How To Find The Best Dog Trainer For Your Dog



This article was provided to Pet Guardian Angels of America by Kevin Davies


Yesterday, I participated in a webinar presented by the Humane Society of the Veterinary Medical Association entitled Dog Training: The Good, The Bad, and The Inhumane. The presenter was Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB, MS.

Though the webinar was presented with veterinarians in mind, much of the information presented can be useful in helping dog owners locate a good dog trainer as well. So, I’d like to share some of the tips offered in the webinar.


Let’s talk first about terminology, because this is a somewhat confusing concept. Dr. Bain discussed primarily operant conditioning, a technique that is used to teach a dog to do or not do something. Operant conditioning utilizes both reinforcement and punishment.

Two important points were made here:

  • Reinforcement is not always pleasant.
  • Punishment is not always painful.

Defining Reinforcement

Reinforcement increases the chance of a specific behavior occurring. In other words, it teaches your dog what you want her to do.

There are two forms of reinforcement. Positive reinforcement adds something for your dog. Normally, this is a reward such as a treat or favorite toy that is offered when your dog performs the behavior you are cultivating.

On the other hand, negative reinforcement removes something. We’ll talk a little more about that in an example in just a moment.

Defining Punishment

Punishment is not, by definition, an evil or painful training technique, although there are inhumane methods of punishment that can be (and are!) practiced.

What is punishment? Punishment is a training technique that decreases the chances of a behavior occurring. Essentially, it teaches your dog what you don’t want her to do. This differs from reinforcement, where you’re teaching your what you do want of her.

Like reinforcement, there are two forms of punishment. Positive punishment adds something and negative punishment removes something.

Reinforcement and Punishment Work Together

Ideally, reinforcement and punishment work together to teach your dog not only what you don’t want her to do but what you do want her to do as well. Together, the positive and negative forms of both reinforcement and punishment form a quadrant, in which reinforcement is used to encourage a behavior, punishment is used to discourage a behavior, and the positive or negative terminology refers only to adding or removing a stimuli, respectively.

By using all four parts of the quadrant, you can replace an unwanted behavior with a more appropriate one. In most cases, training procedures move quickly and fluidly from one quadrant to another.


To help illustrate these principles, Dr. Bain shared a couple of examples with us. In this example, a dog is wearing a choke collar. When the dog pulls on the leash, tightening the collar, the owner stops and waits for the dog to stop pulling. Once the dog stops pulling, the owner moves forward and the walk continues. Here’s the quiz. Do you think this example illustrates:

  • positive reinforcement
  • positive punishment
  • negative reinforcement
  • negative punishment

The correct answer is 3. This example illustrates negative reinforcement. When the dog stops pulling (the encouraged behavior), the stimulus (the tightened collar) is removed. (Please understand that this is only an example used to demonstrate the terminology. I do not advocate the use of choke chains in training in most instances.)

Another example: An owner is walking a dog on a harness and using a leash attached to the harness. The dog pulls on the leash. The owner responds by pulling back hard on the leash and the pulling stops. Here are your choices. This is an example of:

  • positive reinforcement
  • positive punishment
  • negative reinforcement
  • negative punishment

Did you choose correctly? This example illustrates positive punishment. A stimulus (yanking on the leash) is added to discourage an unwanted behavior (the dog’s pulling).

As you can see, reinforcement is not always associated with providing a treat. And punishment is not always associated with pain or discomfort.

Forms of Punishment

Punishment can come in many forms. Some of the examples provided by Dr. Bain for positive punishment included a can of pennies (used to startle), yelling/hitting, shock collars, squirt bottles, contact paper (to keep a cat off of a counter, for instance). Obviously, not all of these forms of punishment are appropriate and some can rise to the level of being inhumane.

Types of negative punishment provided in the webinar included leaving the dog park, social isolation (think of a “time out” for a child), and turning your back on a jumping dog. None of these forms of punishment could be considered inhumane or painful, and all can be effective in the right circumstances.

Another important concept to grasp is that punishment is not the same as negative reinforcement. They are two totally different things. Remember, reinforcement encourages a behavior and punishment discourages it. Positive or negative simply refers to whether a stimulus is added or removed in the process.

Rules of Punishment

Another important aspect of training is understanding that there are rules that must be applied with any type of punishment in order for the procedure to be effective.

