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Finding a great, force free dog trainer is no easy task. Discover the 5 foolproof ways to spot the great in a dog training field of mediocre.
Dog trainers are not unlike many other professions. Some are terrific. And some are simply not worth your time or money.
Imagine being able to find a great trainer who can not only help you with dog training, but also provide ongoing guidance and support as you need it for any dog behavioral problems that may arise.
Because I know firsthand how invaluable that support is, in this post, I will be giving you my top 5 recommendations for how to find a great dog trainer and a list of 7 amazing dog trainers for you to see what great looks like. Use these experts as your model for what to look for!
Let’s get going…
Dog owners need help
Life is a never-ending series of opportunities to learn. We make choices and we learn from the consequences of those choices.
Those of us with kids learn to be a better parent when our children start talking and call us out on our mistakes and hypocrisy.
We grow as an entrepreneur when we step out of our comfort zone in pursuit of a dream.
And we become a better dog owner when we are resourceful, open-minded, and informed.
There are no mistakes in life. There are only opportunities to learn and do better next time.
- I spayed my first Mastiff, Maya, at 7 months old. My dogs today are left intact.
- I used prong and choke collars on Maya and Burton. Today, my boys wear harnesses and buckle collars.
- I used to feed plain, dry kibble with cheesy puffs on top. Today my boys are raw fed.
“When you know better, do better.”
Over 3 decades of owning and training large and giant breed dogs has taught me one thing – I may know a lot, but I don’t know everything.
And having a dog trainer, or several dog trainers, as mentors, has changed my life immeasurably as a Big Dog Mom.
This post is written in honor of January being National Train Your Dog Month. In it you will learn:
- The top 7 dog trainers and canine behaviorists that I look up to and follow,
- The 5 things you should look for in a great dog trainer, and
- The three steps you can take today to find a great dog trainer for your big dog.
Big Dog Mom’s Favorite Dog Trainers – What Good Looks like!
Dr. McConnell is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) Emeritus, who has made a lifelong commitment to improving the relationship between people and animals. I discovered Patricia McConnell while living in Wisconsin many years ago and listening to her on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Calling All Pets, which was heard in over 110 cities around the country. And as luck would have it, we trained our dogs, Maya and Burton, at Dog’s Best Friend Training, LLC., a dog training center that, at the time, was co-owned by Patricia McConnell.
Dr. McConnell is known worldwide as an expert on canine and feline behavior and dog training and is an award-winning author (Puppy Primer, The Other End of the Leash, The Cautious Canine, and many more!), speaker, and featured canine behavior expert on countless media outlets.
If I had to describe her dog training philosophy, it would be a “canine behavior first” mentality. In other words, what is the dog thinking when you say or do that? How can we as dog owners better communicate with our pets to improve our relationship with them? It was from Patricia McConnell that I learned the importance of body language and nonverbal cues in dog training.
A Few of Dr. Patricial McConnell’s Books
Pam Dennison is a member of the DWAA (Dog Writers Association of America) and is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant with the IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants), member of The Pet Professional Guild, Truly Dog-Friendly and former member of NADOI and Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
She founded Positive Dogs, in 1996, and since then, she has helped thousands of dogs and handlers build their relationships and solve problems, by teaching basic obedience through competition and working with a myriad of behavioral problems.
Pam teaches puppy Kindergarten, basic obedience through the Canine Good Citizen test, competition obedience, Rally-O and holds regular classes and seminars for aggressive dogs.
I discovered Pam after my experience with Linus. Her work with aggressive dogs specifically is what drew me to her work and I have come to deeply respect and admire her as a dog trainer.
As an author and speaker, Pam’s motto for Positive Dogs is “Positive Methods create Positive Results” and I couldn’t agree more.
Here is a video interview I did with Pam in January 2019. It’s fantastic as she is a wealth of great information!
The latest on Youtube:
Pamela Dennison’s Books
3. Turid Rugaas
Turid Rugaas is recognized as an international expert in dog training and canine behavior. She is an acclaimed speaker, best-selling author, and founder of the International Dog Training Education course offered worldwide.
She is the leading expert on interpreting the body language, natural coping abilities, and problem-solving skills of dogs and lectures all over the world on those topics.
