An article with thepack.in on choosing a trainer and achieving training success
Now that you can understand your dog’s behaviour and choose how to modify it, how will you select a trainer? The most prominent parameters will be the trainer’s methods (and whether they align with your idea of human-dog relationships) and their experience. However, that’s not all there is to selecting a trainer. Sometimes, trainers may have some glaring red flags or appealing green flags. Let’s take a look at what these may look like:
Trainer red flags
- Does not train you (= the pet parent):
Of course, the main priority is to train your dog, but you have to learn how to take these lessons outside training sessions too. After all, you will continue sharing your home with the dog long after Fido learns to fetch.
- Uses a lot of jargon but is unable to explain it:
We’ve all resorted to such gimmicks to impress people, but there are actual lives (animal and human) at stake here. It’s not a bad thing if your trainer uses jargon, but they should be able to simplify it for you and explain where it fits into giving your dog the best life.
- Unable to explain training decisions:
You shouldn’t micromanage your dog’s training. However, your trainer should be able to explain why a particular method is being followed. A good trainer is well-aware of dog behaviour. They will be able to explain why your dog needs to be trained a certain way and the expected outcome of the training. They will also help you troubleshoot things if their training isn’t giving the envisioned results.
- Uses aversive methods only during their part of the training:
Aversive methods should not be used for all dogs and should not be used by everyone. However, if your dog has been trained a certain way, you need to learn to replicate it and understand why that method works for your dog. If your trainer is training your dog with aversives without ever teaching you how to handle such techniques, it will cause issues for you and your dog. Of course, you may need to wait a bit before you can learn them.
- Asks you to mate your dog to ‘fix’ aggression:
Then why do you have a trainer for your dog? On a more serious note, mating accomplishes nothing except a litter from which this shady trainer will benefit.
On the other hand, neutering a dog without working on aggression may cause more issues. Train aggression first, then neuter your dog (I highly recommend it for dogs of an appropriate age). If the behavioural issue is testosterone-related, such as marking, neutering can help. Neutering may help with aggression if it is the outcome of something that neutering can control.
- Shows off being bitten by the dogs they’re training:
A dog bite is nothing to be proud of. As mentioned in the previous blog of this series, a dog bites only when they have been pushed too far. Dogs are not meant to bite. So, if a dog has bitten a trainer — the experienced professional in this situation — they must have done something wrong. Even if it was an aggressive dog, the trainer should have invested their time in understanding the dog’s nature and triggers. They should not be showing bites off.
Trainer green flags
These are mostly the opposite of the above red flags. You want to find a trainer who teaches you how to reinforce the lessons learnt during training, how to reward your dog, and what to do and what not to do, based on your particular dog’s nature. They take time to understand your dog and devise a training plan specific to them, which they explain to you in simple (or simplified) terms. They are patient with your questions and do not mind sitting down to fix issues during training. Most importantly, they teach you how to apply their methods (aversive or otherwise) to your dog, setting you and your dog up for success.
It is important to note that training is not magic (the results are magical, though). There is no spell to recite to make a well-behaved, confident dog. It is a lot of hard work, and your progress may not always be linear, so be patient with yourself, your dog and your trainer. If you believe that working with a particular trainer is not getting you the results, discuss alternatives with them. If it doesn’t work, you may need to find someone with a different approach. Many dog parents become stubborn when a specific trainer they like doesn’t work for the dog. Please remember that your dog’s benefit is fundamental to this activity.
Behaviourist vs Trainer:
Since this is quite confusing and was so for me until recently, let’s learn the difference between a Trainer and a Behaviourist. Here’s what Namratha Rao, a canine behaviourist with thepack.in says about the two: A trainer trains a dog, and a Behaviourist has to untrain and re-train. Ideally, a trainer should be able to work with any kind of dog i.e. develop the skills to work on a range of behaviour concerns too.
Namratha directed me to this article, which notes:
Dog trainers have experience in training methods and how a dog relates to learning. Dog behaviourists have an in-depth knowledge of the dog’s mind and will use psychology to gain the desired behaviour and may bring in elements of training to help support the behavioural modification plan.
When deciding on a dog trainer or dog behaviourist it is important to look at what the issues are with your dog. If your basic obedience in the training class is good but you are still having problems outside the classroom then a behaviourist can probably help you with what the core issues are and how to implement new regimes and solutions within the home and outside environment.
Board and train
An option offered by many trainers, board and train programs may or may not benefit your dog, based on your dog’s individual needs. Namratha does not recommend such programs for puppies. According to her, you can do a lot of training and relationship-building yourself with puppies. If you send them in a board and train at such a young age, you’ll miss out on their crucial socialisation window when they should not be confined to one training facility the whole time.
Namratha recommends such programs for cases where the dog is very aggressive and managing the dog’s training is beyond the family’s capability. There are cases where family members develop severe fear and anxiety related to an aggressive dog. There may be a constant threat of a dog bite (a puppy being naughty vs an adult dog being aggressive is very different). In such cases, a board and train should be explored.
