated: May 26

A person walking beside a black flat coated retriever

I recently saw a call for help on a local social media group from someone who had a young spaniel and who was asking for recommendations for a good dog trainer in the area. In the comments were recommendations from several people giving details of everything from working gundog specialists to games-based, force-free dog trainers.

It occurred to me that, for a new dog owner, this really is a minefield. After all, there is no overarching regulatory body for dog trainers. So how do you know what a good trainer looks like? How do you decide who to work with and who to trust to give you good advice. How do you know what good looks like? Anyone can set up as a dog trainer, whether they have done an online course that took just a few hours or have decades of practical experience under their belt.

So how do you decide who to put your trust in when you start your training journey? Here are a few things to think about before you take the plunge and book that first class or 1:1 session with a trainer.

What is it that you want to do with your dog?

Before you start to look for a trainer, think about what it is that you want your dog to be able to do. Do you just want to be able to go for a walk with a dog that will walk nicely on a lead, come back when called and have good manners in the home? Do you want to be able to work your dog in the field or compete? Do you want to work through gundog training for fun, to work with your dog’s natural instincts? Do you want to get involved in dog sports such as agility or canicross?

When you know what it is that you want to do, then you can start to find a trainer who can work with you to achieve it.

Do your own research

A review or a personal recommendation from someone is great but do your own research too. Don’t be afraid to ask to go along to a class and observe a session before you take your own dog. Go along and meet with a trainer in person or chat to them over the phone – can they communicate well with you, what method of training do they offer, do they want to know what you want to accomplish, do they have experience with your breed of dog, what approach do they take if things don’t go to plan? (it’s no good having a trainer who has read a book and can recite the contents but then doesn’t know what to do when the wheels fall off – you will need someone who can problem solve and find a solution by working with the dog in front of them).

Ultimately, you need to feel comfortable with a trainer. They need to be able to teach you – to convey methods, desired outcomes, explain things clearly so that you understand. You also have to be comfortable with the way they handle your dog and their training methods.

What is your preferred style of training?

An Internet search of dog trainers will come up with numerous different methods and ‘buzz words’. I’m not going to open a can of worms here about what the correct type of training is, that’s for you as the client to determine based on your own requirements, but what I would recommend is that you ask questions until you understand exactly what the trainer’s methods are and what they mean. For example, you will often see the use of ‘science-based training methods’. That doesn’t really tell you anything when used in isolation, as most things in life are science-based. Don’t be afraid to ask for specific examples of how someone trains and if you don’t understand a particular phrase or method, ask for it to be explained further. If the trainer can’t explain it to you satisfactorily, then move on to a different trainer. Your goal is to find someone who uses methods that you are comfortable with so it’s important that you understand what those methods are.

What to be wary of

I said I didn’t want to open a can of worms, however, at the risk of doing just that, I will add one word of caution. Be wary of anyone who claims to be a trainer but who also advises you that socialisation is about letting dogs jump all over one another. Be wary too of the trainer who says that the way to get a dog to respect you is to inflict pain on it. I’ve given extreme examples here but my point is, if it feels wrong, then it probably is. If you aren’t comfortable with someone’s methods or the way they handle their own dog, then walk away.

I also think it’s important that a trainer knows, and can work with, the specific traits of a breed. I once met a trainer who suggested I could ‘switch off’ my spaniel’s high prey drive by either waving a toy at them or putting some really tasty food on the floor (so-called ‘distraction’ techniques). Now, I don’t want to poo-poo anyone’s training methods but there is absolutely no way that a toy or even a prime piece of rump steak is going to override my dog’s instinctive prey drive when a rabbit runs across its path. This was clearly someone who didn’t understand the breed, what its natural desires are or how to train and work with those natural instincts. If I had put my trust in that trainer I would no doubt have spent a fortune on steak by now (and inadvertently taught my dog to eat everything it found on the floor) and my dog would undoubtedly have an ingrained habit of rabbit chasing.

In summary then, do your research and understand beforehand what your goals are. If possible, find a trainer that understands the breed of dog that you own or is a specialist in the activity that you want to undertake. Make sure their ethos matches your own and you are comfortable with their methods. Chose someone you get on with – you could be working with them for months or even years so it’s important that you can work well together and that you and your dog progress. Finally, don’t be afraid to walk away from a class or a trainer if something makes you feel uncomfortable. The most important thing is your relationship with your dog and not the latest trend or someone else’s opinion.

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