Finding the Right Trainer for Your Dog
An increasing number of dog owners, not content to consign their dogs to “couch potato” status at the conclusion of the dog’s show career, are participating in field activities or performance events. However, it’s a fact of life in field or performance events, that sooner or later, you will hit some sort of snag that makes you think about either consulting or sending your dog to a professional trainer. The obstacles to successful training in performance or the field can be numerous: A lack of time, patience, equipment or the space or facilities to get the job done, the dog has developed a problem that you have neither the knowledge or the skills to correct, or the dog is ready to move to the next level and you don’t really know how to get him there.
We all hope, when we send a dog to a pro, after the dog has spent some time with the trainer that it returns with the problems under control. They’re never really totally solved, incidentally, and if that sounds like the voice of experience, it’s because it is. On the other hand, if you were hoping to get the dog ready to perform at the next level, when it comes back to you, it is ready to handle that challenge. Unfortunately, you may get something considerably less. And in the worst case situations, your dog returns with so many problems that you are lucky if it can be salvaged as a pet let alone as a performance animal. Instead of the polished performer you paid for, you get a dog that has experienced a catastrophic mental breakdown.
When sending a dog to a professional trainer, the trick is selecting the right one.
So, how can you minimize the chances of such a disaster occurring? Here are some tips from professional trainer Craig Klein, who owns Fischer’s Kennels near Albany, Minnesota. Klein has earned a national reputation as a “fixer” of problem dogs, and in fact, one of his latest rehabilitation projects recently won the amateur stake at the 2019 American Chesapeake Club National Field Trial Specialty. While he is a Sporting dog trainer, Klein has had enough contact with other breeds and dog activities so that what he says applies across the board when looking for a trainer for your dog.
"There are a great many very good professional dog trainers in the country in all the dog disciplines. There are also some very bad professional dog trainers in this country," Klein says. "Unfortunately, there is no national 'dog trainer' guidebook where you can look up a trainer’s rating like, for example, the restaurant guides. There is no rating service that lets you know who is a five-star trainer and who probably shouldn’t be allowed near a dog, which makes the task of sifting the professional trainer wheat from the chaff a discouraging and disheartening job sometimes. If you make the wrong choice, your dog could wind up barely salvageable as a pet dog, if that.”
Is there any sort of threat-detection radar that will sort out the good trainers from those that are not merely incompetent but are actually a threat to the dog’s welfare? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Some of the very worst trainers put up the very best front. These people are con artists, pure and simple. Like Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” they can persuade you they are capable of leading the band when in reality, they don’t know one note from another. There are also some trainers who are absolute geniuses when it comes to training dogs, but cannot teach people how to get a dog to sit.
However, it is possible to reduce the chances that you and your dog will be victimized by an inept trainer or that you will wind up with a dog that is perfectly trained but can only be handled by the pro.
Like almost everything connected with dog activities, finding a good trainer requires some research. Just because someone runs a big, fancy ad in a national magazine is no guarantee they can be trusted to do right by your dog.
“The best place to start looking for a trainer is at the performance or field events for your type of dog or the activity you want to pursue,” Klein says. “Go to these events and watch the dogs. Then talk with the handlers of the dogs that do well and seem happy in their work. If the dog was trained by a pro, find out who did the training. Ask the owner if they were satisfied with the way the trainer worked with their dog and equally important, if you want to handle your own dog, was the trainer also a good teacher of handlers?
"If the trainer is also attending the event, watch his or her dogs. However, instead of watching whether or not the dog is a great performer, pay more attention to how the dog reacts to the trainer. Do they crawl on their bellies and slink around the trainer, or are they happy and eager to be about their work? How do they respond when the trainer speaks to them? Does the dog drop to its belly in fear, put its tail between its legs or does it perk up, look at the handler and wag its tail?”
Klein added that once you have attended several events, patterns should start to emerge. The name of one or two trainers should begin to stand out as having the best performing, happiest dogs among those that have spent time with a pro. Once this happens, you can begin talking to these trainers to determine whether or not their training philosophies are compatible with what you want done with your dog.
Ronny, the Chesapeake with the water fear, gave kisses to Klein, who helped him overcome that fear, after his win in the amateur stake at the 2019 American Chesapeake Club National Field Trial Specialty. Ronny’s handler, Larry Sarek — the dog is owned by Sarek’s wife, Lorraine — had to be content with merely holding the ribbon when Ronny’s special pal was on the scene.
