Choosing a Dog Trainer – Tips & Flags
Choosing a Dog Trainer – Tips & Flags

Choosing a Dog Trainer – Tips & Flags

So, since we’re learning together, I wanted to share something that I didn’t know even four years ago:

Dog Training Is A Completely Unregulated Profession

It’s true. In Canada, any human can declare that they are a dog trainer, and start charging people to train their dogs.

No experience necessary.
No education necessary.
No memberships, no testing, no regulation necessary AT ALL!

I honestly had no idea!

The Canadian Association for Professional Dog Trainers (CAPDT) is working on having this changed. The members have seen so many dogs who need more help than they should need because their good intentioned humans found and trusted “trainers” but were given bad advice because these “trainers” that they trusted don’t truly understand animal behaviour, dog body language, how a dogs brain works, and so much more.

Once I learned this, it gave me an entirely different perspective on dog trainers, and a lot more respect for educated, accredited ones. But I didn’t know how I could tell the difference.

Now that I know, I figured it would be helpful to share some tips.
** Full disclosure: not all of this information is my own, but the parts that are not, are being shared with permission from the Positive Force Free R+ Dog Training Library. **

Choosing the Right Trainer

When choosing a dog trainer, it’s important to consider your goals for your dog, as well as the trainers knowledge about dog behaviours and how to modify them.

Let’s talk signs… or flags:

Green Flags
  • Prioritizes management to prevent your dog from making a mistake and needing to be “corrected”
  • Is able to explain why your dog is doing what they’re doing. Often times “problem behaviours” are actual normal, innate, dog behaviours that have only become problems because we, as humans, are expecting behaviours from dogs that they don’t intrinsically know how to give.
  • Can explain how the emotions of the dog can influence behaviour
  • Can share a code of conduct that they follow
  • Is able to discuss popular tools and why, or why not, they are the best choice for your dog. Some of these include prong collars, e-collars, slip leads, etc.
  • Can explain the difference between *behaviour suppression and *behaviour modification
  • Prioritizes choice and agency for the dog, explaining the body language of the dog
  • Is not afraid to discuss their education, past and continuing
  • Will be open about their formal credentials and will be able to explain what they mean and where they came from. These are usually acronym letters after their name. * When someone finishes a program or course, they will be given the permission from the educational entity to put these letters after their name. Not all letters are created equal, so ask your trainer to explain them to you, and why they chose these courses to take for their credentials. This will be a great way to learn more about your trainer, and how much education and knowledge they actually have.
* See Glossary below for definitions and examples
Red Flags
  • Discusses dominance or alpha based training philosophy, often using terms like “leader”, “master”, or “dominate”
  • Uses language like “pack” or “balanced”
  • Publicly shames other trainers
  • Relies on or recommends aversive tools such as shock/e collars, prong collars, or slip leads to “control” your dogs behaviour
  • Guarantees results of any kind, especially if given within a specific time frame
  • Does not acknowledge the dogs body language as an indicator of comfort level or consent
  • Cannot identify when a dog shuts down or displays learned helplessness
  • Forces a dog into stressful situations to “get over” their feelings (this is called *flooding)
  • Assures you that obedience will solve all the issues your dog may have
  • Cites years of experience but is not able to show any formal education or certifications. * Worth noting that there are some trainers who do continue to learn more as science evolves and chooses to evolve their practices with it, however, it is not common. Again, having an open conversation about this should not be a problem for a trainer you want to use.
  • They make you feel intimated, uncomfortable, or hint that you are a bad dog owner
  • Does not discuss your dogs history, medical and behavioural, before discussing any sort of behaviour modification plans. 
  • Focuses on “correcting” rather than understanding behaviours.
  • Recommends sharp “No”, scolding, “leash popping/tugging/yanking”
  • Anti treats/positive reinforcement
  • Unwilling to collaborate with other 
Don’t just take my word for it.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) supports the use of training methods for dogs that are humane and based on current scientific knowledge of canine learning theory. Reward-based methods are highly recommended.  Aversive methods are strongly discouraged as they do not address the underlying cause of the undesired behaviour and may cause fear, distress, anxiety, pain or physical injury to the dog.  The CVMA supports the development of a national certifying body to establish acceptable and consistent standards for the training of dogs using non aversive methods.
(Click for more information)

Listed at number one on the
American Veterinarian Society of Animal Behavior
PDF on How To Choose A Trainer

Reward-based training. There are numerous ways to train dogs. In addition,
each animal has his/her own learning style and preferred motivators. AVSAB endorses training methods which allow animals to work for things (e.g., food, play, affection) that motivate them rather than techniques that focus on using fear or pain to punish them for undesirable behaviors.

