Canine Learning Center, Inc.
How to Select the Right Program and Trainer for You

          How to Select the Right Program and Trainer for You 

by Leah Spitzer

Part 1: Choosing the Right Program for You and Your Dog

Group Classes vs. Private lessons

In-home vs. on-site.

Board and Trains

Part 2:  How to Judge a Trainer's Competence and Experience

Years Experience

Combined experience

Free Consultations

Certification Accreditation

Membership in at least one of the organizations available to trainers



All businesses have their own unique style and advertising terminology. Dog Training is no exception. However, with no standardization in the industry, the responsibility falls on the pet owner to choose carefully and it can sometimes be overwhelming.

With a little knowledge of our industry, you can make educated choices. Because I sometimes get callers that seemed overwhelmed with their choices and with what has been told to them on the phone by trainers, I decided to write this article.  All situations are different and it is important to understand that no one trainer or program will work for all dogs.  Finding the right fit is important.  The right fit might be your comfort level with the trainer, or it might need to cater to your dog's specific needs, but as the pet owner, knowledge is power.. With a little knowledge, you will be better prepared to pick the right program and trainer for your dog.

I have divided this article into 2 sections. Part 1 will help you decide on the right program for your dog while Part 2 will help you select a competent trainer as not all trainers are created equal. I have also included my comments, thoughts and interpretation based on my experiences.

Part 1: Choosing the Right Program for You and Your Dog

Group Classes vs. Private lessons

Trying to decide between classes and private lessons? Is the person on the other end of the phone trying to sell you the services they want you to buy? Are they telling you that a specific service is the only way to go? Careful. There are many factors to consider. It depends on your individual needs. With both classes and private lessons, you get the opportunity to be involved and responsible for your dog's training.  You do the homework.  You create the bond with your dog and, you learn as you go so that you can apply your knowledge even after the lessons are over.  But there are some other things to consider:

Group Class Advantages

Group Class Disadvantages

Private Lesson Advantages

Private Lesson Disadvantages

In-home vs. on-site.

Okay, so you have decided to go with private lessons. What about the differences of having an instructor come to your home vs. you going to a facility? Besides the disadvantages of privates vs. classes, here are a few more things to think about:

There are several reasons I like the clients to come to me: 

  1. Seeing the dog in a neutral and new territory is often more informative than seeing him where he is comfortable. 
  2. I can charge less.
  3. I can control the level of distractions. When I do  In-home training, we often have to stop for neighbors coming by, phones ringing, kids coming home from school, etc. It makes it harder to learn, not easier. And when you remember that I'm charging by the hour, well, an interruption can get very expensive!

So, while in-home training is a style of instruction, it is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage over on-site training. It is more a matter of style.

Board and Trains

Board and Trains give the responsibility of the initial training to the professional. You leave your dog with the trainer at a boarding facility for 3-4 weeks. The trainer then teaches your dog  the obedience commands. However, whether the dog continues to do the commands at home is up to you. If you select this type of training, make sure you pay close attention to the techniques your trainer shows you. If you do not continue to follow through at home, the dog will slip back into his old habits.

Do Board and Trains work? They can if the trainer knows his business (see Part 2). A good trainer can teach a dog the basic commands in 3-4 weeks because he has the knowledge and consistency to escalate the learning curve for the dog. Therefore,  success of this program depends on two variables: 1) the experience of the trainer and 2) your consistency in maintaining the commands by following the techniques once the dog comes home.

So if you still have to do some work, why bother? Well, the best use of board and trains is to get the hard part out of the way as the trainer teaches the dog the commands. While you still have to provide consistent follow up for awhile, the dog comes home knowing how to listen. It is then up to you to help him know that the "new rules" apply at home. Board and trains are especially helpful if you have reached the end of your rope with the dog and you need someone else to step in.

The biggest disadvantage to board and trains, besides the expense, is the fact that you are not involved in the initial training. You are not even present. Therefore, it becomes even more important that you not only have a trainer that can help with the transition back into your home, but that you trust the trainer and his or her techniques. Several years ago, a local boarding kennel was on the Ch 46 news in Atlanta. The owner of the dog had left the dog for a board and train and when she picked him up, she received an instructional video to help her with the continued training at home. The kennel slipped up and gave her the wrong tape. What she saw were the actual techniques used on her dog. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the techniques were abusive. We all watched the news in horror as the dog was jerked on his collar over 30 times for refusing to down. As the dog screamed in pain, the trainer laughed. The Department of Agriculture closed the kennel and pursued legal action against the owner. The sad thing is that he isn't the only trainer using these types of techniques. He's just the only one that got caught. 

