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Shelters and rescues know better than anyone that behavior problems are one of the leading causes of both owner surrenders and the euthanasia of companion animals.
You see firsthand how undesirable behaviors impede adoption interest and success. You bust your butts, day in and day out, caring for your animals. You struggle to help the fearful, the anxious, and the reactive. You are the proverbial Atlas, holding up the weight of the world.
Some organizations are lucky enough to have skilled behavior professionals on staff. But for most shelters and rescues in our country, that is simply not an option. Limited resources force you to be Jacks and Jills of all trades, cleaning, adopting, medicating, training, and feeding an endless revolving door of dogs—and perhaps, in that rare free moment between cleaning a cat cage and processing a spay/neuter voucher, trying to teach pooches some manners. For many shelters that want to provide consistent, regular training for dogs, networking and referrals are sometimes the only options.
It may seem easy to find a professional trainer. It seems like Whac-A-Mole out there, with trainers popping up all over the place! How hard can it be? Why the heck is Animal Sheltering wasting space on an article about this? I mean, Google is all you need, isn’t it?
A Trainer is a Trainer is a Trainer … Right?
When it comes to dog training, many people expect that someone advertising herself as a professional will be one. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In fact, I would dare to say there are far more unqualified trainers than there are qualified ones.
It may surprise you, but there is absolutely no regulation, licensing, certification, education, knowledge, skill, or experience required to call yourself a trainer. Basically, if you know a dog from an orange, you can hire yourself out to train dogs.
But wait—there’s more!
If you know a dog from an orange, you can also call yourself a behaviorist. In fact, anyone on the planet can call herself a behaviorist, behavior specialist, behavioral consultant, guru, “whisperer,” psychic, or any number of job titles created within this profession. Yep, that’s right: None of those terms are regulated.Don’t get me wrong—education and certifications are available. You’ve probably seen the confusing alphabet soup of degrees after people’s names (and I am no exception—it’s a running joke among my friends that I just let my cat walk across the keyboard!). However, the acquisition of such credentials is 100 percent voluntary. And even credentials are no guarantee: I have seen trainers who aren’t certified but have skills that make me look like a chump, and some certified trainers who couldn’t handle a shelter dog to save their lives. Scary!
Feeling a smidge frustrated and confused?
“There Are Stacks of Business Cards at the Front Desk—We’re All Set”
Many shelters and rescues allow pet care and service professionals to put their cards, fliers, and other marketing materials at their front desk, in their lobby, or on a community bulletin board. But anyone with thirty bucks and access to a print shop can make business cards and brochures. What some people don’t realize is that, by offering advertising space, your organization may be seen to be recommending that person or service—whether you intend to or not. Do you know those trainers personally? Have you seen them train? Have you seen them work with a challenging dog? What are their skills? Philosophies? Qualifications? There are trainers out there who do in fact use techniques like helicoptering, hog-tying, striking, and kicking. Are you unintentionally suggesting to anyone who picks up one of those business cards that those techniques are OK?
If a trainer uses any questionable techniques, and their card is in your lobby, then the answer is yes. You are not only saying such techniques are OK, you are actively promoting them. Eek!
If you are already working with a trainer who uses such techniques (or if you don’t know what techniques he or she uses), it may be time to schedule a meeting to discuss what type of training your organization is comfortable promoting, and what types you will neither allow within your shelter nor advertise on its walls.
We Need a Good Trainer. What Next?
The following steps will help you determine if the trainers you already refer to or distribute cards for are worthy of your endorsement. This checkup is something you can do in your spare time (yeah, right, like shelter people have spare time!) or give to a volunteer. Volunteers who can work hands-on with animals are perfectly suited for such a task.
Go grab all those cards and fliers in your lobby, and Google “Find a dog trainer in [my town].” Next, go to: apdt.com, petprofessionalguild.com, or any other organization that has groups of trainers. Write down the names, phone numbers, email addresses, and websites of any trainers you are considering. Contact other local pet professionals, such as veterinarians, other shelters or rescues, groomers, sitters, and walkers for a few they recommend.
Write down the questions below. Check out the potential trainer’s site to gather as much information as you can, and then email them or chat over the phone to learn the following.