Look for a trainer who uses primarily or only reward-based training with treats, toys, and play. Avoid any trainer who advocates methods of physical force that can harm your pet such as hanging dogs by their collars or hitting them with their hands, feet, or leashes. Research shows that dogs do not need to be physically punished to learn how to behave, and there are significant risks associated with using punishment (such as inhibiting learning, increasing fear, and/or stimulating aggressive events). Therefore, trainers who routinely use choke collars, pinch collars, shock collars, and other methods of physical punishment as a primary training method should be avoided.

LIMA is the acronym for “Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive” and is one of the main training standards for a certified trainer:

We focus on reinforcing desired behaviors and always ask the question,
“What do you want the animal TO do?”
Relying on punishment in training does not answer this question, and therefore offers no acceptable behavior for the animal to learn to replace the unwanted behavior. These LIMA guidelines do not justify the use of aversive methods and tools including, but not limited to, the use of electronic, choke or prong collars in lieu of other effective positive reinforcement interventions and strategies.

So What Questions Should You Ask?

Ask yourself:

  • What are my goals for my dog and my relationship with my dog?
  • Do I need in-person support or will virtual sessions work? Maybe a combination of both?
  • What kind of training will better support my goals? Group? One-On-One?
  • How much time can I dedicate to training my dog?

Questions to Ask Potential Trainers:

  • What kind of formal education do you have?
  • What Professional certifications and/or memberships do you hold?
  • Who will be doing the training? (*Hint: In most cases, the trainer doesn’t train your dog… the trainer teaches you how to train your dog)
  • Where will sessions happen? Can we see the space before committing to working with you?
  • What is your training method and philosophy? What will happen when my dog gets something right? What will happen when my dogs gets something wrong?
  • What equipment do you use?
  • Can you guarantee success? (Hint: an ethical dog trainer cannot guarantee anything, but will do their best to find someone to help you if they cannot)
  • What types of cases do you refer out to other trainers? (Hint: An excellent trainer will know their strengths and weaknesses… nobody is an expert in everything. Ideally they will have a wonderful network to refer to, either for them to find ways to help you, or to find a more experienced trainer to help you instead…. stay tuned for our Nova Scotia Network of Certified Science Based Dog Trainers to be added to our Resources Page.)
Did you learn anything here?

Is there anything here that you didn’t know before?

Has this article changed how you view dog trainers?

Do you have anything you feel is necessary to add?
If so, send me a message through my contact page and let me know.
I’m always happy to have a discussion and spread positive, necessary information.

* Glossary *

Behaviour Suppression often involves methods such as positive punishment or negative reinforcement. Positive punishment may include techniques like using a spray bottle or making a loud noise to discourage undesirable behavior, while negative reinforcement might involve applying pressure or discomfort until the undesired behavior ceases.

Example: Using a squirt bottle to spray a dog with water when it barks excessively, or using a “gentle leader” (also called a head halter, head collar, or halti) to apply pressure (discomfort) to the dog’s muzzle while the dog pulls on their leash until they stop pulling.

Behaviour Modification – aims to change the underlying reasons or motivations behind a dog’s behavior, leading to long-term changes in behavior, typically using positive reinforcement (rewarding desired behaviors) and counterconditioning (gradually exposing the dog to the trigger of the undesired behavior while pairing it with something positive to change the dog’s emotional response).

Example: For a dog that barks at someone knocking at the door, you would practice having someone knock on the door gently, at which time you would reinforce any moment the dog does not bark by giving a treat, without acknowledging the dog when they do bark, simply rewarding and reinforcing when they are quiet.

Flooding – a technique that involves exposing a dog to an overwhelming or intense stimulus in order to eliminate or reduce an undesired behavior. This method typically involves immersing the dog into the presence of the feared or aversive stimulus until the dog no longer exhibits signs of fear or anxiety.

Example: if a dog is afraid of loud noises such as thunderstorms, a flooding approach might involve exposing the dog to a recording of thunder played at a high volume until the dog no longer shows signs of fear. However, flooding can be controversial in dog training because it can lead to heightened anxiety or even trauma if not executed carefully. It’s important to consider the individual temperament and sensitivity of the dog before using flooding as a training method, and it should ideally be implemented under the guidance of a professional dog trainer or behaviorist.


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