How to Find a Dog Trainer
Finding the best dog trainer can be stressful because there are so many options out there–how do you know who’s actually a good trainer?
Note: Our nonprofit is based in Austin, TX and we provide a variety of training options like group classes, puppy training, and behavior consulting. But this guide will help you find a great dog trainer wherever you are!
Something important to know is that anyone (yes, anyone) can call themselves a dog trainer. People can also call themselves a dog behaviorist, a behavioralist, or any version of those, without any qualifications to back up these claims.
We believe that dog trainers should be held to appropriate standards of education and skill, just like we expect from plumbers, hair and nail professionals, bus drivers, doctors, pilots, and teachers.
There are fantastic dog professionals out there who understand modern behavior science and use best practices to help you and your dog, but there are also some unsafe, ineffective, and unprofessional methods out there.
We say this not to make you overthink the whole thing, but just to make you aware and help you narrow your search!
When you’re looking for a trainer, it's important to know what training goals you have in mind, what training situations would work best for you and your dog, what a humane trainer looks like, and what certifications you might want a trainer to have so you can meet your goals.
In this blog we’ll review some things you’ll want to consider when you’re making such an important decision.
What Do You Want Your Dog to Learn?
Training can mean a LOT of things.
Are you looking for puppy socialization and manners? Do you have an adult dog who needs some obedience or manners help? Maybe you’re struggling with leash walking, or counter surfing, or similar problem behaviors?
Are you trying to work through behavior issues like reactivity, fear, aggression, anxiety, or resource guarding? If so, you may want to look for a “behavior consultant." If you imagine a trainer as a teacher (who may teach third grade or quantum physics), a behavior consultant is more like a therapist (who helps people through emotional issues).
Or, are you looking for specialty training like:
Service dog training (to teach your dog to fulfill a service to aid you with a disability)
Therapy dog training (to teach your dog to go to places like hospitals to support others)
Dog sports (agility, scent work, herding, dock diving, etc.)
For example: at Every Dog we provide pet dog training from puppy kindergarten classes to basic manners to private behavior consulting for aggression. However, we don’t offer any service dog or therapy dog training (we refer out to organizations like The Dog Alliance or Divine Canines), and we don’t do competitive dog sports (places like DePaw are excellent for this). We’re GREAT at what we do, and stick to what we do best.
What Training Situation or Setup Is Best?
Group Classes vs Private Lessons
Are you looking for group classes or private lessons? Keep in mind that many dogs with behavioral issues may struggle with group classes, so most behavior modification happens in private lessons.
Do you want to work at a facility, in your home, or meet somewhere like a park? Depending on what you want to work on, each of these locations may be great (or not!).
Virtual vs In Person
Are you looking for virtual training, in person, or a mix? Some training (for separation anxiety, for example) is done remotely/virtually. Many behavior consultants will do their first session virtually, to help fearful, anxious, or aggressive dogs feel more at ease. Additionally, you may have access to experts from all over the world if you choose to train virtually.
What About Board and Train or Day Training?
When looking for qualified trainers and behavior consultants, there are limited board and train resources available. In part this is because trainers know that ultimately you need to be part of your dog’s training process in order for it to be effective! Many qualified board and train programs happen in-home with skilled trainers, which means that most are unable to accept dogs with aggression issues into their programs safely. There are absolutely qualified trainers offering day training or board and train options, but they are fewer and farther between.
Find a Professional Dog Trainer Who Uses Positive Reinforcement Methods
We recommend only working with trainers who use rewards-based, positive reinforcement methods.
We strongly recommend against working with trainers who use tools or practices that are designed to cause fear, pain, or discomfort: things like shock collars (also called e-collars or electronic collars), prong collars (also called pinch collars), or choke collars (or slip leads for training). All of these methods function only when they are uncomfortable, and may create future behavior problems such as anxiety, fear, or even aggression.
Learn more about why we recommend against using aversive training methods in the Humane Dog Training Position Statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists.
