One of the first competitive activities pet dog owners took up with enthusiasm some 70 odd years ago was ‘Competitive Obedience’. It was an opportunity for like-minded enthusiasts to get together and train their dogs in a series of set exercises and be judged at just how well the dogs executed them. The exercises themselves have changed little over the years; but the techniques to train them most certainly have.
The originators of the Kennel Club tests knew what they were about. The jargon and science we use today might not have been there, and our modern day understanding of the concept of ‘obedience’ has changed, but throughout the tests the dog is being trained for all the skills we want today. Impulse control, reliable responses to cues, being able to focus whilst being aroused and excited. Ability to become calm at the drop of a hat. Scentwork. Sharing and giving up articles willingly and happily. Independence and confidence in responding to cues at a distance from the handler. Being attentive to the handler. A willingness to work as a cooperative team and choosing to be with the handler. The first real test for any new competitor is usually finding a way to motivate the dog to want to stay in the ring! There are so many important lifeskills a dog acquires; so many training skills a handler has to learn to succeed.
Nowhere is the change for more positive, motivational techniques reflected than in the Obedience shows run by the British Competitive Obedience Society. The emphasis in the rules and tests is on the dog showing enthusiasm; wanting to join in with the handler in what are, by and large exercises of little immediate practical value. They have borrowed the best of the Kennel Club tests and given them a positive twist.
So it is excellent news that BCOS already has their first post-covid show planned. Look out for it – if the idea of dogs being ‘obedient’ has put you off ‘Obedience’, then think again. Competitive Obedience (capital C; capital O) is for the dogs, as well as the humans.
One of the things a lot of trainers used to insist owners taught their dogs was to make sure they – the owner – went through doorways first. It was believed that it supported the owner’s position as ‘pack leader’ and showed the dog who was in charge by leading the way. Like much advice associated with outdated ideas about how to deal with ‘dominant’ dogs, it has fallen out of favour and doesn’t seem to be taught much these days. But is that wise or sensible? I say not.
However much I’ve tweaked and adapted my class content over the years ‘dog following owner though doorways’ has always stayed in there, somewhere. And I teach it to every dog I own. Yes, really. For many people it conjures up pictures of ‘pack leaders’. Dogs being subservient to the human in charge. But in my book it’s just plain sensible for the dog to learn to tuck itself behind the owner, and let them deal with whatever may be out there first. It is also an excellent way for a dog to learn self-control.
Many years ago I used to teach classes in a hall which had a stage where people sat waiting for their class to start. An owner with a large RottieX arrived, dog out ahead of him at the end of the lead. The dog went through the door onto the stage – but something made the door swing shut on the lead. So the owner was one side – dog the other. What the owner couldn’t see, and didn’t, was there was a child on the stage just the other side of that door. As the dog bounced though the door, he jumped at the child and grabbed his arm. Fortunately, playfully, and without doing any damage. But by the time the owner had opened the door, the dog had let go, and the owner was blissfully unaware what had happened until he was told. Disaster was averted – but only just.
What I took from seeing that near miss was that from a safety point of view, the dog mustn’t be the one to discover what is on the other side of any door first. It’s simply too late, and potentially dangerous, to let the dog go through and then discover there’s a hazard on the other side. He will have already kicked off at the dog that is just outside, or started to chase the cat sitting on the step or grabbed the child waving its arms about excitedly. The harm will have been done. Shutting stable doors and all that.
In the context of reactive dogs it is even more important. Nothing puts more dread in my heart than seeing an over-aroused dog appear in a doorway before the owner is visible! Seeing them drag their owners ahead at stiles, doorways and gates, around blind corners – especially front doors or into a dog training hall – you just know it won’t take much to send that dog spiraling upwards and kicking off before the owner is even aware there is another dog around.
It’s not a ‘teach the dog a sit stay and then give him permission to charge through ahead of you’ obedience exercise (although it can be helpful to teach the dog go though ahead on some kind of cue), it’s an exercise where the dog, as a default, learns to drop back behind the owner in order to negotiate narrow spaces. Where someone – either the dog or the handler – has to go first. And if needs be, pausing in that doorway first, so the environment can be checked out first. That it’s safe to proceed. No lurking cats, passing dogs or children. Nothing to do with being a ‘pack leader’, just plain sensible.