While deciding on a board and train program, reach out to the trainer and discuss the method and plan for training (the above red and green flags apply here too). Any guarantees should be treated as a red flag — remember, each dog is different, and training is not magic. You should understand and agree to the training method, even if the trainer is known for being brilliant with dogs.
Look for transparency — you should be allowed to visit at least a part of the facility. Be thorough about the facility and trainer’s background before leaving your intact dog with them (this applies to people beyond trainers too). Unscrupulous facilities can use the intact dogs they board for mating, so be thorough. In addition to your visit, you should get regular updates during the program.
After the program is over, the trainer should schedule several sessions for you to understand how to continue the lessons your dog has learnt during the program. This is crucial because the program will only be effective if you can live with your dog outside the trainer’s presence.
We’ve touched upon this earlier but let’s make it clear — training from the best trainers will fail if you, the dog parent, do not do your bit. Your dog is, ultimately, your responsibility. The trainer will not leave their home and come live with you to ensure your dog behaves. With this in mind, let’s look at some dog parent red and green flags:
Dog parent red flags
- Expects overnight solutions:
If that’s what you want, buy a bag of oats. Your dog is a living being and while dogs are extremely intelligent creatures, learning a behaviour takes time, especially if bad behaviour has been practised for a while.
- Micromanages training:
It’s great to know what your trainer is doing and why, but you also have to let them train your dog. Sometimes, trainers try certain things which may not work for your dog — that’s okay. Let them correct that. Don’t hover — you can be involved without interfering.
- Paranoid/ Overprotective:
We all want the best for our dogs and want to protect them from all things nasty. However, your dog is a dog! They need to play in the mud and walk on the grass. I understand that ticks are a big issue, and you can’t always give your dog a bath, but don’t let that prevent you from letting your dog be. Find preventive measures for ticks, plan muddy walks every once in a while — there will always be a workaround. Of course, if your dog has had severe tick fever or breaks out in hives during every bath (this shouldn’t happen; find out the cause), this doesn’t apply to you.
- Their kids are the only people involved in training:
I get it; your kids threw a tantrum, and you caved and got them a dog. Now you want them to learn some responsibility because hell no, you won’t take 100% of the load for this dog on your head.
However, you cannot stop being the adult in this situation. While it’s okay (advisable even!) to involve the kids in your dog’s training, you cannot skip it. Like it or not, the core of your dog’s responsibility and welfare lies with you. You can share the load, but you should not shrug it off.
- Is the only person in the family who is involved in training:
If you have more family members living with you, your dog and your family will need to learn how to communicate with each other. Because humans are so complex, what works for you and your dog may not apply to anyone else at home. Even if you cannot ensure everyone’s presence at every session, get them to attend at least a few. Consistency across the family will save you a lot of trouble later.
- Is inconsistent:
Training needs to be followed like a prescription. You need to be consistent in training your dog the way your trainer has asked you to. If you’re advised to share updates on a schedule, you need to stick to it. Understand that you have an animal to whom you’re teaching new things. Dogs work very well with consistency — in training and in life.
- Impatient and unkind towards the dog:
It is one thing to do this with the trainer (which is also a red flag), but doing this to your dog will permanently fracture your relationship with them. You cannot train a dog based on fear. Remember, your dog is not trying to spite you.
Dog parent green flags:
The most significant dog parent green flag is consistency. Show up to all the sessions, practice what you’ve been taught, send regular updates, and set consistent expectations for good dog behaviour across your family. Practicality and common sense go a long way in setting realistic goals. Be kind, patient and empathetic to your dog (and to the trainer), and let the trainer have some space as they figure your dog out and work on training them. Communicate your needs clearly, even if you believe something isn’t working for you and your dog, and don’t shy away from clearing doubts. Lastly, let your dog be a dog and love them for that!
This article is the last part of a series around understanding and managing behaviour in dogs, written in collaboration with thepack.in.
thePack.in is a Bangalore-based start-up working towards helping people and dogs live happier lives together. They bring together India’s top dog behaviourists, trainers, and veterinarians on their platform to educate parents from the convenience of their homes. From day-to-day challenges of toilet training and puppy biting to complex behavioural and medical issues, thePack’s experts are there to support you throughout your journey. After all, it takes a Pack to raise a pet!
A special shoutout to Namratha Rao, one of the splendid canine behaviourists at thepack.in, and to Aditi Naik, a part of thePack’s Social Media team, for making this collaboration easy, seamless and fun! Namratha is a certified canine trainer and behaviourist, working with dogs professionally since 2013. She runs Pawsitive Tales, and generously shared her wisdom with me for this article. You can reach out to her via Instagram or book a consult with her here. Aditi runs She By The Snout — a pet sitting service in Bangalore and can be contacted on Instagram.