There ARE good board and train trainers out there. There are many of us that can get the job done effectively and humanely. But since there is no licensing or standardization within our business, you must do your homework (See part 2). Ask about experience, techniques and insist on observing a training session. Meet the trainer and discuss your needs. Watch the trainer and watch the dog's reactions to the trainer. Make sure you trust them before you leave your dog with that trainer.

In addition to the trust factor, remember that you will not be involved in the training from the beginning. You may miss certain important learning theories that you would otherwise have access to in private lessons or classes. While I do offer this service and understand that board and trains have their advantages,   I am still a big advocate of the special bond that happens when an owner and dog are learning together.

My recommendation? First and foremost, if you have a puppy, a good quality puppy class designed specifically for puppies between the ages of 10-20 weeks of age is well worth your time and money. For dogs 5 months and older without serious behavior problems, a good quality class is still the best way to go. It is, without a doubt, the best for bonding and budgeting your finances.  However, if time, health or scheduling challenges restrict your ability to go to classes; if money is not an issue; or if you dog is experiencing problems that cannot be addressed in class, then private lessons or board and trains can be valid options..


Part 2: How to Judge  a Trainer's Competence and Experience

There are some commonly used advertising terms you need to know.  Each marketing term has it's pluses and minuses, but again, knowledge is power.  Understand the terminology so that you aren't mislead.  Then, you can find the trainer you need.

Years Experience

The most common way to measure a dog trainer's experience is by totaling the number of years he/she has been active in dog training. Counting years is the easiest way to communicate to the public that a trainer has been around for awhile. We all do it. I boast 27 years experience.

But there are many part-time instructors out there, so there can be huge variations of actual practical experience in a year. Let's just take two extremes as examples. (Warning: If you don't like to see the math, skip the section in italics!)

Trainer A volunteers at a local obedience or kennel club and teaches 2 classes per week, 3 eight-week sessions per year. Trainer A has been doing so long enough to claim 10 years experience. Let's do the math. 3 sessions per year, each session lasts 8 weeks for a total of 24 weeks. 24 weeks x 2 hours per week = 48 hours per year. 48 hours per year x 10 years = 480 hours in 10 years. 

Bottom line - Trainer A has 480 hours as an obedience instructor. 

Now, lets take someone who is earning his or her living at being a dog trainer. While I can't speak for all trainers and their schedules, I know that over the last 10 years, I have averaged 10 hours per week of actual teaching time either in private lessons or classes. I work 48 weeks a year. So let's use that figure for Trainer B: 48 weeks x 10 yrs = 480 hours per year. 480 hours per year x 10 years = 4800 hours of teaching time! 

Bottom line - Trainer B has 4800 hours as an obedience instructor.

That's 10 times the hours of experience of a volunteer trainer. Both trainers can honestly claim 10 years experience, but Trainer B has 10 times the teaching experience as trainer A because Trainer B puts in more hours per year than Trainer A.

Combined experience

Some schools make the claim that they offer a combined experience of say, 30 years. What that simply means is that when you total the years that all the trainers have been teaching, it comes to 30 years. So, Trainer A may have 1 year, Trainer B, 5 years, and Trainer C, 24 years. If you get Trainers B or C, you may indeed get the expertise you need to train your dog, but what if you get Trainer A? While they may do just fine, they are still working with only 1 year under their belt. I recommend that you ignore combined experience claims. Ask about the trainer you will have and the level of his or her experience. And don't forget to ask what that totals in hours!

How much experience does an instructor need? Should you avoid young instructors? Not necessarily. We all had to start somewhere and sometimes what they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm or natural talent. This is why it is so important to go observe them. How do they present their lessons? Can they rise to the challenges of the individual needs? If they don't know the answer, do they have access to someone who does and are they willing to admit it? The last is the most important. All trainers must know their limitations and have access to resources that can help them out.

Free Consultations

What about those "free consultations?" Sometimes, they are exactly what they seem. The trainer has absolutely the right motivation. He wants you to meet him so that you can see that he or she is competent, experienced and trustworthy.

Other times, however, it's simply a marketing tool to sell you a contracted package. While contracts are a common tool in the industry for private lessons, they can lock you into something you may decide you don't want later. Read the fine print. What happens if you change your mind about this particular trainer? Can you get a refund for the unused portion of your lessons? If so, then there's no problem. If not, keep looking for another trainer. Not all trainers require contracts with their private lessons.


There is currently no official certification for dog trainers. However, some organizations and training schools will certify or accredit their instructors/members based on the criteria set by their individual organization. Certification is optional for dog trainers and many of the older, more experienced trainers have opted not to become certified for a variety of reasons ranging from cost to philosophical beliefs. It is also important to note that with tests given by organizations, they are available only to members and are valid only as long as the trainer remains a member.

