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Ten Things to Consider When Looking for a Dog Obedience Instructor

Kristin is a dog agility instructor and competitor with 20 years in the sport.

A white Shetland Sheepdog performing a scent discrimination exercise at a competition obedience trial.

A white Shetland Sheepdog performing a scent discrimination exercise at a competition obedience trial.

Searching for the Right Dog Obedience School

Finding a good dog obedience trainer is harder than most people think. With the multiple different types of dog training methods out there and with dog "trainers" able to hang up a shingle without any education, how does one find the right dog trainer for your specific dog?

Unfortunately, poor dog trainers abound. These trainers are capable of making themselves appear like the best thing since Lassie, but the fact is, many are using old or rehashed punishment-based methods from 20 years ago. On the other side, some of the positive-based trainers simply don't know how to train the more modern, positive methods correctly.

So what is a person who isn't a dog training expert to do?

The Top 10 Things to Look for

Below are the top 10 things to look for to find a good trainer for your dog or puppy. Be prepared to drive further to get to a good trainer, as there are far fewer good trainers than bad ones. You may find you have to pay more for a good trainer, but sometimes, you will actually pay less. One of the ways bad trainers make themselves appear good is to have expensive fees. This makes clients believe they must be getting what they're paying for, but often, that is not the case.

  • Do You Like the Trainer?
  • Are There Lots of Options for Further Training?
  • Is There a Good Training Facility?
  • Does the Instructor Use Good Methods or Risky Ones?
  • Does the Trainer Have Good Classroom Management Skills?
  • Are There Wagging Tails and Smiling Faces in the Obedience Class?
  • Does the Trainer Use Multiple Methods or "One Size Fits All" Training?
  • Is the Trainer Experienced?
  • Does the Trainer Have Proven Results?
  • Does the Trainer Use Positive Reinforcement?
A color-headed white sheltie finishing a scent discrimination exercise at a competition obedience trial.

A color-headed white sheltie finishing a scent discrimination exercise at a competition obedience trial.

10. Do You Like the Trainer?

When looking for a trainer, call and set up a time to visit the trainer's classes. A good idea is to visit during a time when you can watch two consecutive classes. It would be ideal if you could visit a beginning class followed by an advanced or competition class. This would give you a good overall view of what the dog/handler teams under that trainer look like at the beginning and after they have been trained.

When you visit class, one of the things to look for is if you simply like the trainer. Is this someone you would like spending one hour a week with for several months? And ask yourself not only if you like the trainer personally, but do you like the trainer's general training philosophies? Listen to your gut. If your instincts are putting up red flags, figure out why.

You do not want to invest money or time in a class where you just don't "jive" with your instructor. After all, dog trainers don't actually train dogs. They train people to train their dogs, and you have to get along with your trainer. Whether the impediment is just a personality issue or a training philosophy issue, don't hesitate to look elsewhere if you don't feel you will get along with the trainer.

9. Are There Lots of Options for Further Training?

Almost all canine obedience schools offer basic obedience classes. These classes usually teach the very beginning skills such as sit, down, stay, come, walk on a loose leash, etc. These classes also teach the student the basics of dog training, so they have the skills to train other behaviors on their own later.

However, it is highly recommended that you go beyond just the basics. Real training is achieved at the higher levels. Basic obedience is a bit like toddler pre-school. It's very, very basic, and there is a long way to go till your dog reaches the "doctoral" education equivalent! By choosing a school that has many more classes beyond basic obedience, you are allowing yourself the opportunity to move further with the instructor whom you have already developed a relationship. You could take a beginning class with a school that only offers the basics or a level or two above it, but you will have to start over looking for a new instructor when you are ready for more.

Additional Programs and Classes

A good school will also allow you to develop dreams and goals for your dog training. Perhaps you would like to get a CGC (Canine Good Citizen Certification) on your dog, or a S.T.A.R. Puppy certification on your puppy. These excellent programs are fantastic goals for the pet dog or starting points for the competition dog. Either way, a school that offers them gives their students training goals to work toward and achieve.

Other classes to look for beyond basic obedience or puppy obedience would include the following:

  • intermediate obedience
  • advanced obedience
  • Rally obedience
  • competition obedience
  • agility
  • K9 Nosework
  • Trieball

The more options for further training there are, the more fun you and your dog can have together.

A young dog heeling next to his owner in a Rally Obedience competition.

A young dog heeling next to his owner in a Rally Obedience competition.

8. Is There a Good Training Facility?

While it is always best to take an excellent instructor with a poor facility over a mediocre instructor with a great facility, the fact remains: A good facility does matter.

What Makes a Facility Poor?