  • You must provide the opportunity for your dog to perform the correct behavior.
  • The punishment must be intense enough to stop your dog’s behavior but it should not be too severe either.
  • There should be a short delay between the behavior and the punishment. Delaying punishment only confuses your dog.
  • The punishment must be consistent. It must happen every time your dog performs the behavior.
  • The punishment is based on the behavior, not the mood of the person performing the punishment.
  • Punishment should not be gradually increased. Your dog may become habituated (used to) the punishment and ignore

What Is Habituation?

Habituation is defined as a decrease in the response to a stimuli after repeated exposures to the stimuli. For instance, if you move to a new location near an airport, you may at first notice the noise of the airplanes flying into and out of the airport. However, after a time, you may become accustomed to the noise and no longer notice it, or least notice it to lesser degree. This is referred to as habituation. You have become habituated to the sounds of the airport. (This was the example shared by Dr. Bain in the presentation.)

Sounds good, right? Expose your pet to the stimuli often enough and she’ll become accustomed to it, to the point where it will no longer prompt an undesired behavior. In theory, yes, it sounds good. In reality, it doesn’t always work so well.

The problem arises when the stimuli prompts an emotional reaction, such as fear or anxiety. In that case, simply exposing your pet over and over again may only result in greater fear and more anxiety. For example, if your dog is frightened of the car, forcing your dog into the car over and over again may not relieve that fear but in fact may actually make your dog more fearful, particularly if the end result of the car ride is an unpleasant experience for the dog as well (i.e. a trip to the veterinarian or the groomer). (I feel the need to interject here that there is no need for your dog to fear a trip to the veterinarian or the groomer and there are methods that can be used to prevent or correct a fearful reaction.)

Flooding Versus Systematic Desensitization

Let’s talk for a moment about flooding and desensitization. First, let’s define the two.

  • Flooding is a form of habituation that is accomplished by completely immersing your pet in the stimuli that causes the unwanted response (fear, anxiety, etc.). It is sometimes also known as exposure therapy. The example above with the car is an example of flooding. Essentially, it’s a “suck it up and face your fear head-on” type of technique.
  • Systematic desensitization involves a more gradual approach to exposure to the stimuli. For instance, in the example of the car, it might involve first allowing your dog to become comfortable being near the car rather than inside of the car, then gradually allowing your dog in the parked car with the doors open until she is comfortable in that situation. The next step may be closing the doors but not starting the engine. That step might be followed by starting the engine without actually moving the car. Only when your dog is comfortable at each step in the process do you move on to the next step.
  • Systematic desensitization can also be coupled with counter-conditioning to evoke a positive emotional response.
    This combination of desensitization and counter-conditioning is, in most cases, the most effective form of treatment/training.
    Continuing on with our example of habituation to the car, this might involve giving your dog some tasty treats or playing with a favorite toy during the various stages of the desensitization process to help convert your dog’s experience from a negative to a positive one.
    In summary, while flooding can be effective in some cases, the potential to have the process backfire and cause more serious complications is high. Why am I sharing all of this information with you? Because you need to be able to watch and evaluate a trainer’s techniques to determine whether they are humane and right for your pet. You also need to be able to duplicate the techniques at home without hurting yourself or your dog.Definition of Dog TrainerWhat is a dog trainer? Let’s start with a simple definition. A dog trainer is someone that trains dogs. That sounds simplistic, I know. But it’s important to understand that a dog trainer is not required to be credentialed, licensed, or even trained. Many trainers are. However, anyone can claim to be a dog trainer without having qualifications to back up that claim. It’s your responsibility, as a pet owner, to find out how qualified your chosen trainer is to be responsible for your pet’s training.

    What Makes a Good Dog Trainer?

    When choosing a dog trainer, some of the ways you may find recommendations include word of mouth (i.e. referral from friends, family, other pet owners), internet review sites (i.e. Yelp, etc.), and internet search engines (i.e. Google search, etc.). Some trainers may also leave business cards and brochures with other businesses (veterinary hospitals, pet stores, groomers). These may all be good methods to find local trainers that you can add to a list of potentials.

    Before you make any final decisions about which trainer to employ, contact the trainer and spend some talking with them. Ask for permission to visit the facility and attend a training session without your dog also. Remember that the main objectives are to find a trainer that is not only knowledgeable and effective in their trade but humane as well.