Questions to Find Great Trainers (and Weed Out Poor Ones):
Do you promote techniques based in dominance training or pack dynamics, or rely on methods that entail physical force or punishment?
If they say yes, or explain why reward-based techniques don’t work, or claim that rewards are “bribes” or cause obesity—move on to your next call and consider removing their promotional materials from your lobby and adding them to your “Do not refer” list. This trainer does not understand modern, effective animal training and behavior modification and is not up-to-date on nationally accepted and recommended standards. The following are just some of the many organizations that officially oppose dominance-based training and recommend reward-based training: American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and Certification Council of Pet Dog Trainers.
Can you guarantee results?
If they say yes, move on. It is impossible and unreasonable to guarantee results when so many unknown variables exist. Success depends on the trainer, the dog, the person seeking help, and what resources are available to commit to training (time, money, etc.). If you go to any human therapist (and I know I went frequently when I was up to my eyeballs in shelter stress!), they will say the same. No one can guarantee an outcome with so many factors.
May I watch you train?
If a trainer won’t let you watch what they are doing with your dogs—run! If you see anything questionable, that makes you pause, that puts the dog in physical or emotional pain or distress, etc., kindly thank them for their time, and don’t let the door hit them in the keister on the way out.
Do you pursue continuing education, have any professional memberships, or have any certifications?
While none of this is required, it is all certainly available and relevant. If your potential trainer says no to all three of these items, it suggests that they are likely not up-to-date with new techniques, tools, and practices in dog training, and are not plugged-in to what is going on in the field. I know of no trainers that I would refer to who would answer no to all three.
This Isn’t Enough— I Need More Detail!
Looking for information on how dogs learn? What are questionable techniques? What’s the difference between a trainer with certifications and one with certificates? What does the alphabet soup after a trainer’s name mean? What sorts of skills are covered in a group class? How much does training cost?
Allow me to recommend a book that may be the biggest best-seller since 50 Shades of Grey. OK, fine, so it’s not that popular yet—and far more tame, I swear! But it was nominated for an award from the Dog Writers Association of America, and has been reviewed and recommended by several well-known figures in the animal welfare field; the foreword was provided by Animal Planet’s Victoria Stillwell. Yes, I’m talking about my book, Fetching the Perfect Dog Trainer: Finding the Best for You and Your Dog. It’s an excellent resource for your adopters.
I hope these tips (and the additional resources below) will help you wade through the sea of options out there, and fetch the perfect trainer for your shelter and your constituents. By taking some time and doing due diligence, you can have an incredible impact and come to be seen as a resource in your community. Just a few quick steps will get you started.
Remember, trainers and shelter personnel all want the same things—to help dogs, to keep them happy and in their homes, and to help pet owners. Through collaboration and cross-promotion, shelters and trainers can form the perfect, mutually beneficial professional partnership. It’s really a quadruple win—for the shelters, the trainers, the owners, and the dogs.
Avoid trainers who:
- Claim dogs display jealousy, spite, guilt, etc.
- Brag about bite scars
- Do not inquire about veterinary history
- Make medical, dietary, or holistic suggestions without consulting a veterinarian
- Hit, strike, kick, butt, hog-tie, choke, or otherwise cause physical pain to a dog
- Force a dog into a terrifying situation without providing means to escape (known as flooding)
What trainers can do for you:
- Intercept and refer potential surrenders to prevent relinquishment
- Provide behavior modification and/or enrichment protocols for dogs during shelter stay
- Teach your volunteers and staff about dog training, handling, etc.
- Hold public education events, seminars, etc.
- Teach basic manners to your dogs
- Teach your volunteers to train your dogs in basic manners
- Provide post-adoption support, which equals increased adoption success
- Have “Ask the Trainer” booths at fundraisers
Have training space? Or a safe parking lot?
- Large space? Rent it to trainers for group classes for public and your dogs
- Small space? Rent it to trainers for private consults
- Let trainers use it for free, and split the income
- Offer public education events to generate income
Katenna Jones is the director of educational programs for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, where she works to assist and support dog trainers in continuing education. She has worked in animal shelters since 2000, providing professional development and consultations in animal behavior, training, and stress reduction. She is an associate certified applied animal behaviorist, certified cat and dog behavior consultant, and certified pet dog trainer. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, adopted cats, and an adopted AmStaff mix.