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Finding the Right Trainer for Your Dog

By: Alex Lieber

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You want to do the right thing for your dog – provide a loving home, regular health care, good nutrition, and an active lifestyle. Part of that list must include training. But where do you start?

Finding a good trainer is like checking out your child's elementary school: you want to make sure it provides the right environment so he or she enjoys learning. But it's just as important for you to like the trainer, because you are also being "trained." Long after the trainer is gone, you want to be able to maintain your dog's good behavior and to extinguish the undesirable behaviors if they crop up.

But, you wonder, what constitutes a good trainer? Is it better for a trainer to come to your house for personal instruction? Or should you enroll in a class with other owners and their dogs? What things should you look out for in picking a trainer or class? And how much training is necessary?

Types of Training

There are different types of training. The most basic is obedience training, and consists of sit, stay, come, down, off, and heel. All dogs should be proficient in at least "sit, stay, come, and off" for their safety and the safety of others. By knowing these commands reliably, you may avert tragedy if your dog breaks away from you on a walk if he sees something that excites him.

More advanced training, involving teaching your dog how to retrieve specific objects or perform specific duties, may also be useful in some situations. Dogs trained to assist disabled persons provides an excellent example such training. Dogs may, for example, be trained to bring ringing phones to their owner, turn lights on and off, or help people maintain their balance. Guide dogs and "hearing ear" dogs provide another illustration of what can be achieved by means of advanced level training.

Then there's athletic training, so your dog can compete in dog sports, such as agility, lure coursing, or flyball.

And finally, there's behavior modification training. This helps owners manage unacceptable behaviors such as aggression toward people or separation anxiety (two of the most common problems of dogs).

What to Look For

Most pet owners are looking for basic obedience, which is what this article will focus on. Depending on where you obtained your dog, you may have been given information about obedience training classes sponsored by the local humane society. It is extremely important to follow up with training recommendations: Millions of dogs are surrendered each year because of unwanted behaviors that a modicum of training could have curtailed.

You can find training programs by calling local humane societies, word of mouth or by looking in the yellow pages. You can also visit the Association of Pet Dog Trainers on the Internet (www.apdt.com) and use the organization's "Trainer Search."

The APDT is an educational organization dedicated to promoting dog-friendly training methods. The organization encourages the use of reinforcements and positive training rather than coercive or punishment-based training.

Mel Bussey, a committee chairperson with APDT and owner of Training Tracks Canine Learning Station, notes that the trainer should "train" you to train your dog. "Owners should know how to change behaviors," she says. A good trainer makes the training fun for the dog, and in turn makes the dog eager to learn more. Essentially, the dog is learning how to learn.

Some people wonder whether they should hire a trainer to come to their home or go to a class. Either way works, Bussey says, but she personally prefers class settings, especially for puppies.

"Dogs get to socialize with one another," she says. Furthermore, owners get to play "Pass the Puppy," in which puppies are gently handled by other owners. This gets the puppies used to being handled, which will make your veterinarian's life a lot easier.

Here are a few things APDT suggests owners consider when picking a trainer:

  • A competent instructor will encourage you to observe a class before enrolling. In a well-run class, dogs and people should enjoy themselves while learning. The instructor should be approachable. If space permits, all family members should be able to attend the class.

  • Lessons should be explained clearly by the instructor. He or she should demonstrate the behavior; give students enough time in class to practice the day's lesson; and assist students individually.

  • The trainer should use humane training methods. That means no hanging, beating, kicking, shocking, or anything that causes the dog pain and distress. You should have the absolute right to stop any trainer who, in your opinion, is causing your dog undue harm or distress.

  • A conscientious trainer will stay current on innovations in dog training and behavior tools and techniques. Check to see if the instructor is a member of any educational organizations, such as APDT.

  • A good instructor should take precautions to ensure your dog's health in a group setting. Ask if dogs and puppies are required to be vaccinated before class, and which vaccines are required. Check with your veterinarian; he or she should be comfortable with the vaccination requirements.

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