A poor facility might be dirty, be full of difficult distractions, not have climate control, not be safely enclosed, be so cramped that reactive dogs are too close to others, have slick or bad flooring, have unsafe equipment, have poor ventilation, have poor parking, be poorly lighted, etc. All of these things can affect how well your dog is capable of focusing during training, especially if the dog is "green" or new to training.

Assessing a Facility

Dog trainers do not make a lot of money, so their facilities are often not stellar. However, all attempts should have been made to keep the facility safe and a good place for the green dog/handler team to train. Don't expect a beautiful facility, but do expect a functional one. If there are obvious safety issues, then overlook that trainer or see if they train at any other facilities. Sometimes trainers will rent other trainers' facilities and may train at several places throughout the week.

If the facility doesn't have safety issues, but has other less important concerns, then weigh the value of the instructor against the facility's issues. Good instructors are hard to find, and it may be worth your while to train in a less than perfect facility to get access to that trainer's knowledge as long as the facility keeps the dogs safe.

7. Does the Instructor Use Good Methods or Risky Ones?

As stated before, there are lots of bad dog trainers out there. As there is no standardized test for becoming a trainer, anyone can start up a business, whether they have the skills or not.

However, even well-intentioned trainers can have bad methods. Go watch some of the classes of the instructor in which you are interested. Be very aware of how the instructor handles issues such as reactive dogs. Dogs with aggression issues or even extreme desire to play are all potential risks to other dogs in their class. Does the instructor do anything to keep the reactive dogs separate from the other dogs? Perhaps he/she uses the other dogs as "bait" to get the reactive dog to react, and then helps teach the owner of the reactive dog what to do.

Risky Methods

This type of training puts the "bait" dogs at great risk. One dog attack can cause so much fear in an unwary dog or puppy that aggressions develop even months or years after the attack. The best option is for an instructor to have a separate "Growl" class for reactive dogs where the main focus of the training is on this special issue.

Also watch for other risks. The following are all red flags that this trainer may not be for you:

  • Dogs are off lead outside of a fenced area.
  • More than one dog is allowed off lead at a time.
  • The trainer allows owners to let their dogs go sniff other dogs without first getting the other owner's permission.
  • The trainer works in a poorly enclosed training area.
Teaching your dog basic obedience, such as sit and stay, helps to make photo ops easier.

Teaching your dog basic obedience, such as sit and stay, helps to make photo ops easier.

6. Does the Trainer Have Good Classroom Management Skills?

In the same vein, classroom management is key to a good training experience. Some trainers are very uncomfortable creating good classroom management because it often means telling students they must have better control of their dogs. Although you are paying your trainer to tell you what you are and are not doing correctly, some trainers' personalities make it difficult for them to tell a person to stop letting their dog go sniff other dogs.

What a Well-Run Class Looks Like

A well-run obedience class will have dogs in separate parts of the room, each keeping to themselves unless told to socialize in a puppy class. If the class is an advanced class where off lead work is allowed, only one dog should go off lead at a time to avoid any unforeseen dog incidents.

The concept that all dogs are friendly and all dogs love having other dogs come up into their faces is simply untrue. The fact is, dogs have a large personal space, just like people, and most dogs expect other dogs to respect that space. It is up to you and your trainer to make sure that if your dog is the over-friendly type, that it doesn't disobey this space requirement.

Classroom Management Issues

Another classroom management issue is a trainer spending too much time on the difficult case or on the best students. Trainers do this unintentionally, but it does happen. Go visit classes before signing up and watch the trainer as he/she spends time with the students. Is it pretty evenly spread out, or do one or two students monopolize the instructor's time?

Another time consideration is how fast the instructor moves the class along. A pokey class where lots of time is spent wasted talking about things other than training, slowly moving between students, setting up, etc. is a concern. You are paying for an hour of instruction, and while there will be down times, they should be reasonable.

A puppy graduating from his first Puppy Obedience class.

A puppy graduating from his first Puppy Obedience class.

5. Are There Wagging Tails and Smiling Faces in the Obedience Class?

When you visit the classes of your targeted instructor, pay particular attention to the working teams. Are the dogs' tails wagging? Do they look like they are having fun, or do they look like they are being forced to work? How about the people? Are they smiling and enjoying themselves, or do they look stressed, bored or over bearing?

A good training environment fosters fun and games. The time should be enjoyable and light for both the dog and the human. Training should involve lots of good things including treats, toys, praise, play and more. A training environment where punishment and stress exist makes for less happy teams and an environment you want to avoid.

4. Does the Trainer Use Multiple Methods or "One Size Fits All" Training?

A good dog instructor will have more than a few tricks up his or her sleeve. However, bad instructors have only one or two ways to train. As dogs don't come from cookie cutters, your dog trainer shouldn't either.