People often use Facebook and Google to ask about training or behaviour issues with their dogs and FB can be great for exploring and sharing problems, and getting opinions from people who have experienced them, but it’s usually best to consult a trained and experienced professional. In the dog behaviour business though, there are no legal requirements; no rules at all about who can set up as a behaviourist or a trainer so you need to check their credentials with care.
But which do you need anyway? A trainer or a behaviourist?
Essentially a trainer works with owners to help healthy, relatively untroubled dogs learn things. To use the old-fashioned term to be “obedient”. We talk about responding reliably to cues these days, and the techniques used are very different, but training is about helping the average, problem-free dog learn what owners want of them, and for owners to learn what is fair and reasonable to ask of their dogs. Trainers might be called in to help with housetraining puppies, or coming when called, or more specialist needs like competitive sports dog training or assistance dog tasks. The good dog trainer will have enough understanding of behaviour to spot if these training needs are symptoms of a more complex health or behaviour issue, especially if the dog is finding it difficult to learn to be responsive to what the owner needs or wants him to do. If they aren’t qualified to deal with those things (which they might, or might not, be), they should have the knowledge to know when to refer clients to other professionals.
A behaviourist works with owners to help resolve behaviour problems. For example fearfulness, anxiety, aggressive behaviour, dog/dog “reactivity”. They aim to bring the dog’s behaviour to as near to problem–free as possible; the aim being to enable dog and owner to live in peace and harmony, the dog to live a ‘good life’ and to be more open to learning (training) if its needed. Not just for the owner’s sake of course, but for the welfare of the dog. That may need some ‘dog training’ skills as well, but that isn’t the behaviourist’s main role and they may refer clients to a trainer once underlying behaviour issues have been sorted out. A good behaviourist works in cooperation not just with trainers, but with vets too. Most work only on vet referral since many behaviour problems result from pain or illness.
Some trainers are qualified behaviourists, and vice versa. There is inevitably a lot of overlapping of skills between the two.
Experienced or qualified?
Any trainer or behaviourist will do their best to ensure that their advice is founded in good science. Unfortunately evidence and good science is not only rather lacking in important areas of behaviour work, sometimes it’s pretty hard to apply to the ‘real world’. But it is widely accepted that a behaviourist would be educated in a directly relevant subject to at least degree level, so will usually have a relevant degree – either undergraduate or post graduate, typically in Applied Animal Behaviour or Clinical Animal Behaviour, and would normally have been mentored or examined in some way in order to demonstrate they can apply their knowledge and skills working with clients.
If the problem is a serious aggression or behaviour problem then the first port of call should be the vet who can, and should, refer you to a qualified behaviourist. Veterinary surgeons don’t receive much training in dog behaviour at vet school, but they can specialise in behaviour work and some have pursued post graduate qualifications in behaviour, so it’s worth checking out if your vet’s practice has such a person. There are a few vets who are listed as specialists in veterinary behavioural medicine with the RCVS.
Some vet practices have vet nurses that have some extra training in behaviour to handle minor behaviour problems. Some may be qualified to work as behaviourists in their own right.
Coaching and counselling skills also form an important part of the job. An effective behaviourist will have those too.
Dog behaviour work doesn’t have a single, straightforward set of skills, so although there are certain evidence based protocols which a good behaviourist would normally follow, it’s not like building a wall, cooking a soufflé or learning to drive so there will be variations in how each carries out their work. There are two important significant variables that makes each case unique – your dog. And you.
So its a real hotch-potch of things to look out for. It pays to do some research to find out who is the right person to help you and to find out what their qualifications and experience can offer you.
LISTS OF BEHAVIOURISTS
There are other organisations than these listed – but these (below) should identify most currently in practice in the UK and some include the members of those other organisations. Each organisation has their own criteria for membership so you may want to check that out. Typically they will have minimum academic standards, usually an assessment process, a code of practice and/or some kind of ethical statement, how members or their courses are accredited (if they are), if they have a complaints procedure (just in case things go wrong) and how they expect members to behave professionally, and how they maintain their skills. They vary. Note there are also behaviourists who are well qualified, and experienced, who are not members of any organisation. There is no obligation, legal or otherwise, for any behaviourist to join any organisation.