I discovered Turid’s book, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, a couple of years ago and have dedicated a large part of my own training to better understand and respond to the signals my dogs are giving me.
On Talking Terms With Calming Signals
A must-have book for every dog owner’s library!! It is a quick and easy read and would be fantastic to read to children as well. The more kids understand how their dog is communicating, the safer the home will be.
Dr. Dunbar is a veterinarian, animal behaviorist, and writer. He received his veterinary degree and a Special Honors degree in Physiology & Biochemistry from the Royal Veterinary College (London University) and a doctorate in animal behavior from the Psychology Department at the University of California in Berkeley, where he spent ten years researching olfactory communication, the development of hierarchical social behavior, and aggression in domestic dogs.
I find Dr. Dunbar’s work with puppies specifically to be one of his greatest contributions to the world of dog training. He is an avid and staunch proponent of early puppy training and socialization, a subject that is often glossed over as mere check the box exercise by many dog trainers. And if you like listening to podcasts, check out his podcast, Dr. Dunbar’s iWoofs Podcast.
When polled, the Big Dog Mom Facebook Group Community ranked the next three dog trainers as their favorite, so I am including them here as well.
Dr. Sofia Yin was a Veterinarian, Animal Behaviorist, Author, and internationally renowned expert on Low-Stress Handling™. Her “pet-friendly” techniques for animal handling and behavior modification, many of which she developed herself through the scientific method of research and rigorous testing, are shaping the new standard of care for Veterinarians, Petcare and other Companion and Farm Animal professionals. Dr. Yin passed away in September 2014, but her legacy lives on.
Victoria Stilwell is arguably one of the world’s most recognized and respected dog trainers. She is best known for her role as the star of Animal Planet’s hit TV series, It’s Me or the Dog,
Stilwell is the CEO of Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT) – the world’s premier global network of positive reinforcement dog trainers. She is a best-selling author (It’s Me or the Dog and Train your Dog Positively and others), talk show and media guest expert, and even has her own podcast, Positively Podcast.
Victoria Stilwell Books
7. Karen Pryor
Karen Pryor designed and launched KPA’s (Karen Pryor Academy) and is considered to be the catalyst for the positive reinforcement training movement. She is the best-selling author (Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training) and founder of Karen Pryor Clicker Training, a leader in the field of animal training and in the science and application of marker-based positive reinforcement, or what is popularly called “clicker training.”
Karen Pryor Book
A fantastic book for any dog owner, especially if you are interested in learning more about more advanced obedience with tools like clicker training.
5 Qualities of a Great Dog Trainer
1. Utilizes Force-Free, Non-Aversive Methods
Many methods can be used for shaping a dog’s behavior. Positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment are the four categories of methods of behavioral training.
Important to note, positive in dog training does NOT mean good or helpful, it means to add something. Likewise negative does NOT mean bad, it means to take something away.
Just as confusing are the terms reinforcement and punishment, which likely don’t mean what you think they mean. Reinforcement simply means a behavior has been responded to (either by adding something or taking something away) such that it occurs more often. On the contrary, punishment means that a behavior has been acted on such that it occurs less frequently.
Look for a dog trainer who understands the difference between these types of training methods. Click here for a deeper dive into dog training.
Find a trainer who stays away from aversive methods like choke collars, e-collars, prong or pinch collars, etc.
Yes, some of these tools can be effective in the short term, but as Pamela Dennison shares in You Can Train Your Dog, “behaviors learned through force tend to fall apart when the dog is under stress. But behaviors learned in pleasant circumstances with positive consequences are less likely to fail under pressure.”
If my 200-pound Mastiff is pulling me down the street when we go for walks, yes, a choke or pinch collar may be effective at preventing him from pulling. But in this case, has the dog learned anything about how to walk on a loose lead by my side?
No. As soon as I take that pinch collar off, after one or two walks, the pulling will most likely resume, especially if there is a rabbit or other dog in sight.
Put simply, while dogs want to avoid pain, their desire to seek pleasure is much stronger.
Play to your dog’s desire; use rewards liberally and consistently, and avoid dog trainers who recommend otherwise.
2. Experience with Large and Giant Breed Dogs
I speak from experience when I say there is nothing worse than going to a training class with a trainer who is biased toward small dogs.
Here are just a few comments that I received when in class with 6-month-old Junior. Can you hear the antipathy?
