Help Wanted - Finding a Trainer or Behaviorist for your Primitive Dog

Finding good help is hard no matter what the field. Primarily this is because we are not experts in what we need assistance with, so it can be very challenging to weed out what isn’t going to help us. The unfortunate truth is that many times we don’t find out until after we have made a financial investment and possibly done damage to the thing we are looking for help with. Help for our primitive dogs is no different. 

In the United States and most other countries, training and behavior services for dog (and all other animals) is completely unregulated. Even the use of the word behaviorist (usually considered an academic term) carries little to no license or proof of education. The only exceptions to this are found in some European countries. If you reside in one, congratulations, finding a reputable professional is somewhat easier. For the rest of us however, it takes a bit of homework.

Different “schools” of thought run rampant within the realm of training and behavior. All will tell you that theirs is the only way that will get you the results you are looking for. Some are more humane than others. This hodgepodge leaves owners floundering on how to do right by their dog, and usually by the time they are asking for help, will do anything to find a solution. 

To make the search for a qualified professional easier and more successful for every primitive dog owner out there, I have created a short guide:

Professional Labels

Dog Trainer - someone with any level of schooling (even just starting out) who directly trains dogs and or the dog’s owners in skills such as manners, dog sports, puppy training, protection/bite work, problem solving, and sometimes fear and aggression problems.

Certified Dog Trainer - someone who has passed a test performed by an independent certifying body, OR someone who has earned a certificate from school they attended. Quality varies greatly.

Master Dog Trainer - this label has no official designation. There are reports that graduates of a couple of dog trainers schools label their graduates with this title but this otherwise carries no designation in the industry. It just sounds good for the sake of marketing.

Behaviorist - this label has no official designation. Yes you read that right. There is not main certifying body for “behaviorist” in the United States and most other counties (with the exception of the UK and a few other European countries). Professionals using this label could be no different than a self taught dog trainer who “learns” from watching tv shows. A behaviorist without some form of graduate level degree or certification from a well respected* body, is a huge red flag.

Behavior Consultant - may or may not be certified by IAABC or a handful of other certifying behavior organizations.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist - someone with a PhD or Masters level education involving animal behavior. Certified by ABS.

Veterinary Behaviorist - A veterinarian who has added years onto their education to focus on behavior and behavior pharmacology. May or may not be Board Certified.

These are the most common professional labels or designations you will see but every day people will slap almost anything behind their name to sound like they have authority. So buyer beware. Even the term “certified” can mean different things.

Certified versus Certificate

Certified means tested and/or evaluated by an independent testing organization, not associated with a school meant to produce professionals.

Certificates are generally pieces of paper spit out to say a course or program was completed and does not necessarily require any testing or evaluations to take place.

Methods/Styles/Schools of Training and Behavior

There is so much lingo, jargon, and sales rubbish out there that is nearly impossible for someone to know what they are getting before they buy it. So here are some of the more common terminology, deciphered into normal language.

Positive - means to add something the dog likes (food, a toy, etc). It does NOT mean using exclusively praise. It does not mean good, happy, etc, though to give the dog things they like does generally make them happy. 

Negative - means to take something away. This does not mean bad or harmful. Some forms of training use this to punish a dog by taking away something it likes, for example a guest because the dog jumped on them. But it can however mean taking away something painful, like releasing a corrective collar, shock collar, or pinch. 

Punishment - means a behavior has been reduced through any means, whether through force, pain, or removal of reward or reinforcement.

Correction - physical contact in the form of a poke, kick, nudge, or jerk of a collar or harness, OR a sound in the form of a tsk, hiss, or yell. Used to stop the dog, get there attention, and usually intended have enough force to reduce the likelihood of the previous behavior.

Treat Training/Food Training - Used to reinforce cognitively and emotionally, the behavior performed before or during the moment food is delivered. When used during or in response to a behavior, it is reinforcement (aka a reward). Beyond learning, it should not be used to cue the behavior; ie waving a treat in the dog's face to get them to sit.

NILIF - a school of thought and/or lifestyle where the dog must defer and perform behaviors the owner likes before they receive treats, toys, food, affection, or access to furniture.

Balance Trainers - a term used by some trainers to claim a mixed use of all styles, methods, and tools. Technically all trainer use a mix of reinforcement and punishment. Therefore these trainers are really just more willing to use tools with greater punitive value.

Positive Trainers -  a term used by some trainers to claim a mixed use of all styles, methods, and tools except those that could cause visible stress or pain. Technically all trainer use a mix of reinforcement and punishment. Therefore these trainers are really just not willing to use tools with greater punitive value.

Traditional Trainers - a term used by some trainers to claim to use specific styles, methods, and tools that mainly encompass choke chain and prong/pinch collars and focus on deferment based relationships. Food is rarely used except in some very early steps and is generally replaced strictly with praise. Corrects are common and frequent.

Dominance - A catch all term by some trainers in the “balanced” and “traditional” styles of training. It has been documented numerous times that the theories and explanations to these ideas on relationships between owners and dogs is false, misleading, and as a specific style of training dogs, does harm. Due to the popularity of these ideas and their expression in pop culture, in social media and famous tv dog trainers, this outdated and incorrect theory is still very popular.

LIMA - “Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive” training focuses on the cause and effect of behavior to pinpoint problems and use behavior modification methods like Applied Behavior Analysis to change behavior. LIMA always considers the experience of the learner (the dog in this case) in the process. Generally control and changes to environment as well as use of food to create new behaviors is the main foundation process for most cases.

Litmus test for choosing the right professional

Since no dog owner is equipped to know every red flag and professionals are getting better and better are marketing themselves, here are some questions to ask to better know if a trainer or behavior professional is the right one for you.

  1. Where did you get your professional education/certifications?

  2. What will happen if my dog does something right?

  3. What will happen if my dog does something wrong?

  4. Are their any less aversive or intrusive methods than the ones you plan you use with my dog?

Start early when trying to find a quality professional. Don’t wait for the last minute when you are at wits end to start looking for help. Don’t fall for flashy language and assertions of success. Never trust a professional with a guarantee. Guarantees sound good but are actually unethical when working with living breathing beings. Training and behavior modification results can vary regardless of the professional you choose, due to your dog’s genetic and neurological makeup, and your ability to practice working on the problem.

Start early and be diligent. Try to sit in one sessions of classes as an observer to see how the trainer treats dogs they are teaching and if you would be comfortable letting them handle your dog. Try not to fall for flashy language and promises. Instead let the animals do the talking.

For basic training help and suggestions on where to look for a professional, you can always inquire in our Facebook Community. We'll see you there!