ABTC – the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.
An organisation which brings together members of a number of organisations, including the long established Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC). http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/
Register of ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB)
The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) runs a certification scheme and lists those who have fulfilled their criteria. https://www.asab.org/ccab/
FABClinicians – The Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians
An organisation established in 2020 which is a support organisation for those already academically qualified in clinical animal behaviour and working towards becoming certified by the Association of Animal Behaviour (ASAB). https://fabclinicians.org/
The International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants is what it says on the tin – it includes a number of respected British behaviourists as members so is worth checking out https://m.iaabc.org/
Expect to be asked to go to your vet for a formal referral. It is usually best to approach the behaviourist first though to check out they are happy to take on your particular case, to discuss how soon they can see you and importantly how much it will cost. Behaviourists aren’t cheap. But you may be able to claim it on your veterinary insurance. The behaviourist (and your insurance company of course) should be able to advise you on that, so don’t be shy about asking – they will want to you to be able to pay them. You may also need immediate ‘first aid’ advice on how to manage a dog safely until you can see someone. That can be especially important where aggression is involved.
If they don’t want to ask for a formal vet referral, or suggest a visit to the vet won’t be necessary, ask why. It is considered ‘good practice’ to make sure health issues are eliminated and they ought to be able to justify such advice. Some behaviourists like to schedule a short assessment visit first.
Do your research
By now, hopefully its become clear It is important to do your research, even if the person you come across is on one of the registers, above. Or indeed, if you find someone who calls themself a behaviourist, who isn’t on any register. They may also be good at the job, but be mindful they aren’t under any obligation to adhere to laid out codes of practice, or be answerable to a professional body. So long as your vet can satisfy themselves that person is fully qualified (and insured) it ought not be a problem for you to express a preference.
Other organisations will have their own criteria for membership and have members who may be excellent at the job, and well qualified in most significant respects.
1 – Internet – Check the various registers, above.
2 – Check the websites of likely candidates.
Does it tell you what their qualifications and experience are? Especially if they aren’t on the registers, above. Are they relevant to what you need? “I became a behaviourist because I love animals and grew up with them” is NOT a qualification! Google their name – see if it throws up useful facts about their experience e.g. experience of specific issues which may or may not be relevant to your needs, interest in specific breeds or problems
Are they members of reputable organisation? (See above).
Do they describe HOW they work? Do they state what approach they take? They should. If they say things which suggest they buy into techniques which appear to rely on being a ‘pack leader’ or dismiss using food treats as a tool before they have even met your dog, for example, then you probably want to steer well clear of them. If they are also trainers running classes, go and watch them at work if you want reassurances (but do ask first – it’s the polite thing to do J).
3 – Ask other people locally. Get personal recommendations
Chat to local dog walkers, the local pet shop. Other dog owners. Be prepared for them to offer biased and uninformed opinions as well as sing praises of the people they respect though. Gossip and badmouthing people didn’t start with FaceBook! Just be ready to ignore what may just be scurrilous rumours about bad practice, but you are likely to get a picture of how well respected a behaviourist is, and their effectiveness, by talking to a range of local people who have experience of their services.
Now you have a behaviourist on board?
Once you have connected with a behaviourist, work with them as a team. A good behaviourist will want your feedback, and ready to adapt their advice (assuming its in everyone’s best interests to do so of course) to suit the circumstances, so don’t be scared to talk with them if their advice doesn’t appear to be working, or you believe it might be too difficult for you to follow. Check out you really are doing what they intended.
But let’s assume all goes well and you are happy with the help you are getting. Behaviourists also love to know when things are working out and the problems sorted – so if they don’t ask, don’t let that stop you dropping them a line or giving them a call to say’ thanks! We are all well and happy now’. It will be appreciated.
I used to have a puzzle box that I used in class room based dog behaviour seminars. I’d put a “reward” in it (usually a lottery ticket), put it on a desk and before I started presenting the seminar I’d say ‘Here’s a box – if you can open it, the reward – a lottery ticket – might be worth millions of pounds – is yours. Help yourself’.
And carried on lecturing.