While these certifications are valid for their schools/organizations, you need to ask more questions. Ask what the certification entailed. All certifications are not created equal. Some include practical experience; some are simply based on book knowledge. Some require only 2-3 weeks of training, some more. You need to ask. How many hours of study were involved? Was the certification based on a written test or demonstration of practical knowledge or both? Was it based on a certain philosophy or specialty of training or was it necessary to show skill with a variety of techniques?

Since there is no regulatory body to accredit these schools and organizations, certifications should be viewed not as the ultimate stamp of approval, but simply as one more piece of information to help your decision. My opinion on certification is that it is a step in the right direction, but until and if it becomes the standard, it should not to be weighed too heavily in a pet owner's decision.

Certification does prove that the trainer is trying to do the right thing and gain knowledge. It is a particularly good resource for new trainers and a way to confirm that they have put time into developing their craft. But remember that many of the more experienced and competent trainers have opted not to go through the certification process, so you could miss out on the right trainer for you if you base your decision solely on whether a trainer is certified. Other factors such as experience, range of knowledge and comfort level with techniques and style should still weigh more heavily in your decision.

Membership in at least one of the organizations available to trainers

Currently, there are three organizations available as resources for trainers: APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers), IACP (International Association of Canine Professionals and NADOI (National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors).

All three hold their own philosophies, codes of ethics and membership requirements. Membership in at least one organization is a good way for trainers to stay on top of their craft, learn about new techniques and brainstorm with other trainers.


And what of technique? Some trainers will tell you that "all positive" techniques are the only way to go and others may tell you that dogs won't respect you and that food and bribery can't possibly work. They are sincere in their beliefs. But, and it's a big "but", there is simply no one method that works for all dogs. The best trainer is the one that is versed in several techniques and can use whatever technique works best for your dog. What do I believe? I'm somewhere in the middle. I believe in moderation and individualization to each dog's needs.

As you choose a trainer, make sure you are comfortable with the techniques that they use. This is why it is so important to watch a trainer at work. If you aren't comfortable for whatever reason (too soft or too harsh), then that's not the trainer for you, especially if you have chosen to go the route of classes instead of privates. As a trainer who does both, I can tell you from personal experience that it is much easier to be flexible with my techniques in private lessons. All trainers should have some flexibility built into their classes to allow for individual differences in the dogs and the owners, but it is impractical to stray too far from the class curriculum. However, in private lessons, a good trainer who is versed in many techniques should be able to individualize the techniques for you and your dog.

Once you have decided on what techniques you prefer, then the rest of the decision is about the trust you place in your trainer. You must select a trainer that you trust to guide you in what is the best technique and method for your dog. So with all these decisions to make, how do you choose? Are you talking to more than one trainer and getting opposing viewpoints as to what is best for your dog? This happens all the time, and not just in dog training. How do we choose a doctor or a veterinarian? How do we weed through the sales pitch to get to the truly important information? We certainly can't be expected to gain all the knowledge of the veterinarian or the doctor in order to know what's best, can we?

Ask neighbors, friends, your veterinarian, and other canine professionals for referrals in order to narrow your choices. Then, call and talk to the trainer. Your first goal is not to assess whether a technique (within your comfort level) is best for your dog , but to assess whether you trust the trainer to do the right thing for your dog.

Ask questions about experience, where they received their training and what was involved. Ask about dropout rates and what techniques they use. Narrow down your choices on the phone, then go watch the trainer at work to observe style and technique. Are you comfortable with the techniques being used? Are you comfortable with the teaching style of the trainer? Is the trainer individualizing and solving problems? DO use common sense with the last one. Sometimes, if a problem presented will take too much time to solve in class, the instructor may quietly suggest a private lesson or ask the student to stay after. If you miss that, you may think the instructor is shirking his duties. To make sure, call him or her the next day and ask. However, if you don't like what you see, then keep looking.

Watch the trainer with his or her own dog. Are the dogs well behaved? Does the trainer have a good relationship with his or her own dog? Are you comfortable with that trainer? Can you trust that trainer to do what is best for your dog? If so, then it's time to sign up.

If you do sign up, and the techniques don't seem to be working for you, call your instructor and express your concerns. Most trainers will welcome the feedback and be willing to discuss things with you.  If you don't get what you need, drop that trainer, but don't give up. The right trainer and program are out there for you. You just need to do a little research. and now you have the knowledge to do it. Good luck!

Copyright Leah Spitzer, May 2005

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