“You know your dog, or you should. If your dog is a real hard-headed, driven type with the attitude of ‘You and who else are going to make me do it’ they need a trainer who can dominate every minute they work with that dog. On the other hand, if you have a dog like Bo, the Chesapeake that’s been featured or pictured in several stories in Dog News, who is about as soft as they come, you need a trainer who understands how to finesse a dog instead of forcing them. We have never been able to force Bo to do anything. We have had to persuade him to do what we needed to have him do and the really good trainers know how to adapt and modify their training techniques to work with both types as well as everything in between including dogs afraid of some apparatus or aspect of whatever activity you want to do with them. This was the case with Ronny, the Chesapeake that won the amateur at the field trial specialty last November. He had a terrible fright as a puppy when he nearly drowned and then mistakes, including the misuse of pressure, were made in his earlier training and that compounded the problem plus nobody ever really dealt with his fears. As a result, when we finally got him last summer, he wouldn’t go in the water. We had to play a lot of games with him and do a lot of positive reinforcement to teach him that water was fun in order to convince him that all the bad things he associated with water were not going to happen again. We had to get him to the point where going into the water and swimming after a bumper or a bird was so much fun for him that it never entered his mind to not go when he was sent into the water. When you are looking for a trainer, you want to find someone who is very flexible in their techniques, who matches their training to the individual dog instead of trying to force the dog to adapt to their training ‘program.’ One size does not fit all in dog training.”
Klein used one of Bo's favorite toys, a Dokken Dead-Fowl trainer, when introducing him to the water. He also got into the pond and played with the dog.
Klein noted that if you have a breed other than the one that is most successful at your particular performance event or field activity, you need to find out if the trainer has ever successfully trained other breeds.
“For example, if you have a herding dog that isn’t a Border Collie, you need to find someone who has successfully trained breeds that aren’t Border Collies and that’s particularly true if you have one of the so-called ‘loose eyed’ breeds. If you have a Sporting dog that isn’t a Labrador Retriever, a German Shorthaired Pointer or an English Springer Spaniel, you need to find someone has been successful with the less popular retrievers, pointing breeds or spaniels. If you are doing obedience and you don’t have a Golden, a Sheltie or a Border Collie, you need to find someone who does well with your breed or one similar to your breed. The same is true if your sport is agility and your breed isn’t a Border Collie, a Russell Terrier or an Australian Shepherd. Many times the breeds that are not the most popular within your performance activity or field event do not respond the same way as the most successful breeds. They frequently require more praise or positive reinforcement to offset the negative aspects of training. If you have a breed that is at all unusual within your dog sport, it is imperative that you find a trainer who has had success with as many breeds as possible especially if you have a breed that is well known for having a mind of its own.”
If you have a breed that is at all unusual within your dog sport, it is imperative that you find a trainer who has had success with many breeds including those whose attitudes about the work are similar to that of your breed.
Once you have found a trainer who has been successful with your breed or breeds like your breed, you need to talk with folks who know this particular trainer. It does little good to ask the trainer for references because they’re not likely to send you to clients who may have been dissatisfied with their results and you need to hear both the good and the bad in order to make an informed decision. It is important to know how good a trainer’s reputation really is not just for training dogs but also for things like honesty and integrity.
Once you have answers to these essential questions, it is time to visit the trainer’s facility. If the trainer does not want you to see the actual kennel area, remove them from your list. Viewing the kennels can tell you a lot about the trainer’s attitudes. The first thing you want to check is whether the dogs look clean and well-fed. If the trainer does not feed the same ration as you have been feeding your dog and you do not want to supply the food for your dog’s stay with the trainer, take a look at the analysis tag of the product the trainer is feeding. It should be a premium dog food as training is usually a stressful time for most dogs. If several of the dogs in the kennel look listless or seem thin, forget about sending your dog to this trainer because in all likelihood, the trainer is cutting a very important corner. You also want to observe the attitude of the dogs in their kennels. Do they seem happy and outgoing? Do they willingly come to the gate and act like they expect positive attention. Or, do they slink to the back of the kennel or hide in the house? If their reaction is either of the latter two possibilities, look for someone else to train your dog.
You should also check out the trainer’s facilities. If, for example, you have a herding dog, do they have a good supply of livestock for training and do their grounds and arena look like they are safe? If it’s a retriever trainer, do they have good technical water available and grounds that incorporate different terrain? If your goal is a good agility dog, does the trainer have a variety of equipment so your dog doesn’t go to a trial and half the obstacles on the course are something it has never, ever seen?
When you introduce your dog to a trainer, they should act like they like dogs and try to make friends with the dog.
“It’s important to listen to what the trainer is saying,” Klein says. “Even such a fundamental issue as requiring all dogs taken for training to have their vaccinations up-to-date is important. Does the trainer inquire about the dog’s eating habits and whether or not they’re on medication? Do they ask about the dog’s health history? If a dog has some sort of health issue, we want to know the type of symptoms he exhibits when this occurs and begin any medication or diet modifications for this issue. It is important that both the trainer and his kennel help are aware of problems like these. Does the trainer seem interested in what sort of training the dog may have had previously? If the dog has developed a training problem, they should spend a considerable amount of time asking questions about what may or may not have been done with the dog. When you introduce them to your dog, do they act as though they like dogs and do they try to make friends with the dog? If all they seem interested in doing is cashing your monthly training checks, it is really a good idea to refrain from giving them the first one. This is also the time to ask a trainer about their training techniques. For example, if you can’t bear the thought of an electronic collar being used on your dog and the trainer cannot train a dog without using the e-collar, divorce lawyers call this situation ‘irreconcilable differences.’ Save yourself a lot of anguish and the trainer a lot of the frustration. Find someone who can train your dog without using the e-collar. If you do not object to the use of the e-collar, provided the dog has been properly collar-conditioned, make sure the trainer is someone who is skilled in the use of that tool. Good trainers never use more stimulation than is necessary to get a response and even with the most hard-headed, obstinate dogs, good trainers have limits they will not exceed. If you have any sporting breed, one of the things you want to check out immediately is whether or not the trainer incorporates the use of a lot of live birds in training as that is a very important aspect of any sporting dog’s training but it is especially vital when you are dealing with a ‘soft’ dog.”
