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How Can I Tell A “Good” Trainer From a “Bad” One?

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Regina Collins wanted a place where she could take Chance, her bouncy 12-week old “doodle” puppy for boarding and training.  So she dropped Chance off with Garrett Ridley at Ridley K9 Academy in Placerville, California. 

Ridley’s website claims that he has been mentored by two different trainers with different philosophies, and says that he “has had extensive experience training with positive/reward based dog training methods and old school compulsion dog training methods.  He quickly recognized the benefit of both methods and the fact that one without the other usually ended with an unbalanced dog.”

According to reports, when Collins went to pick up Chance, Chance wouldn’t come to her.  When Collins asked Ridley what he had done to her dog, Ridley reportedly told her not to touch Chance because he was “in trouble.”

Alarmed, Collins took Chance to the vet.  Her vet found Chance covered in urine, dehydrated and with eyes that were hemorrhaging.  A video of Chance can be found on Station KCRA’s website.  In the video, Chance’s eyes look eerily like injuries from “shaken baby” cases I have seen in my public defender days.  Chance’s vet said that the injuries are consistent with having been restrained by the neck with high pressure.

Collins filed an official complaint, and El Dorado County Animal Services is currently investigating Ridley for crimes against animals.  The investigation has also lead to a finding that Ridley did not have a proper license for a commercial animal establishment.

The debate over positive reinforcement versus force-based training has been raging for quite a while.  To me – a mere dog lover with no training background other than trying to keep up with Sophie, my skittish Shepherd mix – the answer is quite easy.  Positive reinforcement builds the bond between you and your dog.  Force and compulsion rips the bond apart – if a true bond had even formed in the first place. 

But I am lucky.  Before I ever knew about the debate, my local shelter steered me to a wonderful trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods.  Had I not had that guidance, I can’t say I would have found the right trainer and training methods.  Nor could I possibly say that Sophie is “unbalanced” because I failed to use force based methods to “counteract” her positive reinforcement training.

Within the animal behavior and dog training profession, there is a ton of information and science to support the use of positive reinforcement.  But that information does not always trickle down to the average person, who has to wade through flashy TV programs, books and advertisements that may promise “tried and true methods” and quick results.  The risk is particularly great in Collins’ and Chance’s situation, with a board and train program.

Outside of the profession, there is currently very little regulation over dog trainers.  But this is going to change.  In fact, it has already started.  Just last year, Iowa began requiring kennel licenses for dog trainers and groomers.  Don’t get me wrong – regulation isn’t always a bad thing.  But this economic climate could cause states and localities to regulate for the wrong reasons – most notably, sheer need of revenue.   And officials may not bring in the most knowledgeable professionals to provide guidance. 

Here’s a case in point.  When Wisconsin finally passed a puppy mill bill, it stated that breeders would need to adhere to standards that were “to be determined.”  In her blog post Could Breeders and Rescues Work Together?, Dr. Patricia McConnell expressed concern that trainers and behaviorists were not brought into the committee to decide those standards.  It is amazing to me that Dr. McConnell,  one of the few certified applied animal behaviorists and a top-notch expert in animal behavior and dog training, is sitting right there in Wisconsin, and no one asked her opinion on such crucial legislation.

Within the profession, there are many different associations for dog trainers, one of the most notable being the Association of Pet Dog TrainersAPDT’s Code of Professional Conduct requires “dog-friendly training,” but doesn’t go the extra step to define “dog friendly training,” much less to require positive reinforcement and prohibit force-based training.  That said, APDT is a very well-established organization focusing on continuing education for trainers.  This is evident just by looking at the incredibly impressive line-up of speakers at last year’s APDT conference.  As to certifications and accreditation programs, APDT’s website lists seven different certifications that will support APDT “Professional Member” classification.

If you want to find the right kind of trainer, what are you to do?  The doctrine of caveat emptor means it is your obligation to educate yourself and research the trainers you are considering. 

Comb the trainers’ website and promotional materials to see how they explain their training methods and philosophy.  Talk to them personally to get that explanation directly from the horse’s mouth.  Read up on the types of accreditation and certifications trainers can have, and check the trainer’s certifications and education.  Also look at which associations and organizations the trainer belongs to.  Ask for recommendations from previous clients, and follow up with the clients to see what they have to say.  Find out what kind of equipment the trainer recommends, and if the owner resorts to things like shock collars, choke or prong collars and invisible fences.  And check up on their business credentials.  Are they insured?  Do they have a business license?  This last simple question alone could have steered Collins away from Ridley.  [If you have a pet related business or you are a client considering one, here’s a quick checklist for you to start with.]

There is a lingering question of whether the dog training industry needs standardization and regulation.  If this is to happen, I would like to see humane standards built in, and have those standards come from within the animal behavior and dog training profession itself.  And I hope to see those standards reaching the public in a way that helps to guide the average person to the right kind of trainer and methods.

I also hope, if Ridley caused those injuries to Chance, that the authorities bring him to justice.  Which brings me to one more tool that would be helpful to weed out “bad” trainers — animal abuser registries like the one started last year in Suffolk County, New York.

