All dogs are good dogs, but not all dogs are well-trained pets. There are dogs that bark when the doorbell rings. Dogs that pull while on walks. Dogs that chase the family cat. Some pet owners chalk up their pets’ behavior to mere doggy antics, but sometimes bad behavior requires professional help.
Take Ginger, a rescue puppy that would poop when someone picked her up. When strangers came near, she’d hide under the porch or tremble. This was how she expressed her fear of the world around her—a fear that made training her difficult, said Kim Kavin, Ginger’s owner and author of The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers. At a loss, Kavin sought the help of a dog trainer (well, five different trainers) when Ginger turned 1 year old.
“It was trial and error,” said Kavin, who also noted that methodologies vary among professionals. “You need to find someone willing to work with you. We had to adapt to Ginger’s peculiarities, which not a lot of trainers will allow you to do.”
Dog trainers can be helpful for dogs of different ages with different issues, from fear to aggression to problems mastering basic commands. And hiring one shouldn’t be considered a reflection of an owner’s failure. Sassafras Lowrey, a certified trick dog instructor, said, “Working with a trainer isn’t a sign that something went wrong or that someone is failing at properly managing their dog. Rather, it’s a sign that you deeply love and value your dog and want to have a better relationship.”
Strengthening that bond between owner and dog starts with finding the pet professional who is right for you. Here’s how to connect with the right dog trainer and follow through with their help.
Start at any age
Whereas some newbie puppy owners enroll their pets in “obedience school,” some lifelong dog owners rely on their own know-how when they add a new dog to their pack. However, pet experts agree that every dog (and even experienced dog owners) can benefit from a dog trainer’s expertise.
“Starting with a trainer once a dog enters a household can help build their resilience and create a relationship more quickly,” said Erin Askeland, a Denver-based animal health and behavior consultant with the pet-care franchise Camp Bow Wow.
Another good time to seek a professional’s advice is when your dog stops following commands. A pet trainer can bring a fresh perspective, which owners need when training roadblocks appear.
Seek the right professional
Finding a professional dog trainer in your area isn’t as simple as browsing Yelp reviews. Pet professionals go by several titles, such as “behavior counselor,” “pet trainer,” “pet psychologist,” or “pet therapist.” There’s also no state or federal certification needed to be a dog trainer in the United States, though bills have been introduced in Massachusetts and New Jersey.
The experts Wirecutter interviewed recommend hiring credentialed dog professionals, such as those registered with the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, a program run by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. The experts also praised the Karen Pryor Academy and Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers for their use of evidence-based approaches. (Both the CCPDT and IAABC say pet owners should avoid programs that use punishment or pack-theory techniques because they're not scientifically supported and are controversial in the training community.)
Certifications will help you parse through page after page of online listings—but you shouldn’t depend on the credentials alone. Experts also suggest calling references and researching a dog trainer’s training philosophy. And if that first training session leaves you unsure about the fit, it’s okay to say “no thanks.”
“Don’t be afraid to be picky,” Lowrey said. “If a trainer does or says something that makes you or your dog uncomfortable, leave and find someone new to work with.”
Get the right gear for practicing at home
Once you’ve consulted with a trainer, consider the gear you’ll need to reinforce good behavior at home. Obedience training often starts with mastering basic commands such as “sit,” “heel,” and “leave it” before advancing to long-distance recalls, impulse control, and flashy tricks in distracting environments.
A good collar ensures that identification tags will always remain accessible if you’re separated from your dog; it also acts as a connection point for a leash and serves as a training tool. Wirecutter recommends a flat-buckle collar, such as the Orvis Personalized Dog Collar, for most dogs. But if your dog has a slimmer head, as a whippet does, or a delicate trachea, as a Yorkshire terrier does, a limited-slip collar or harness is best. (Wirecutter recommends the Kurgo Tru-Fit Smart Dog Walking Harness.) A 4- to 6-foot-long dog leash, such as Wirecutter’s pick, a nylon Max and Neo leash, is ideal for beginner training situations. And a dog crate aids in housebreaking and prevents pups from destroying property indoors. (Wirecutter likes the MidWest Ultima Pro.)
Use a small, smelly (trainers emphasize that the smell is important) treat to reward a dog’s good behavior—think pea-sized servings of dog-friendly jerky, string cheese, or hot dogs. For dogs on a specialized diet, kibble works in a pinch. Extra praise or a tug on a favorite toy makes training fun for dogs who aren’t food motivated.
Don’t rush the process
A trainer won’t be with you 24/7, so you should also incorporate obedience training (basic cues like “sit” and “touch”) into your daily routine, such as practicing good leash manners for 10 minutes a day during your dog’s afternoon walk. The routine also bolsters good training habits, much like learning a properly seated dumbbell curl from a personal trainer. And just like when you’re exercising, in training you shouldn’t overexert yourself or your pet. “When you’re learning something new it can be exhausting. We don’t want to overwhelm our learners, which would be our pets in that case,” Askeland said.
Teaching a dog to “sit” can happen in less than a day, but severe behavioral concerns don’t improve at lightning speed. Dr. Wailani Sung, a veterinary behaviorist (a specialist trained in both veterinary medicine and animal behavior) at the San Francisco SPCA, said it takes anywhere from two months to a year to curb a pet’s distressing behavior.
When training isn’t enough
Kavin took Ginger to see five different trainers, but the dog was too nervous to follow commands in public, which put everyone at risk. Then Kavin consulted a veterinary behaviorist who prescribed an anti-anxiety pill after reviewing Ginger’s fearful behavior, environment, and background.
“It seemed very odd to me,” said Kavin, a lifelong pet owner who had never worked with a vet behaviorist with her other dogs. “But in Ginger’s case, it took the edge off. She got her confidence back.” The combination of a prescription and training helped Ginger shine. She is now an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen, a designation that signifies a dog is well trained.
“We’re not advocating an easy fix,” said Sung, who added that not all pets need medication. “I only want to work with owners who want to try and help their pets.” (The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists directory lists qualified experts, such as Sung.)
Ultimately, investing in a qualified expert—and taking the time to train—sets both you and your dog up for success. And no matter the type of credentialed expert you choose, you can always learn something new.