The trainer should provide you with periodic reports on how the dog is progressing. If a trainer is not returning your calls, it is time to make a personal visit to the trainer’s facility with an empty dog crate in your vehicle. Good trainers will likely call you at some point and ask you to come and watch the dog work. In these situations, your primary concern should be watching how the dog reacts to the trainer rather than looking for a perfect performance. If the dog seems to be doing the work because it is terrified of the trainer, it is not a good situation. On the other hand, if the dog seems to be loving its job and responding positively to the trainer, things are going well even though the dog may turn in a fairly lousy performance. Often, when their owner shows up to watch them work, dogs in the care of a professional trainer react in one of two ways. Either they’re so excited they cannot focus on the task at hand or they use the opportunity to punish their owners for “leaving them.” With dogs that fall in the pout/sulk/how-could-you-ever-leave-me category, if you think the dog is not making good progress, have a knowledgeable dog person the dog doesn’t know watch the dog work. If the dog is working well for the trainer and happy in its work, you have to accept the fact that you have a drama king/queen sleeping on the couch and dining from the bowl labeled “Fido.”
When you find a good trainer that is compatible with your dog, you have some responsibility to make this work. The first thing you absolutely must not do is get impatient. “Proper training takes time and there are no shortcuts. Any trainer who tells you they can cure Rover’s problems in a week is either a total incompetent or is, to put it bluntly, full of it. If your dog is one of those types like Bo, who only responds to positive reinforcement, it’s going to take longer to reach your training goals. Skilled trainers tell you how long it usually takes to fix whatever problem Rover has but they always add the caveat of ‘most dogs’ or ‘usually.’ For example, when we first got Bo, he was ultra-sensitive to loud noises which is a pretty serious issue for a gun dog. So, knowing this, we spent a lot of time playing fetch games with him using one of his favorite toys with the gun a long way away and gradually bringing it closer until he accepted that the gun and the noise it made was a good thing. Of course, once we combined the gun with birds, which he loves, it was no longer an issue. We also used one of his favorite toys, a Dokken Dead-Fowl trainer as an incentive and spent a lot of time playing with him in the water when we introduced him to water as he was born in September and thus had no opportunity to learn to swim until he was about nine months old. Over the years, I’ve found those ‘winter puppies’ living in northern tier states like Minnesota require special attention and care when being introduced to water. With sensitive dogs like him, it’s also necessary to take things slowly and one easy step at a time, all of which adds to the amount of time it will take to train the dog. Good trainers are quick to tell you that every dog is different and you may have one that takes more time to complete the training. If you put pressure on the trainer to hurry the process, believe me, you are asking for trouble. A good trainer, after he or she has had your dog for awhile, should give you an honest evaluation of the dog’s capabilities and set realistic expectations and goals for you and your dog. Also, it is important to check out the experience levels of the assistant trainers and the kennel help if the kennel help is going to have any part in the dog’s training,” Klein says.
With any sporting breed, immediately inquire of the trainer incorporates a lot of live birds in training, which is very important aspect of any Sporting dog’s training and is especially vital when dealing with a "soft" dog.
If you want to handle your own dog in a field activity or performance event, you have a responsibility to learn how to handle him. This means you have to spend some time working with the trainer. This is why it is very important to find a trainer who is also a good teacher of handlers. Then you need to pay attention to what the trainer is telling you to do. It is one of those times when, even if in your everyday life you are a four-star general or admiral or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you need to say “yessir/ma’am” and follow orders. If you can’t, you’ve wasted the trainer’s time and a lot of your money because professional training for your dog requires a considerable investment of both.
Even if you exercise due diligence in seeking a trainer, it is no guarantee your dog won’t fall into the hands of a charlatan. Some of these flim-flam artists are so slick and smooth they could sell corn whiskey to a Scotsman. You have to keep your wits about you and pay attention when you send your dog to a professional trainer. If things look as though they’re headed south, be prepared to act and act quickly. It may mean the difference between a dog that can be saved for your field activity or performance event and one that cannot. Finally, if you send your dog to a trainer and you are satisfied that they are doing a good job, don’t be a pest. Let the trainer do their job. That’s why you are paying them,” Klein says.