It was very rare for anyone to get up at that point to get the box, but you’d see some students glancing towards it. Considering if they should get up and go fetch it or not. It was very rare for anyone to.
So invariably at some point, to encourage them to go against the social norm of sitting still and listening obediently to what I was saying, I’d have to be more explicit. ‘Please…help yourself. Who wants to have a go at opening the box?’
Then I’d start to see what I see in dogs.
The confident ‘can doers’ would be the first to get up and go get it and try to open it. Usually the ones who had been glancing at it – already visualising how they’d tackle the problem or perhaps already considering how they’d spend their jackpot. If they failed, somewhere along the line another person would take over. (Negotiations on how and when that changeover happened varied according the group dynamics. Interesting in itself).
The ‘problem solvers’. They don’t seem to want the reward too much, but it is a goal. The task of working out how to open the box appears to be self- reinforcing. (But only up to a point – I’ll come back to that). They’d be calm and thoughtful. They’d be the ones that stopped listening to me talking and could be seen playing about with it, shutting out potential interruptions.
The ‘deferrers’ – the people who sat back unwilling to risk attempting and failing. Usually accompanied by verbal ‘oh I’m no good at things like that’.
The ‘let me at it’ brigade. The ones who got frustrated very easily, pull and push at it aggressively, and giving up very quickly.
I saw low level ‘resource guarding’ behaviour. If there was more than one ‘let me at it’ individual in a group, you’d see some attempts to grab and possess the box, some protective snatching away of it and only half-teasing verbal aggression.
I don’t recall anyone saying the lottery ticket was the main motivation for any of them to have a go. I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but It was (after all) just a piece of paper, which was very unlikely to materialize into hard cash. On occasions I used a single sweet. Perhaps the distraction from my lecturing was reinforcement enough. Perhaps the novelty of the task was enough.
I only once encountered someone who sat serenely and confidently ignoring what was going on and not getting involved. Not a ‘deferrer’. But something else. On exploring why she wasn’t interested in trying to open the box it transpired she was a Methodist and was against gambling, so she did not want to win a lottery ticket. The prospect of getting a lottery ticket was not only not reinforcing, the possibility of a negative outcome for her seemed to block other motivations to have a go at the task.
Once a student had been successful in opening the box, lottery ticket duly possessed, there was still plenty of interesting things to consider. Even when the reward was no longer in the box, plenty of students still wanted to work out how to open it. They might help each other, they might not. An empty box now, no sweet or lottery ticket to be gained. But the student who had been successful almost invariably lost all interest in it. Some students, often including some of the ‘deferrers’, wanted to work out how to open it, but needed a bit of help and encouragement and once help given, they were happy to persist in completing the task. There would always be a few who didn’t seem to want to be involved at all, who sat on the sidelines. There was no reward on offer sufficient to prompt them to try. It didn’t seem fair to draw comparisons between the ‘deferrer’ and the dogs we might see in dog training classes who had long since lost the will to be involved in the learning process, or have so little confidence in trying, they feel safer sitting things out, or consider the challenges in helping them choose to be more engaged. But it was tempting to all the same,
When we discussed questions like whether the students would continue to persist in opening the box when they a) knew how to and b) they knew there was no reward in it, I don’t recall any students ever saying they’d bother with it again. There was the occasional one who wanted to improve their ‘box opening’ skills, and you’d see those individuals move all the panels swiftly and more deftly on each repetition, but once they had improved to some internal standard of perfection, lost interest.
It was tempting to view the responses as ‘breed’ related and sometimes we might joke about the Border Collies in the group since there was invariably someone who obsessed about the box – intent on opening it and not willing to being interrupted. In the end it was a human Malinois who finally did for the box. Frustration, very limited patience, and apparently few social skills (don’t break the teacher’s box!) led to fatal injuries and sadly I have never found one to replace it. RIP puzzle box. You helped me ask so many questions I still do not have the answers to.
When I was a child I was encouraged to take the obligatory (in my dad’s world, anyway ) piano lessons. I was duly coached and learned on the upright piano that sat in the spare room. It was quite old, and the ivories were a bit stained. I can remember what some looked like. The D above middle C was yellow. The E was white with some dark speckles. I practiced. Not a lot, but enough presumably for it to be declared that I was competent enough to take my Grade One piano exam. The lowest level of exam. The basic, easy-peasy entry level exam.