    When evaluating a specific trainer, there are some red flags to look for in the language that the training facility uses in their brochures, on their website, or in their other communications. These are some of the phrases that Dr. Bain recommends viewing with caution:

    • Guarantee – no trainer can realistically provide a guarantee
    • Dominance/Alpha/Pack – these terms are part of an outdated training philosophy
    • No treats/Treats are bribery – this may indicate that the trainer focuses on punishment rather than reward
    • Boot camp/Board and Train – pet owners need to participate in the training process along with their dog
    • Schutzhund/Ring – indicates that the trainer has potentially taught dogs to bite
    • Motivational training
    • Negative reinforcement – could potentially indicate the use of inhumane training tools and/or methods
    • Guard/Protection/Police training – potentially could indicate that the trainer has taught dogs to bite
    • Remote/leash-free/tap and tell/e-collar – may indicate the use of inhumane training tools/methods

    Granted, not all of these terms are absolute. However, if you see them, they are worth some follow-up.

    Dr. Bain recommends these phrases as being potentially more favorable than the phrases above:

    • Use treats/toys/food
    • Positive reinforcement – the caveat here is that this has become a catchphrase used by many trainers, some of which still use aversive training methods in addition. Look for evidence of use of choke collars, spike collars, shock collars, and the like. These are not tools used in positive reinforcement.
    • Clicker training
    • Debunking dominance/alpha/pack
    • Family pet training – again, with a caveat in that trainers may give lip service to family pet training but still use less than humane training methods
    • Work with the family/owner/dog relationship

    The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, a professional organization dedicated to advancing the behavioral health of animals through the certification of veterinary behavior specialists and the provision of science-based education, publishes these tips for choosing a suitable trainer. They recommend “that dog owners call, interview, and ideally observe a trainer prior to hiring them.” Additionally, a list of six categories to avoid is provided. If a dog trainer you are considering falls into one of these categories, it is recommended that you choose another trainer.

    Another valuable tip is to look at the website and/or brochures provided by a given trainer or training facility.

    • Look at the photos. (Note: this may not always be productive, particularly if the photos used are open-source photos rather than actual photos of the trainer/training facility.) Look at the types of products used in the photos. For instance, what type of training tools are depicted in the photos? Are the dogs wearing choke collars or head/chest harnesses? (Head and chest harnesses are acceptable; choke collars are discouraged.) Do the photos show the trainer holding a remote device? You may also see these remote devices worn around a trainer’s neck. These devices often indicate the use of a shock collar or other aversive training method
    • What types of products and organizations does the trainer/training facility link to or recommend? Are they linking to problematic organizations or training products (such as electric fences, shock collars, etc.) that could be considered inhumane?

    It is also worth looking at the size of the training classes offered. Smaller classes are generally more desirable than large classes.

    What About Your Dog?

    One of the first things a dog owner needs to consider is what the individual dog needs. All of the things we talked about in the last post are important in this decision. After all, you want your dog to be handled humanely. However, dogs with special problems may require more specialized help.

    So, what is your dog’s problem? If your dog has no behavioral problems but simply needs some socialization classes or general obedience training, most qualified trainers/training facilities should be able to handle this request. (Note: supervised puppy socialization classes are a great way to socialize a new puppy, something from which all puppies will benefit. In fact, this socialization is essential to starting your puppy toward a confident and well-adjusted life as a the perfect pet. Additionally, all dogs need basic obedience training. At a minimum, your dog should come when called, sit and stay when asked, and walk nicely on a leash. A drop-it or leave-it command is a good idea also.)

    Does your dog have minor behavioral issues, like pulling on the leash or jumping up on newcomers? General obedience training should solve these problems pretty easily.

    If, on the other hand, your dog has more serious issues, you may need to consider working with a veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist, or a professional animal behavior specialist. Examples of problems that fall into this category include:

    • Aggression
    • Fear
    • Separation anxiety
    • Compulsive disorders

    My Trainer Says He Is Certified. What Does That Mean?

    There are various organizations that provide certification and/or training for dog trainers or animal behaviorists.

    Veterinary organizations whose members specialize in behavior include:

    Organizations that certify veterinary technicians in the field of behavior include:

    Non-veterinary organizations whose members generally train in a positive, humane fashion include:

    Even if your trainer is a member of a training and/or certification organization, it still behooves you to do your due diligence. Is the organization strictly a membership based organization or is certification offered? What does the certification process involve? How often does re-certification occur? Is continuing education a requirement for certification/re-certification? Interview the trainer and attend a training session before you enroll your dog. Be comfortable and confident in your choice.

    If a trainer asks you to do something with your dog with which you feel uncomfortable, discontinue the training session and consult with your veterinarian for further guidance.

    This article is written by Kevin Davies at