How to find a positive reinforcement dog trainer who uses humane methods? Some green flags and red flags to look out for.
Green Flags for Humane Training
They mention using positive reinforcement, being force free, being fear free (or Fear Free Certified, we’ll talk about that later!), using clicker training, being relationship-based, humane, or being rewards-based
They mention concepts like enrichment, reducing stress, improving the human-animal bond, or helping people and dogs live harmoniously together
They talk about corrections or teaching the dog right and wrong (something dogs don’t truly understand!)
They mention using some kind of special collar (shock collar, electronic or e-collar, prong, pinch, choke, slip lead, or even a bark collar, citronella collar, or a unique branded collar made by their facility)
They mention being a “balanced” trainer, which usually refers to using a mix of positive reinforcement and aversive techniques that may cause fear or discomfort
They aren’t clear about what techniques they use and won’t give transparent answers
They blame you for being too “soft” or “weak” and tell you that you caused your dog’s problems
Find a Professional Trainer Who Values Modern Behavior Science and Skills
Great dog trainers stay up-to-date on things like applied behavior analysis, ethology, and cognition. They know at least the basics of animal behavior, and are familiar with dog body language and methods of behavior change.
Note: At Every Dog, we offer all of our trainers yearly credits for continuing education. This means attending behavior conferences, webinars, seminars, and classes. We expect all of our team members to grow their skill sets each year! If you ask one of our trainers about recent continuing education, they’ll be able to tell you what they’ve done! Learn more about Our Team.
Green Flags for Knowledge and Skills
They mention continuing education, with things like conferences, seminars, or courses they’ve taken recently
They refer to themselves as science-based, evidence based, or refer to modern behavior science
They may say “it depends” and ask for more information about your dog/situation when you ask a question like “why is my dog reactive”
They say they’re self taught and haven’t done any continuing education
They refer to being the “alpha,” pack leader,” or showing “dominance.” While there are many trainers who claim to teach you to be the “alpha,” dogs don’t really form social hierarchies in that way. A trainer telling you that your dog is dominant or to “alpha roll” your dog is likely not up to date on behavior science. You can learn more about “dominance” training here. In addition to being based on incorrect science, many methods used for the sake of dominance can cause a great deal of fear and discomfort, or even provoke aggression.
They talk about somehow using your “energy” in training, especially “alpha energy”
They talk about dogs being stubborn and needing structure and commands, and tell you that dogs should never be allowed to sleep in your bed or other arbitrary rules
They talk about having developed a new “type” or “method” of training. While there are tons of amazing trainers who have come up with wonderful processes, training games, and methods, there are also folks who will say they’ve invented a new form of dog “psychology.”
They guarantee behavior change in a certain time frame- “your dog will be fully trained in 2 weeks” or “we have a 100% guarantee to fix your dog’s aggression!” Knowledgeable professionals know that behavior change can never be guaranteed, because so much depends on the individual dog, the humans, and the environment.
What's the Deal with Certifications?
We generally encourage folks to look for certified trainers: but not all certifications mean the same things!
Keep in mind that not all certified trainers are excellent: you still want to look for green and red flags, and make sure everything else looks good!
Also keep in mind that there are excellent folks who aren’t yet certified but may be working toward it (or saving up the money to get certified). The lack of a particular certification isn’t always a red flag within the larger context!
Also remember that there are lots of types of dog trainers, and that you may want to look for different certifications based on your needs.
Well-Respected Dog Trainer Certifications
These options are some of the most common certifications that we trust as indicators of a good trainer.