Look for a trainer who doesn't just use one method of training, but is capable and willing to explore other options if the first method they teach doesn't work for your and your dog. This takes an experienced trainer who has years of learning many of the tricks of the trade.

For example, a trainer may like to teach dogs to lay down using a lure method from a sit position. This method works with almost all dogs, but a few will still refuse to get into the down position. A good trainer will have other options available such as teaching a "crawl" type tunnel down or capturing the behavior with a clicker.

Discuss with any trainer what their methods are and what they do if their first method of choice doesn't seem to be working for you and your dog. If they insist their method never fails, you might begin thinking about other options.

A Sheltie Performing Rally Obedience

3. Is the Trainer Experienced?

Continuing along the same thought, experience is important in a dog trainer. The more dogs a trainer has worked with, the more behavioral issues they have tackled. A new trainer will have fewer ways to deal with common behaviors and may not even know how to begin to deal with the more rare behavioral issues. Always ask a trainer about their experience before signing up for classes.

Certification and Experience Are Not the Same

Some trainers will claim lots of certifications that are often listed as initials after their name. Be very wary of these "certifications." While there are a very few excellent certification programs, like the Karen Pryor Academy, most certification programs require little to no work.

Some initials, like APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) only require the person pay an annual membership fee. Many other "certification" programs are very anemic study programs that do not prepare the student to properly handle the many varied dog behaviors presented in obedience classes. A few certification programs do require students to follow a mentor for a short period of time, but these, too, do not develop fully well-rounded instructors.

An instructor without any certifications but with lots of experience will be a great choice.

About Dog Training Clubs

If you choose to train in a "club" setting, do be aware. Dog training clubs can have fantastic individual trainers teaching for them, or they can have poor trainers. If you join a club, you might find you have a fantastic basic obedience trainer, but when you move to the intermediate class, the trainer is sub-par. Also because different trainers are teaching different levels, the methods may vary from trainer to trainer, confusing both you and your dog. Often, it is best to find a training school where one great trainer teaches all of the classes you will want, or where, if there are multiple trainers, they are all on the same dog training methodology page.

Make sure your instructor has plenty of experience.  If they or their students compete in dog sports, check out their accomplishments - or lack thereof.

Make sure your instructor has plenty of experience. If they or their students compete in dog sports, check out their accomplishments - or lack thereof.

2. Does the Trainer Have Proven Results?

When looking for a trainer, research what they produce. If their students have well trained, happy dogs, then it's a good bet the trainer knows how to pass on their knowledge. If their students dogs are not well behaved, then it's a good sign that something is amiss at the school.

It's harder to determine a trainer's ability when looking at a simple housedog obedience class as the dogs leave the trainer's program after a few classes. However, if the trainer offers competition classes in obedience, Rally obedience, K9 Nosework, agility or more, you can briefly visit those classes too and see how well the dogs are doing.

Be Fair

Remember to be fair. If you are visiting a beginning obedience class, the dogs will not be fantastic workers even after several weeks. It takes years to develop a highly trained dog. However, after three or four weeks of class, you should be seeing most of the dogs in the class able to sit, down and stay for some duration. So be careful to judge the trainer by the level of class you are watching.

Ask About the Trainer's Own Dogs

Also, check out the trainer's personal dogs. Ask the trainer what he/she does with their own dogs. Are the trainer's dogs present when you visit class? Are they well behaved or are they out of control? Again, do be fair. A professional trainer may have a young puppy who has only begun training, so judge a trainer only by his/her older dogs that they have worked with for some time.

As a tip, I have found that trainers who don't have at least one of their dogs present regularly in class might have behavioral issues with their dogs. The trainers I know with well behaved dogs almost always bring them to class, unless the dogs are tired, sick or need a break.

Results in Competition Dogs

If the trainer has students with competition dogs or has competition dogs themselves, then it becomes very easy to judge results. Look for students with Championship titles on their dogs. Titles, or initials before or after a dog's name, with the letters "CH" in them indicate Championships. Championship titles show a trainer who can train dogs and students' dogs to the highest levels. Some initials to look for are OTCH, MACH, ADCH, CATCH and others. This article provides a list of American Kennel Club agility titles to help you determine agility experience.

After taking a basic obedience class, you might consider tackling a canine sport like agility.

After taking a basic obedience class, you might consider tackling a canine sport like agility.

1. Does the Trainer Use Positive Reinforcement?

In obedience training, there are several methodologies. Some of these methods are modern, new and exciting. Others are "old school" and have been thrown out by many trainers for the new exciting, proven methods. The more modern methods are based in rewarding good behavior and minimizing punishment or redirecting for bad behavior. The "old school" methods trainers (including the author) used 20 - 30 years ago involve mostly punishment and corrections.