“Wow, I’ve seen pictures of those dogs, but never realized how BIG they are.”
More than once, I heard:
“He’s [Junior] actually not that bad.”
“Oh, we’ll have to move things around for the big guy. This isn’t set up for dogs his size.
And after engaging in small talk about “how smart her sheltie is” after class one day, this trainer said,
“Bigger dogs just take more time to train. They don’t pick up on things as quickly as smaller dogs.”
Can I get a huge collective eye roll? UGH!
Ok, so here’s the point.
Find a trainer who has lots of experience with large and giant breed dogs. Preferably a trainer who has a big dog (50+ pounds or more).
If the trainer has only ever trained Border collies, they will have a rude awakening when training a Mastiff, a Saint Bernard, or a Newfoundland for the first time.
You don’t want YOUR giant to be your dog trainer’s FIRST giant.
3. Track Record of Success
What do you call the person who graduates last in medical school?
The answer is, … a doctor!
Look, there’s always going to be someone at the bottom of the graduating class, but at the end of the day, grades mean little when outside the confines of an academic institution.
This is as true for doctors, as it is for dog trainers. It is near impossible to distinguish the great from the mediocre just based on the title alone.
Whether you are looking for a brain surgeon or a dog trainer, it is your job to check references.
Here are a few questions you can ask as you filter the great from the pack of mediocre:
- Does this dog trainer have a sufficient body of education and experience to do the job?
- Can you get and speak to people whose dogs have been trained by this person?
- What awards or accolades has this dog trainer earned since starting their career?
- Is the knowledge this dog trainer has primarily academic or experiential?
- Is the track record of dog training success documented? Can you see it?
- What are your friends and other dog owners saying about this dog trainer on Yelp, Facebook, or other social platforms?
4. Open to Questions, Comments, and Feedback
You know your dog better than anyone.
A dog trainer who presents dog training with a “my way or the highway” or a “one size fits all” approach, is one who doesn’t understand canine behavior. All dogs are unique and should be treated as such.
A great dog trainer is a problem solver, an innovative thinker, and someone who approaches each new dog with an open mind.
Now, I am not recommending you sign up for an obedience class and complain that the trainer is a nincompoop. You made the choice to enroll in the class. Be respectful.
5. Creativity in “Real World” Dog Training
This one may sound odd, but here’s what I mean. As I just stated, all dogs are unique and should be trained accordingly.
I believe there is no better way to train a dog than to use treats, toys, and a clicker (when appropriate).
I have trained dogs without these tools in classes where they were not advocated or used, and the difference in my dog’s engagement was night and day.
Going through the motions of “sit,” “heel,” turn around and walk back, “sit,” “stay,” is not only boring for the dog owner and the dog, it teaches neither the fundamentals of canine behavior nor becoming a canine good citizen.
Once free from the prison of this monotonous training structure, these dogs go wild.
Think college freshmen of helicopter parents on steroids. Watch out!
The best dog training classes mimic the “real world” in order to foster true canine good citizens.
What You Can Do TODAY to Find the Best Dog Trainer
Here are a few tips on how you can immediately put this information into action and land your big dog the best dog trainer around.
1. Be Resourceful
Here are 9 websites for force-free trainers and other fantastic dog training resources!
- The Pet Professional Guild: The Association of Force-Free Pet Professionals
- Doggone Safe
- Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partners – A network of force-free professional dog trainers
- Victoria Stilwell Positively Trainers
- Grisha Stewart Professional Directory
- The DogSmith – A network of force-free professional dog trainers
- Pat Miller Certified Trainers
- For dogs with Separation Anxiety
- Family Paws Parent Education: Dogs and Storks for people with dogs and new babies
2. Interview Prospects
Make a list of 2-5 dog trainers that you are considering and go observe a class. Speak directly to the trainers if you can. Ask the questions posed in point #3 above. Ask for references from other students that have trained under this instructor. Put simply, do your due diligence before committing.
3. Knowledge is Power!
The more you know, the better able you will be to decipher a great dog trainer from the last-in-class graduates.
4. Consider Online Training
If, after following tips 1-3, you have not found a great force-free dog trainer in your area, consider taking your training online. There are a plethora of online schools that offer dog training classes from puppy training to advanced agility, nose work, and rally obedience.