I failed it. I still remember the experience. Instead of being in the spare room at home, with comfortably familiar keys on that old upright piano, with my piano teacher sitting beside me offering kind support and feedback, I was sat in glorious isolation at a shiny grand piano, sitting on a strange piano stool that felt weird, all the keys beautifully white and (very confusingly!) identical. I was high up on a stage. On the floor of the hall (Balham Town Hall) were some strangers sitting at a table watching me. The JUDGES.
To this day I have no idea how good or bad I was, and no recollection of what my father or my music teacher thought of my performance, but since I failed it I’m guessing I wasn’t being marked down as a future Chopin or Rachmaninov. I never took another piano exam in my life and mostly stopped playing although I did love to tinker on it from time to time when no one was around.
So here’s the dog training lesson I (many years later with the wisdom of hindsight and adulthood) took from that experience. It doesn’t matter how well you (or the dog) ‘know’ something – if you don’t generalise that learning, habituate to an environment and don’t practice it under varying conditions the learning WILL almost certainly fail at some point. If you know that skill inside out, have it so familiar to you so you can almost do it on your sleep, it may stand up to more challenging conditions, but all too often, for various reasons, we put that learning under too much pressure too soon and so it becomes vulnerable to failure. As a little girl I was put on a stage, with an unfamiliar piano, being watched by complete strangers, under test conditions, being expected to reproduce ‘Study in D minor’ by Thomas Dunhill, without any of those factors having been taken into account first. Had I but known it, I was doomed before I even set foot in that hall.
I hadn’t forgotten the piece of music I had practiced for the exam. I could still play it when I got home (and could for years afterwards). But at Balham Town Hall, on that day, I couldn’t. I wasn’t being stubborn, or ‘difficult’. I wasn’t playing it badly to spite anyone. I wasn’t “choosing” not to do as I was asked. I wasn’t being disobedient. I simply hadn’t been prepared for the conditions I was being expected to perform under. I was totally undertrained. My brain couldn’t handle all the different stimuli being thrown at me,
When people take their ‘trained’ dog to a dog show, to compete in perhaps obedience, or the breed ring, or agility, consider what are often common excuses they give for their dog messing up. He’s “stubborn”, or he “knows it really, he’s just being difficult”. He doesn’t like shows. He’s a bit ‘off’ today. He…anything and everything other than he was simply not prepared or trained well enough to ‘perform’ those behaviours, under the conditions he was confronted with.
So when your dog loses concentration, doesn’t do as he is told, messes up – consider – have you prepared him well enough? Before blaming him, check you have completed your part of the job of training by preparing him for those conditions. I often wonder what path my musical career might have taken me on, had I smashed Study in D minor at Balham Town Hall on that day instead of the ignominious failure it became.
One of the most interesting ‘rules’ I heard about when I started clicker training, and started to look at the science behind learning, was the concept of stimulus control. i.e. you give significance to a cue by ONLY reinforcing that particular version of a behaviour when you present the cue. You also DIDN’T reward it in the absence of that cue. I learned from experience the environmental cues mattered too, but the principles remain the same.
From a competitive obedience point of view that was highly desirable and what we really did – and do -need.
Domestically…did it matter so much? I thought then that it probably did, and still do. Its just so much harder to use effectively in the ‘real world’. It teaches the dog the cues you present to them – i.e. your ‘commands’ – ARE important, worth listening to and are opportunities to earn reinforcement. Those cues don’t have to be verbal. They can be gestures, but verbal cues are usual far simpler and more black and white to teach. There was a great video of one trainer showing how he taught it ….cue, behaviour, good consequence. No cue – behaviour? No positive consequence. i.e. no reward. Just repeated and repeated in a random way, until the penny drops.
For behaviours that aren’t reinforced by other people, or intrinsically rewarding (a great example usually being barking) , it is a great way to reduce the dog randomly annoying us with things we’ve only half trained them to do or things we want them to do sometimes, but not at others. It also explains why once a dog understands a ‘cue’ and it’s been taught the concept of stimulus control (dogs do get it!), they will steadfastly appear to “refuse” to do it when you use even a slightly different cue by mistake.