This dichotomy between positive methods and the "compulsion training" methods that involve punishment is a constant cause for debate among dog trainers. Unfortunately, the punishment-based methods used 20 - 30 years ago still exist among some dog trainers, and some just use the rewarmed old "Kohler" system of dog training to sell their classes, books, DVDs and training items.

What Are Positive Methods?

Rather than get technical, what it boils down to is a dog learns quickly when rewarded for good behavior rather than just punished for bad behavior. Look for a trainer who can teach you how to train your dog by rewarding good behavior with minimal punishments for bad behavior.

A trainer may claim to be a "positive" trainer, but when you visit their classes, you see a lot of metal training collars on the dogs, leashes being used as punishment tools with collar pops and pulls, nose slaps, dogs being forced into positions, lots of verbal corrections (perhaps even given sharply) and more. You might also see some rewards. However just because rewards are offered does not mean a trainer is a positive reinforcement trainer.

What Positive Reinforcement Looks Like in a Class

When visiting a class taught by a positive reinforcement trainer, you might see some mild verbal corrections, but you should see little to no leash corrections. You might hear "clicking" noises as the cool training tool - the clicker - is being used. You should see very, very few to no metal training collars. You should also get a feeling of happiness in the class vs. a feeling of control with an overlay of fear that most punishment based classes seem to have.

Positive training methods are superior to the old school methods for many reasons, but the number one reason is the trust bond created between the dog and handler when training occurs with little to no punishment is much stronger than when training occurs with punishment. This concept is a bit obvious, but for some reason, people do not like to let go of old training habits. Unfortunately, the ones to suffer are the dogs.

A judge handing out ribbons at a Rally Obedience trial.

A judge handing out ribbons at a Rally Obedience trial.

Go Find Your New Dog Obedience Trainer!

So finding the right trainer involves looking for a positive reinforcement trainer with experience, proven results, a well managed classroom, a fun atmosphere and wagging tails. Don't be shy about asking any potential dog instructor questions. The training your dog gets can greatly affect its personality for the positive or for the negative. Going to the wrong trainer can emotionally damage your dog for life. Therefore, choosing the right trainer is a very serious consideration.

If you join a class and after some sessions discover the trainer isn't right for you, feel free to leave. You might be able to get your money back, or you might not. However putting your dog into a stressful training situation is only going to cause harm. Don't hesitate to pull out of class and go searching for another trainer that will fit you and your dog.

Once you've found a trainer you like and trust, go have a blast with your dog. Training is an amazingly fun experience, and the bond you develop with a well trained dog is incredibly deep. Fun and furry love - what could be better!

How Old Is Your Dog?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Kristin Kaldahl (author) on June 28, 2013:

Yay for the clicker!!! Congrats to you for obviously using it correctly and working with your dog. And thanks for the kind words. :D

Maree Michael Martin from Northwest Washington on an Island on June 27, 2013:

Thanks for this wonderful information! Very helpful. Our fun loving, cat chasing dog is responding well to the clicker method.

Luckily, he trains easily and positively, thanks again.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on September 13, 2012:

I agree. Clicker training rules!! I, too, let my dogs and the relationship I have with my dogs speak for me. I've found many punishment-based trainers feel really threatened by positive-trained dogs. I think they understand that positive methods are becoming more and more popular, and perhaps feel their paradigm being threatened. I get that. :) You just keep letting your dog talk, and some will "see the light." Others will continue in their old ways and snicker behind their hands, but the good news is more and more people are finding the clicker and other positive methods. Educating the public away from old myths and ideas is always an uphill battle. :)

DoItForHer on September 13, 2012:

The people who I've found most resistant to clicker training and sometimes using treat rewards have been other trainers. When I'm around them, they tend to exclude me as I don't care to engage with their methods. However, they are quick to tell me what to do with my dog: how to use a leash, how I should reward, etc. I've even been kicked out because my dog was off leash.

My dog is all tail and ears. She waits and follows me as I say without whining or engaging other dogs even when they try to engage her. Their dogs are often pulling at the ends of their leashes, sometimes barking after being repeatedly told to be quiet, and so on. They band together and talk smack about me as if I'm an ignorant, incompetent hick. I look at their dogs, then look at my dog and shake my head.

Not all trainers are like that, but those that are tend to get together and act like a stereotypical, snobbish, high school clique.

My best approach is to be a role model. I let my dog do the talking- this speaks volumes! Clicker training rules!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on September 12, 2012:

Thank you wetnosedogs. :) That video was fun to make. Thanks for stopping by.

wetnosedogs from Alabama on September 12, 2012:

Enjoyed Asher's puppy training video. Adorable.