Local and national news tell us that the dog-training industry is experiencing unprecedented growth right now because of the many dogs and puppies adopted during the last two pandemic years. What the news doesn’t mention is that, since dog training is an unregulated industry, it’s like the Wild West out there as new business models move into territory that traditional trainers once firmly held.
As a prospective client for dog-training services, as a consumer (whether it be for group classes, private consults, or board-and-train), you must sort through many possibilities in your search for the services that will best suit you and your dog. Online and print ads are one place most consumers start.
I asked dog professionals for their suggestions of red flags in advertising for dog training services. For what should you, the prospective client, watch out? Here are some of their responses.
Mandy Collins (United Kingdom) Red-flag words for me:
Dale Ward (Ontario) Also “secret,” “off-leash,” “guarantee” . . .
Kasey Nash (California) Photos or videos with clearly stressed-out or shut-down dogs.
Steven Cogswell (Colorado) Any negative labeling of dogs; using words like stubborn, refuses to listen, ignores. Also the word “bribe” when discussing food/treats.
And, from the trainer who caused my dog to break down in class, who still has the money for the rest of my prepaid classes because I found R+ training and never looked back: “Dog Training Secrets that teach you how to CONTROL your dog’s embarrassing, annoying, destructive, or aggressive behaviors.”
Sodonnia Wolfrom (Arkansas)
▪ A lack of continuing education
▪ “Command” rather than “cue” usually makes me skip.
▪ Refuses to use treats (it means they won’t change reinforcement depending on the dog, or won’t use it at all)
▪ Guarantee of results
▪ Any anthropomorphizing of dogs—dog being stubborn, dog “knowing better,” etc.
Dawn Elberson Goehring (Hawaii) Red flags to me are:
▪ No treats or clickers needed
▪ Anything with “alpha”
▪ Results guaranteed; off-leash guaranteed
▪ “Fix” your dog
▪ “Our own methods”
▪ “Channel” or “rehabilitate”
▪ “Our patented collar”
▪ Stim collar or “like a TENS unit”
▪ Pack leader
Of course, pictures will also tell a story. They’re not always reliable, since it’s only a snapshot in time. But if there are prong, shock, or choke [collars], it is a definite red flag.
Teresa Tuttle (Texas) “Discipline” and “command.” Also, this quote: “**NOTE: The remote collar training tool is not a shock collar. We never shock or otherwise hurt your dog while training. The low levels of stimulation generated by the collar are a simple and clear way to communicate with your dog while they are off leash.”
Maria Burton (Washington) “Alpha” = Run away!
Linda Lukens (New York)
▪ Bad behaviors “corrected”
▪ Balanced training
▪ “Send your dog to our doggie bootcamp.”
Claudia Black-Kalinsky (Georgia) Hocus-pocus indefinable terms:
▪ Pack leader
Telani Lasoleille (Tennessee) “Guaranteed results!”
Sarah Richardson (California) I’ll add in:
▪ Obedience, obey
Colette Kase (Mexico) “E touch” is one of my most hated terms. E touch is a somewhat appropriated term designed to mislead potential clients. All it means is that they are going to administer electric shocks to your puppy or dog in lieu of science-based, humane training.
Photo by Steven Cogswell
It’s important that you feel comfortable with and confident in your class instructor or in-home trainer. It’s a must that you trust anyone who’ll be handling your dog without you there.
How do you know whom to trust? First, eliminate the obviously untrustworthy. Do they tell you the truth, the whole truth? Do they present themselves as educated and experienced? Confirm their claims.
Do they refer to themselves as “certified” but fail to specify by what certifying organization, in what category? Do they list initials after their names, like professional degrees? Do they state clearly what those initials stand for? If you can’t “follow the initials” in a simple online search to a source that can confirm this particular “certification,” you’ve been given misinformation.
Ask yourself why. Why would they not list clearly the source of any “certification,” education, or experience they have had?
Are you familiar with the term “stolen valor,” referring to claiming military service that one has not done? Why would people do that? Your guess is as good as mine. People aggrandize themselves for many reasons, but when people in business choose not to offer any proof of their claims of expertise, why would you trust them to tell you the truth? Don’t get scammed by big words!
Trish Ryan (South Carolina) Clients should know how a trainer will work with their dog and the equipment/tools used. Why would clients subject their dog to aversive methods?
▪ Trainers offering “guarantees”
▪ “Balanced” methods
▪ Always check website photos for the types of equipment used.
▪ Board-and-train? Know what methods they use
▪ What are their credentials/affiliations?
Melissa McCue-McGrath (Massachusetts) Red flag: Using words like “behaviorist,” “trainer,” or “behavior specialist” without listing certifications. Also, “behavioralist” is a political-science term, not an animal-behavior term, so if someone is saying they are a behavioralist, they might be smart, but they probably aren’t qualified to help a Great Dane with a sofa-eating habit.
Flacortia Rosiea (Alberta) Red flag: The use of the non-word “behaviouralist.’’ I can’t believe people still say that. <eye roll> The worst marketing mistake ever.
On the website of a nationally franchised dog training business, I saw that 24 people on their large local staff are listed as “professional canine behaviorists.” I was stopped cold when I got to the four staffers who are listed as “former behaviorists.” How does that work? Are they making a joke?
Amy Suggars (Ohio) “Your dog will be able to walk off leash any time/anywhere after just one week at our training camp.”
Dale Ward (North Carolina) The only guarantee in dog training is that you can’t guarantee results. One more: “money-back.” I know lots of people who’ve been ripped off, paid for a package, only saw the ‘trainer’ once or twice, then couldn’t reach them—but I don’t know anybody who got money back. Talk about misleading advertising! They also forgot the part where they don’t return calls, e-mails, or texts. Oh, and they say it must be the owner’s fault that “it didn’t work” because the owners must not have followed instructions properly.
Tiffany Copley (Ohio) Guarantees, claims to be able to fix any and all problems, touting that they are better than others (this is not the same as listing reasons they are good; I’m talking about bold claims that they are better than the rest).
Anna Abney (South Carolina) Anyone who claims to guarantee results is a no-go. Both dogs and humans are living beings with agency. There is no way to guarantee results when we’re dealing with behavior. Hiring a trainer/behaviorist to address behavior issues is like hiring a coach or a therapist. We can’t create talent, we can’t ensure that you practice enough to develop your skills, and we certainly can’t do it for you. All we can do is facilitate the best possible chance of a good relationship between you and your dog.
Mandy Collins (United Kingdom) Red-flag words for me:
They’re red flags because they suggest that dogs can be made to behave without using positive feedback to let them know when they have got it right. That respecting you as their pack leader will cure all problems. That being dominant will negate the need to actually train and communicate with your dog.
It puts the onus on the owner and not on the trainer. If the behavior doesn’t change, it’s because the owner didn’t display the right energy, not because the trainer was lacking in knowledge.
“Balanced” allows the use of punishment, which would be unnecessary if the trainer truly understood how to set the dog up to succeed, and truly aimed to eventually set the owner up to be the safe, predictable partner the dog needs.
There is also the risk of the dog shutting down—appearing obedient, but actually being too worried to offer any behavior at all.
And that is no way to live a life.