Want a more comprehensive, but very readable, explanation? Look at chapter 3 in Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoort the Dog.
One of the less useful lessons past dog trainers taught us human pupils was to perpetuate the idea that ‘WAIT’ and ‘STAY were significantly and importantly different commands (and back in the day they were commands – not cues!). Why? Because it suggested to owners it mattered whether or not you were going to go back to the dog, or recall it. It mattered what was going to happen as a consequence of that wait. Or stay. It doesn’t. Really it doesn’t.
Here’s the human analogy
You go to the theatre. You are asked to wait in a bar first until the doors are opened. What actual words the usher uses to communicate this are irrelevant so long as you understand them. If you don’t understand because you speak different languages or you are deaf she is likely to find a way to gesture or show you so you DO understand. (In dogs we make that easier by using food treats).
You wait. Why? Because you have been trained to ever since you were a child. Possibly by the promise of sweeties, dinner or getting into a cinema or whatever it is you have to wait for. It’s called ‘upbringing’ or ‘teaching’ in human circles rather than training though. You might have a drink and something to eat while you wait in the theatre bar which will increase your motivation to wait there, rather than wander off somewhere else. But the chief motivation is the expectation of being given the opportunity to get to your seat to enjoy the play.
So you wait. You are then given a cue to get up and go in and take your seat. Again the words that are used don’t matter so long as you understand they mean. ‘You can go in now’.
But although you may be expecting a cue that says ‘now go in – the play is about to start’, you will also have learned completely different cues that might have you getting up and choosing to do something else entirely e.g. if you hear a fire bell. You might get up and leave. The cue of a particular type of loud bell ringing meaning ‘get up and leave a building’ is also trained in us all from an early age. The cue of a friend calling you on your mobile suggesting you wait somewhere else, for instance, if the motivation to go and meet that friend is greater than the desire to see the play might have you leaving the theatre too.
But so long as you KNOW you will be told when to get up and get to do the thing you are waiting for, AND you want that thing enough, then you will wait won’t you?
The Doggy Waiting Room
It doesn’t matter if you use a platform, a crate or a start line. Or just a patch of grass. You may want the dog to wait there until asked to do something else. The dog needs to learn a cue which means ‘hang about there until you hear a cue to do something else’. It makes zero difference whether you say wait, stay or ‘shazam’. It’s all in what you decide what each word means.
One of the more useful reasons for asking a dog to stay in a specific place until asked to move – the posed photo 🙂
Then the dog also needs a cue which means ‘the wait is over now’. We humans like to teach short, single words in dog training because it’s easier for dogs to understand. The word is shorthand for that ‘you can go in and take your seat to enjoy the play now’ moment.
In the dog’s case It could be the opportunity to have a game with a tuggie (‘TUG!), or go fetch the ball (FETCH!), or ‘do your agility round now’ ‘GO!’. Or simply ‘OFF YOU GO’ or ‘OK’ meaning ‘go off and enjoy yourself doing whatever you choose. Be a dog.
It entirely depends on what you want the dog to do next – something, or even nothing – what cue you choose to teach and use. So forget WAIT/STAY debates. Just teach the dog the cues you want to attach to what opportunities you are offering your dog.
People often use Facebook and Google to ask about training or behaviour issues and how to find a decent dog trainer. FB can be great for exploring and sharing problems, and getting opinions from people who have experienced them, but it’s usually best to have someone meet you and your dog(s) since what people say and report they are experiencing is often a far cry from the what the DOG is saying and doing.
Does the trainer use positive techniques?
Also a qualified (in its broadest sense) professional, experienced in coaching skills with a commitment to continuing their own learning and development, is usually much better placed to offer informed and up to date advice either in your home or in a class. It’s an area where skills are constantly improving and changing as more and more scientific evidence appears.
BUT…and it is an important BUT. There are (sadly) some very poor trainers in business out there and although in the dog training and behaviour world there is a hot debate about who should be calling themselves dog trainers or behaviourists, at the moment the whole industry is unregulated to the point of anarchy.
Experienced or qualified?
There are some excellent people who have no paper qualifications, but oodles of great experience. There are plenty of people who have excellent academic qualifications and loads of knowledge, but not so much hands-on experience. With all shades of both (or neither) in between. There are also people who may have high profiles but whose self-promotion skills are far greater than their dog training skills. There’s no easy way to know who would be best to help you.
