Dog Trainer, Dog Trainer…Who do I choose?

As Seen In The Patch March 6, 2011

Treat your dog like family, not just a member of the pack.

Recently, I was trying to finish up some last-minute work projects while my 7-year old daughter, Lindsay, studied the guest list for her imminent birthday party. Did I order the cake? Were the balloons definitely going to be purple? Should we call?

Frustrated and hoping a small project would distract her, I told her to look the numbers up in the phone book. And just like that, we had one of those generational moments. She had no idea what a phone book was. The times they are a-changing.

Tucked amid the massive social and technological changes of the past twenty-five years, an evolution has taken place for dogs, too.

When I was Lindsay’s age, our dogs lived outside and slept in the mudroom. I would stand on the back porch every morning and whistle for Shawbee, my happy-go-lucky husky mix. I’d reach into a bag of dog food, scoop out a cup of who-knows-what and sit on the steps while she ate.

For the rest of the day, Shawbee would follow me around the neighborhood, unleashed and free. She was the cat chasin’, garbage can tippin’ local dog and the neighbors accepted this. It’s what dogs did. Not so much anymore. Leash laws, pooper-scooper ordinances, dog park etiquette…the days of the free-wheeling neighborhood dog have gone the way of the phone book.

Dog training, too, has evolved. When I started training dogs in 1986, I was one of only two dog trainers in Westchester County. I had to travel to Manhattan to learn my craft from Job Evans, a former monk and co-author of How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend. 

Now, the field is crowded. Dog trainers of every ilk can be found on TV, magazine and book stands, the internet…even in the phone book! Although many training centers offer “certifications,” there is no legal standard for the quality of the knowledge or techniques imparted by the courses offered. Franchises are available too; anyone with the capital to invest can be called a dog trainer. I think that most people get into dog training because they love dogs but it takes more than just a savvy marketing plan and a slick website to help people and dogs communicate effectively.

Techniques vary considerably. There are those who follow the alpha-dog methods of Cesar Millan, others who stress positive reinforcement only. Still others use any method available to satisfy a customer’s need for a well-mannered pet…and some of these methods—shock collars and physical punishment for example—are, in my opinion, inhumane and result in a fearful or bullying dog.

So where do you begin when searching for a dog training professional? And how can you tell if the person you’ve hired is right for you and your dog? Start by imagining your dog as a two-year old child. Put that child in the middle of a group of grownups, all speaking a foreign language. These large people are talking, gesturing, smiling, frowning, maybe yelling…whoa! Scary stuff! What do these people want?

That’s how your dog feels: like a fur-clad two-year old in a foreign land. A good dog trainer is like a translator…a person who will help you learn how to talk to your dog and use techniques that inspire your dog’s listening skills.

Just like children, every dog’s personality is different but there are many creative ways to communicate to dogs: find the person that can bridge the species divide. The exercises the trainer offers should make sense and feel natural, not abusive and disruptive. 

Dog training is something you should do to communicate to your dog, not control him. Find a trainer that will step forward and speak for your dog and to your dog. Watch your dog carefully. Dog training should be fun—your dog should respond because she understands, not because she is afraid.

My philosophy? Treat your dog like family, not just a member of the pack.