Let’s Talk Basics: How to Hire a Dog Trainer

We talk to dog-training expert Barbara Johnson for tips on filling this crucial role for a dog owner.


When we first got SlimDoggy Jack he was a real handful. He was a big yellow Lab and when I say big, I mean he was 25 pounds overweight at 105 pounds. He was also on Prozac for anxiety and Rimadyl for a persistent limp and joint pain. Jack had been living in the shelter for more than a year and was kind of a mess. He barked, he dug, he was un-walkable. We knew he would be a challenge, but we figured, he’s a Lab, we’ve had Labs before and know how to manage Lab energy, and if we don’t adopt him, no one will. And besides, look at that face. Who could say no?

We were in for a surprise. Jack had more than a year’s worth of pent up energy, and it took us weeks to drain that excess exuberance. And not only had he been in the shelter for a year, he was on his own for an undetermined length of time, wandering in the hills north of Los Angeles before he was found and rescued. He was very leery of strangers and even nipped our housekeeper the first week we had him, when she entered the house when we weren’t home. I know now he was just being protective of his new home from a stranger, and I take full responsibility for not acclimating him to his new environment properly, but I immediately knew I was out of my league and called in a dog trainer.

The first trainer we worked with for Jack helped us focus on getting Jack to calm down and understand that it was okay to relax, that we had things under control and that he didn’t have to monitor everything. He could just follow our lead. We trained him with a strong sense of leadership using lots positive reinforcement, because Jack is a pleaser. A key component of our program with Jack was exercise. We worked hard with him and got him on a good regular exercise program, which helped his behavior tremendously. He was off those medications within a month. Working with our trainer, combining exercise and positive training, we quickly got Jack to the point where I felt confident in my ability to control him. I was still nervous with him around strangers (both dogs and humans), so I limited his exposure to those situations.

When we got Maggie, we recognized that we needed a kinder, gentler approach, because she was a very shy and extremely fearful dog. Where Jack was so eager to please us, Maggie was afraid of us. We sought out a trainer with more expertise in working with fearful and shy dogs. We quickly discovered that Maggie was very food motivated (of course, she’s a Lab) and we were able to leverage that motivation to get her past her fears and to start building her self-confidence. We learned to use her admiration for her big brother Jack to our advantage. If Jack was doing something, she felt safe doing it, too. We used that protective aura she felt around him to get her to work more comfortably with us. We also introduced clicker training to our program. Both of the dogs really took to it, and as soon as they saw us pick up that clicker they were ready to go!

Our new trainer worked with us (well, honestly, with me) to expand Jack’s horizons and socialization. I needed to get over my fears that he might bite someone and expose him to new and different experiences. It’s been great for both of us. Jack gets out more, gets more comfortable with new situations and I see that he behaves — a win-win. Our trainer helped me see that. It’s like they say, they have to “train the humans.” So true.

A big lesson we learned through our experience was that you might need different trainers for different types of dogs or for different situations. There are different styles, different personalities, or perhaps a different focus that a trainer might bring to your efforts and your interactions with your dog. A friend of ours has worked with four different dog trainers and still doesn’t feel totally successful with her dog yet. To her credit, she is not giving up!

If the right trainer is so critical, how do you find the best trainer for you and your dog? Good question. We asked our trainer, Barbara Johnson, CPDT-KSA, A-CDBC, who helped us so much with Jack and Maggie, for her advice on what to look for.

Kate: Should a trainer be certified, and if so, by who?

Barbara Johnson: People who become dog trainers have a passion for all animals. Many have had previous careers and the love of the dog drew us in. Many people began by volunteering at their local shelters or even began with their own dogs. When looking for a positive reinforcement trainer, I would suggest that a puppy/dog owner do their research. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers is an excellent source of information for the general public. Trainers are listed by state and by their credentials. Another resource is the family vet who typically has relationships with a several trainers in their area. Something to keep in mind is that the relationship is between the trainer and the human, so people skills are very important and critical to success.

The most widely known test for the certification process for dog trainers is upheld by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. There are requirements that all trainers must meet prior to sitting for the exam, but once met, the trainers can earn their CPDT-KA (Knowledge Assessed), CPDT-KSA (Knowledge and Skills Assessed) or a CBCC-KA (Certified Behavior Consultant-Knowledge Assessed). The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) only certifies behavior consultants in the area of dogs, cats, horses and parrots. Trainers who are certified need to have continuing education units in order to maintain their certification in good standing. This also assures their clients that they are keeping up with the latest news and trends in dog training.

How often do I need to work with my dog for the training to work?

Johnson: I always tell my clients that every interaction with their puppy or dog is an opportunity for training. If it begins to feel like “another task on my plate,” your training time will not be effective. Keep sessions short, fun and always end on a positive note. The goal is to create a training environment within your home that you and your dog will enjoy.

What advice would you give any dog owner for a more well-behaved pet?

Johnson: The three basics I tell all of my clients are: patience, consistency, and dedication.

  • Patience: Don’t feel as if training your dog is another chore in your day. Take this opportunity to build a loyal and loving relationship with your pet. If you are feeling stressed, tired or just not in the mood, your dog will pick up on that energy and not respond to you as if you were relaxed. With that in mind, it is also beneficial if you learn to read your dog. Make note of the time of the day when he is most eager for interaction with you. Remember, every interaction is an opportunity for training.
  • Consistency: We all do better when we know what is expected of us and our dogs are no different. As you begin your training program, be consistent with your verbal cues, hand signals and body posture. Dogs can read us like a book, so we need to make sure that we are saying same thing during each session.
  • Dedication: As trainers we see so many families who bring dogs into their homes and do nothing but give it food and shelter. While a dog is considered a “social” animal, we owe it physical exercise, mental stimulation, love and affection, proper nutrition and medical care. We all know that dogs bring so much to our lives, and the research in the human-canine bond is growing each day. Nothing makes a trainer happier than working with a client who is dedicated to their dog and to training that dog to their fullest potential.

Another piece of advice that Barbara gave us that really stuck with me is “catch your dog doing something right.” I try to do that every day with Jack and Maggie and then praise them to the heavens. At the end of the day, your dog really wants to please you, so let them know when they do!

I highly recommend working with a trainer if you have any concerns about your dog or just want them to behave better. They see things with fresh eyes and can quickly assess areas of improvement in your training program. Many are not just dog trainers, but experts in animal behavior. It’s up to YOU to make an honest assessment about the trainer and whether they will meet the needs of you and your dog.

How about you? Tell us about your successes and failures in working with a dog trainer in the comments!

Other stories by Kate O’Brien:

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