Author: Heidi Meinzer

Attorney and Animal Lover, not necessarily in that order

14 thoughts on “How Can I Tell A “Good” Trainer From a “Bad” One?

  1. outrageous

    key words in choosing care or training for your dog
    positive
    very positive training
    gentle touch
    (there’s lots more- but gentle handling is #1)
    you: watch
    listen
    sense
    attend classes as a quiet observer
    then go by your gut feeling

  2. Heidi, Thanks for this post. We try to be very transparent in our training. We let clients watch any time. We also try as much as possible to get them to do a day training so the dog goes home at night. Then there are no surprised and they stay involved in the training all along cause we do follow up lessons and help them every step of the way. I tell people right on my website to really check around before they select a trainer. http://isaidsit.com/faq#5. Thanks for helping educate people. I hope regulations for trainers and pet care come sooner rather than later.
    Jonathan

  3. Great post Heidi! I always suggest people look at the public education materials on the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior website. The articles have some specific information on training techniques and what to look for in a trainer.

    http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=80&Itemid=366

  4. Heidi-

    Great post. I also recommend that people watch a trainer interact with a dog. Are they warm and gentle, careful to give attention to desirable behavior like sitting, etc and ignoring undesirable behavior like jumping?

    How do they respond when a dog does something they don’t like? Old-fashioned (punishment based trainers) trainers will try to intimidate, force or punish a dog to get them to comply. Not necessary and definitely not in the best interests of the dog.

    And of course people should always be willing to ask for references from a trainer’s previous clients.

    There is also an article on my website titled “Why Punishment is So Yesterday” that talks about the drawbacks of punishment http://www.operationsocialization.com/soc-101/why-punishment-is-so-yesterday.html.

    Thanks for your always thoughtful and relevant discussions about dog care.

    -Ariana

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  6. Here’s another “thumbs up” for your article! It’s so difficult to know how to choose a great trainer when many different styles are being offered. It can be very confusing – positive, balanced, pack leader – all incorporate different philosophies and, therefore, different ways to teach a dog. No one can rely on labels, websites, certifications, nor professional organizations to guarantee they will receive a certain type of training. Observe a class if possible (many excellent trainers only give private lessons, but may, with permission of the client, allow you to observe a session). Ask friends, coworkers, family. Do not hand over the leash to the trainer until you are 100% sure no force or intimidation will be used . If you become concerned about how your dog is being handled, do not be afraid to say “no!” to the trainer (they are not gods). Feel free to stop the lessons at any point if you become concerned about how your dog is being handled. Forfeiting a few dollars is much better than forfeiting a great relationship with your dog. Thanks again, Heidi, for a great article.

    • Thanks so much, Jan! Others have also suggested observing a class. You raise the important point of making sure you know you have the right to say “no.” Thanks so much for your comments!

  7. I have trained, as a client, with a very good trainer that uses positive reinforcement methods. I have also trained, with the same trainer, on how to use an ecollar with positive reinforcement. I know many people don’t realize it is possible as they all invision someone chocking the dog till it does what you want but I assure you it can and is done in a positive maner. I don’t shock my dogs. I have learned to read my dogs behavior and adjust the collar so as to use it as an annoyance not as a correction. I took the time to properly educate myself in different training methods and selected the trainer I was most confortable with and had the greatest knowledge in my area. Thankfuly other trainers made it very easy to decide as a number of them told me I should just euthanise my dog and start with a nicer one (all clicker trainers in this case). My trainer has experience with ALL the methods described in your blog post and through numerous years of work has found that combining the ecollar with positive reinforcement and marker training (in his case using once voice instead of the click) to produce the confident, obedient and most importantly happy dogs.

    I have used a pinch collar on one of my dogs when I first got him. He was a rescue right out of a kill shelter – if I didn’t take him he was dead. Nothing was know about him other then he had a great amount of training potential. In the first three weeks with me, he wore a pinch collar. I was thought how to use it properly by my trainer and my dog was always on leash when not in his kennel during this time. You might ask why I used this tool. When he first arrived I have already stated, nothing was known about him. Had he turned out to be a bad dog there would not have been much left of me by the time help arrived. The prong collar allowed me to have control until I could establish a relationship with him. With my other dog, I would not use a prong collar. For one she does not need it and secondly a physical punishement with her sets off her fight drive (which being attacked by other dogs a number of times before a year of age has firmly ingrained itself) yet I still successufuly use an ecollar with her!

    I must question your statement “if the owner resorts to things like shock collars, choke or prong collars and invisible fences.” If I had lisened to that part of your post, I know of two dogs that would no longer be alive at the moment.

    If your wondering why I’ve been posting on your site lately, it is simple. I am tiered of being accused by uneducated people of being lazy or abusive because I use an ecollar. I have taken the time to develop a strong bond with my dogs, to learn their individual behavior patterns, to educate myself on numerous training technics and work with my dogs everyday to have happy and confident animal companions. To me that does not seem like being lazy or abusive!

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