The best you can do – in the absence of informed personal recommendation – is probably to go with someone who belongs to one of the reputable organisations who have a commitment to evidence based, positive techniques, ideally with an effective procedure for handling complaints about members (not all do) to make sure their code of conduct, or ethics, and rules are adhered to. Literally ANYONE can set themselves up a trainer or behaviourist – and some people WILL do harm if they are let loose on your dogs.
If the problem is a serious aggression or behaviour problem it is always best to get a vet to check the dog over first – undiagnosed pain is a common factor in aggression and other behaviour problems.
Dog training organisations
Here’s a list of some organisations (in alphabetical order – not in order of any kind of criteria of excellence) I’d suggest are worth checking to get help – all of them have guidelines about who they accept as members which should give you some useful information. It does NOT mean all their members are necessarily suitable for your needs, so don’t just assume they will be. The older organisations may have members admitted under older, less rigorous, criteria.
ABTC – the Animal Behaviour and Training Council. A newish organisation which brings together on 2 registers (one for training, and one for behaviour) members of a number of organisations. However, it is in its infancy and does not include plenty of excellent qualified trainers and behaviourists and does include some people who are not as experienced as one might like. (http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk) APBC – Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (https://www.apbc.org.uk) APDT – Association of Pet Dog Trainers (UK) (http://www.apdt.co.uk) IMDT – Institute of Modern Dog Trainers (https://www.imdt.uk.com) PACT – Professional Association of Dog Trainers (http://www.pact-dogs.com) Long and short – it’s a bit of a gamble!
Do your research
It is so important to do your research. Dog training and behaviour work doesn’t have a single, straightforward set of skills that will produce the same result in every case once you’ve mastered those skills since there is a very complicated and complex variable we lack so much information about…the dog. It’s not like building a wall, cooking a soufflé or learning to drive. At least, not yet. 🙂
1 – Internet – Google (of course 🙂 ) . Your place name + dog trainer or similar. Ask on FB groups.
2 – Check the websites of likely candidates. Does it give a person’s name? Do you know who you would be letting loose on your dog? Does it tell you what their qualifications and experience are? Are they relevant to what you need? “I became a dog trainer because I love dogs” is NOT a qualification! Google their name – see if it throws up useful facts about their experience e.g. wins in specific activities which may or may not be relevant to your needs, interest in specific breeds or problems
Are they members of any reputable organisation? (See above).
Do they describe HOW they train? Do they state what approach they take? They should. But of course be sceptical. People can say what they like on websites and some trainers are pretty creative. Plenty of them use punishment techniques which we know do harm, but they don’t tend to be upfront so don’t take their word for it. Go and watch them at work.
3 – Go to a class and observe. Contact trainers first (it’s the polite and respectful thing to do) and ask to go and watch a class. Be prepared for them not to have time to chat
Do the dogs in the class look happy?
to you there, but just observing will inform you. Do they put across what they want people to learn in an effective way? Do the dogs look happy and relaxed and enjoying themselves? Are the methods consistent with up to date techniques and practices? i.e. no use of check chains, water squirters or other forms of nasty aversives. If they won’t allow anyone to go and observe then they need to have a jolly good reason for it. Don’t just rely on their (edited) video clips online. Go see them in action. Reputable trainers welcome the opportunity to let you see what they do before you book their services.
4 – Ask other people locally – chat to local dog walkers, your vet, the local pet shop. Be prepared for them to offer biased and uninformed opinions though (both in favour and against). Gossip and badmouthing people didn’t start with FaceBook! Just be ready to ignore what may just be scurrilous rumours about bad practice, but you are likely to get a picture of how well respected a trainer is, and the techniques they use, by talking to a range of local people who have experience of their services.
5 – Consider getting a vet referral to a qualified behaviourist for any major behaviour problem. A qualified behaviourist is likely to ask for your vet to do a health check before they will work with you and it is often needed to eliminate pain, the fear of pain or other health issues.
Once you’ve settled on a trainer or class, well, enjoy yourselves! Training your dog should be a load of fun for both of you so have a great time learning together.