How to pick a dog trainer

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By Zazie Todd, PhD

Whether you want to take part in obedience classes or arrange private sessions to resolve your dog’s behavior problem, choosing the right dog trainer can be a difficult decision.

Because dog training is unlicensed, anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, regardless of whether or not they have any education.

So what should you look for? This article explains the key things you need to know before you hire a dog trainer.

 

What qualifications should you look for in a dog trainer?
Remember I said at the beginning that anyone can call themselves a dog trainer. But dog training is actually a skilled activity, and it also requires knowledge. Just to mention a few things, dog trainers need good timing, to be able to read a dog’s body language, to understand learning theory (that’s part of the technical information), and to have good people skills so they can explain it all to dog owners in a way they can understand.

So it’s not enough if someone has always loved dogs, or grown up with them. In fact that part doesn’t matter. You need to find a dog trainer who is qualified.

The best qualifications to look for include CTC, KPA CTP, VSA-CDT, VSPDT, and PMCT (those are the letters that will appear after your dog trainer’s name). Increasingly, dog trainers may have a relevant undergraduate or graduate degree e.g. in animal behavior.

Don’t just take my word for it. In a 2019 article for veterinarians about what to look for in a dog trainer, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta recommends checking the certifications of trainers and lists common options including many of those above as well as CCPDT, PPG and IAABC (see later for professional memberships).

The CTC is an advanced, two-year program from the Academy for Dog Trainers, which covers both dog training and behavior. The Academy is known as “the Harvard of Dog Training” and is run by world-renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson. You can find an Academy dog trainer here. You might also like to read the Academy’s excellent position statement on training methods.

KPA CTP means that someone has taken the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional program. This is a six-month program and you can find graduates here.

VSA-CDT means that someone has graduated from the Victoria Stilwell Academy Dog Training program. This is a six-month program and you can find graduates here.

VSPDT means that someone is a licensed Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer. To be accepted, trainers must have an education and at least two years experience, and be admitted through the process.

PMCT means that someone has taken the Pat Miller Certified Trainer course through Peaceable Paws. You can find a list of Pat Miller certified trainers, Peaceable Paws affiliates, and Academy graduates via the Peaceable Paws website (look under trainer referrals).

If you’ve found multiple dog trainers with these qualifications in your area, you’ve got several to choose from and can move on to the next section of this article.

If you haven’t, then you can look for people who have CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA, or CBCC-KA (all assessed by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) or the PCT-A or PCBC-A (assessed by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board). Again, these are people who have had their knowledge of dog training assessed. Trainers with the PCT-A and PCBC-A certifications are committed to only using reward-based methods.

These are not the only dog training certifications. It’s actually quite a confusing situation for consumers, which is why I’ve chosen to focus on the main credentials. There are other kinds of credentials you might look for if your dog has serious behavioral problems, and I’ll get to those later in the article.

Membership of a professional dog training organization
Another thing to look for in a dog trainer is membership of a professional organization.

There are several organizations that a dog trainer might be a member of. One is the Pet Professional Guild, which is committed to force free dog training. Members of this organization will only use reward-based training methods.

Another organization is the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (US). Note that this organization follows an approach called LIMA, which stands for ‘least invasive, minimally aversive’ which (as you can tell from the name) allows for the use of aversive in some cases, so quiz the trainer on the methods they will use. They say that “we allow trainers with all methodologies to join with the goal of exposing them to humane, science-based training methods. However, this does not mean that all trainers in our directory subscribe to this philosophy…”. In a welcome change in 2023, the APDT updated their LIMA guidelines to state that they do not consider prong collars, shock collars, leash corrections, and other aversive techniques as being in line with LIMA. Nonetheless these guidelines still also say that “punishment should never be the first line of treatment in an intervention, nor should it make up the majority of a behavior modification program.” Find out for yourself which methods a trainer will use before hiring them.

By the way, APDTs in other countries are independent, have their own member assessments and follow their own guidelines; for example the APDT(UK) only allows its members to use non-compulsive methods. The Canadian APDT follows LIMA and the Humane Hierarchy but explicitly outlaws what they call “strong aversive” including pet correctors, spray collars, alpha rolls, prong collars, shock collars, and hitting, choking, or kicking the dog.

The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) is an organization for animal behavior consultants, many of whom also offer dog training classes. Like APDT, they follow LIMA.

If a dog trainer says that they are a member of a particular organization, remember that you don’t have to take their word for it. You should be able to look them up via that organization’s directory to verify their membership.

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