CPDT-KA Certified Professional Dog Trainer
KPA-CTP Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Professional
CTC Academy for Dog Trainers Certificate for Training and Counseling
CDTK- CATCH Canine AcademyCertified Dog Trainer
PMCT- Pat Miller Certified Trainer
PCT-A- Pet Professional Accreditation Board Professional Canine Trainer
ABCDT- Animal Behavior College Certified Dog Trainer
IAABC-ADT- Accredited Dog Trainer
Well-Respected Behavior Consultant Certifications
Other Certifications to Know
DAVCB- Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist
These veterinarians specialize in behavior (versus something like oncology or neurology) and are like the psychiatrists of the dog world. They’re a great option if you suspect an underlying medical cause for your dog’s behavior, or are interested in learning more about behavioral medications.
CAAB/ACAAB- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (or Associate)
CAABs and ACAABs have a PhD or Master’s degree in animal behavior. Keep in mind that this certification is focused on academics and research, so be on the lookout for other certifications that tell you whether this person is skilled as a trainer!
CSAT- Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer
There are a couple of separation anxiety certifications, like CSAT and SAPRO.
This is NOT an exhaustive list- there are tons of other certifications! But in general, these are some of the most common ones to look out for.
How Much Does a Dog Trainer Cost?
Finances are a major component of choosing a trainer. This can be a tricky thing! To some degree, you get what you pay for: if you see someone advertising super cheap training, there’s a good chance they’re not certified or keeping up with continuing education. But the same goes for some training programs with big price tags: that doesn’t mean they’re the best!
Some trainers charge by session, one at a time. Others charge for a set package, which may be more difficult if you have limited financial resources. Some trainers are more willing to offer a payment plan than others. Check any refund policies if you’re paying a large amount! Make sure you know how long you have to use sessions that you've paid for.
Most great trainers have pricing easily available on their website. If you can’t easily get information from them about how much the services cost, beware!
Note: most trainers are unable to give much financial assistance, but are often asked for it. If you wouldn’t ask your hair stylist, auto mechanic, or therapist for a discount, please don’t ask your dog trainer! That being said, there ARE ways to get financial support.
In Austin, Every Dog offers financial assistance on all of our training. You can request financial assistance here. You’re able to choose how much of a discount you need to make training possible, no questions asked.
Does Personality Matter When Hiring a Dog Trainer?
Yes. Absolutely. There are trainers who love to explain the science behind the skills, and trainers who are great at working with kids. There are trainers who give great pep talks and will be a shoulder to cry on, and trainers who can hold you accountable for doing your homework. If you know that you need someone to follow up regularly, or to set up sessions in advance, or to give you space to work things out on your own, that’s ok! Find the trainer who works for you.
Note: We believe that a good dog trainer or dog behavior consultant should be kind and supportive, and not belittle you.
We also believe strongly that a great trainer should be inclusive and welcoming, and ensure that you feel safe and comfortable. They should be happy to adapt training plans to accommodate any disabilities you may have, and should never make you feel unsafe.
Note: We sometimes hear that dog trainers say they like dogs more than people. At Every Dog, we like dogs AND people! We specifically hire for staff that will be kind and helpful to clients.
What Else Should I Look For in a Dog Trainer?
Make sure your dog trainer has training insurance and a liability waiver, just in case!
It can be helpful to read reviews, particularly if you’re trying to suss out training techniques. Some trainers may say they use positive reinforcement on their website, but their social media or reviews are filled with clients talking about alpha rolls.
Some dog trainers are great with using technology, and others aren’t. Some respond quickly to emails or calls, but others may take more time. And some write detailed training plans, while others focus more on the face-to-face aspect. What will be most helpful to you?
Make sure they ask for appropriate vaccinations, particularly for group training classes! ESPECIALLY if you're seeking training for a puppy!
What If I Don’t Like My Dog Trainer?
You are allowed to leave!! Most good trainers will be able to provide you with referrals when asked.
If a trainer asks you to do something you’re uncomfortable with, it’s ok to find someone else. And if you’re not sure you’re getting good information, it’s ok to get a second opinion!
Who Are the Best Dog Trainers in Austin?
Well, we can’t fairly say who’s the “best,” but we’re fortunate to have a ton of wonderful certified, positive reinforcement trainers in the Austin area. You can see our directory here.