The Educated Dog Trainer

The field of dog training is an unregulated one.  A fact that, unfortunately, is not common knowledge.

Anyone can deem themselves a dog trainer if they feel the urge, no experience, or even an affinity for dogs, necessary.  Many different occupations are required to be licensed or certified by the state to practice said business.  This licensing is unique to the field of which it governs and requires its possessor to pass a lengthy test proving they are capable of performing the job.  It is entirely separate from a business license, for which anyone can apply and be approved.  Most of these occupations are responsible for the well-being of people (doctors, teachers, and therapists), or for protecting the rights of people (lawyers, land surveyors), or handle materials that could cause harm (cosmetologists, contractors, electricians).  Dogs are not people, but people are liable for them, and they can cause damage, which is why one would think the professionals in which people hire to train their dogs would need to be licensed.

My how times have changed

Looking back I can see why the profession has gone unregulated for so long; dog ownership has changed drastically over the last hundred years.  Dogs were typically working for humans to some degree and rarely left the property.  Even 20 years ago the way my family handled and raised our dog was much different than the way I do today.  When I was a child my dog slept in the house, and her primary job was to alert, she followed us, kids, everywhere we went, generally within a 1-mile radius from home, and did so off leash.  We didn’t attend training classes, didn’t go on walks through town or local parks or even visit dog parks.  The only other dog’s that we came across were those of the neighbors.

I now live less than 2 miles from my childhood home, and my dogs still regularly go everywhere with me.  However, that distance reaches much further than a 1-mile radius, and they are almost always on a leash.  We attend many different training classes, walk through many towns and parks, and visit off-leash dog areas.  I put my dogs into many social situations with both humans and dogs that my childhood dog was not.  This social lifestyle is the new norm for dogs.  And with that comes a greater liability.

Certifications do exist

As the dog population continues to grow so does the need for dog training.  There are many different ways to become a dog trainer and various outlets available to seek education.  Most of these are internet based and vary widely on the validity of the education they offer.  They all range in price and provide some form of certification upon completion.  The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has a brilliantly detailed article that discusses the many certifying programs that exist “Everything you need to know about Trainer Certifications.”  To date, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers is the only international certifying body for dog trainers which has been accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCAA).  The CCPDT tests the knowledge of applicants on five categories about dog handling and behavior.  They also require their certificants to earn a specific amount of continuing education units before qualifying for recertification.  These are the reasons I chose to become certified through the CCPDT.

Dog Trainer and Dog Behaviorist, what’s the difference?

Nothing, legally anyways.  Just as anyone can call themselves a dog trainer with no merit, they can do the same using the title behaviorist.  However, there is a highly educated professional title of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, which requires, at a minimum, a Master’s degree in behavioral science.  As the common term used for the occupation is “behaviorist,” I am sure you can see how the two can be difficult to distinguish for many dog owners.  Dog trainers like myself, who seek to continue their education, are cautious not to give themselves a title that has not been earned.  Instead, some may refer to themselves as behavior consultants or counselors.

Continuing Education

There are many ways in which a trainer can continue their education; they can attend seminars, webinars, and Expos that relate to the field.  There are many DVD’s and books available; many can be found through Dogwise.  Tawzer Dog, the Pet Professional Guild, and Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Behavior and Training Academy all have memberships that grant access to online libraries.  Through self-study and hands-on practice; dog trainers can work towards a higher certification through the CCPDT or another certifying body, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).   They can also seek to obtain a certificate from another training school such as Karen Pryor Academy, The Academy for Dog Trainers, or Northwest School of Canine Studies.  Or they can attend university certificate programs such as University of Washington’s Certificate in Applied Animal Behavior or Duke University’s Certificate in Dog Emotion and Cognition.

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing

Why should a dog trainer want to continue their education?  Firstly, we have only just begun to study dogs as they are and not only how they apply to humans.  These discoveries mean that a lot of previous notions we had regarding their behavior is changing and with it our treatment of them.

Secondly, dogs are sentient beings, and we cannot predict their behavior any more than we can predict that of our spouses, children, or neighbors.  What we can do is make an educated hypothesis based on observation of current behavior and rate of reinforcement of past behaviors.  Once we have formed our hypotheses, we can then use behavioral science to apply a behavior modification plan.  Behavioral science has been the same since the 1950’s, and without an in-depth knowledge, one cannot use it correctly.  This in-depth knowledge does not come naturally to anyone nor can it be learned from a television show.  Behavior modification plans are not one size fits all.  However, an educated dog trainer will be able to recognize whether or not a modification plan is working and make adjustments as needed.  An uneducated trainer will keep persisting the same plan no matter how many times it fails until finally placing the blame elsewhere.

I seek to further my education for the betterment of my clients, human and canine alike.  Becoming a new dog owner is much like becoming a parent, you are suddenly flooded with unsolicited advice and rarely is it advice you should follow.  This information comes from family, friends, neighbors, other pet professionals, and sometimes trainers.

Just last week I had a lesson with new puppy owners to work on basic puppy stuff.  The puppy loves getting into the cat room where the scrumptious cat food is within reach.  The owners have done a good job at trying to manage with the use of baby gates, but human error does happen, and sometimes they forget the gate or to close the door.  When they go to physically remove the puppy from the cat food, she begins biting.  A very natural response, albeit not one we want her to practice.  The advice given to this family was to pin the puppy on her back and hold her there by the chest and throat until she submits, i.e., calms down.  Have you ever heard the expression “don’t poke the bear”?  Puppies perceive this sort of treatment as a threat and react accordingly.  The puppy began biting harder and turned to a bite reaction more quickly in other situations where the humans attempted to restrain her.  There are many ways to teach a puppy to use a soft mouth, but this technique only provokes a bite.  Did I mention they have a 10-year-old child in the home?  The professional who gave this ill advice is not the one who will be liable for the puppy when it grows into a dog and causes severe damage to someone, most likely within the home.  Any well-educated dog trainer or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist would know this and know how to better guide the family to work with the puppy.

How do I know a trainer is educated?       

You must do your research.  I have included links to many of the resources I have listed in this article which can help you locate a trainer with credentials.  Both the CCPDT and APDT offer trainer listings, which is a good place to start.  When you hire a trainer you should take a good look at their website or Facebook page, do they list any credentials?  Any seminars or webinars they have attended?  Before scheduling a lesson, you can ask to observe one of their classes and ask where they obtained their knowledge of dog behavior and training.  A trainer who claims to know it all is a dangerous one, even those with a Master’s degree or Ph.D. is known to consult with colleagues regarding tough cases or discoveries in dog behavior.

Another recommendation I often tell people is to test a dog trainer by asking them to teach a dog to step into a box.  Observe them as they do this.  How often do they touch the dog and at what pressure?  Does the dog appear to be enjoying the learning process, are they eager to get into the box again? If the trainer has to physically touch the dog and the dog is not eager to perform the task again, keep looking.

The learning never stops

As I mentioned above, we are still learning about dogs as an individual species rather than as a species that benefits us.  This means that to stay active in this field; I should never stop pursuing knowledge.  I do hope that one day the field of dog training will be a regulated one, but even then, like many regulated occupations, earning CEU’s will be a requirement.  I have just completed the University of Washington’s Certificate in Applied Animal Behavior and plan to further my education by enrolling in the canine fitness and nutrition programs through the Companion Animal Sciences Institute.

Amber Todd, CPDT-KA, UW-AAB
Owner & Trainer of Embarking the Pet Dog

To learn more about Amber, check her bio page