Picking The Right Trainer//Red Flags

There are a lot of “Dog Trainer Red Flag” posts and articles floating around as people are once again beginning to see the value in training. Owners are trying their best to find the “best” dog trainer for their dog, who uses the “best” training methods. Unfortunately, when looking for answers on line you will find a multitude of contradictory answers with trainers condemning other trainers or training methods, and it can quickly become overwhelming. Especially when you are just looking to do right by your dog.

                After being asked multiple times the simple question, that has no simple answer, I have decided to respond with my own “Dog Trainer Red Flag” article and hope it helps someone.

                Please keep in mind that these are my personal red flags, what I recommend to anyone who asks this simple question whether in person or online. This opinion comes from over a decade of Dog Training in several methodologies and thousands of dogs that I have either trained personally or assisted in training.

What to look for…

                First, you need to look at yourself in a realistic light. Before you search out a dog trainer you need to know what you want and what you are willing to do to get it.

                Ask yourself…

  • How much effort are you actually willing to -and going to- put into training?
  • How much time/energy are you able to -and willing to- spend working with your dog?
  • What behaviors are you having issues with when it comes to your dog?
  • What are your goals with your dog?
  • Are you only comfortable with certain techniques? Or are you willing to try different methods, even those outside your wheelhouse/experience?
  • What does your dog honestly need from you?
    • What is your dog’s breed?
      • What are the common breed traits?
    • How much energy does your dog have?
    • Is your dog confident? Scared? Nervous? Any reactive/aggressive behaviors? Have any weird quirks?
  • Have you used other trainers before?
    • What did you like about these trainers?
    • What didn’t you like about these trainers?
  • How consistent are you and your family when it comes to your dog?
    • Are you all on the same page with training and expectations?

All of these questions are very important to find what you and your dog need from a dog trainer and what programs to look for. If you do not have readily available time to work your dog consistently, perhaps you need a Board and Train options, perhaps you need more of a hands on one-on-one approach, maybe you only want to work with Force Free/Positive Reinforcement trainers, perhaps you have a dog with aggressive behaviors that need special handling, etc. These questions will help narrow down the search before it even begins, but remember that these questions will only help if you are brutally honest with yourself.

woman and dog greeting silhouette graphic

What to look for…

Take time to talk to your potential trainer and remember to be honest about your goals, expectations, and experiences. This will help your trainer determine if they are a good fit for you, just as you are trying to determine if they are a good fit for you and your dog. Just like any field, some Dog Trainers specialize or have more experience in certain methods and certain behaviors. Not every trainer can work with aggressive dogs, fearful dogs, are familiar with competition training, use of certain tools, etc but they may be able to direct you to someone who does have the experience needed to meet your goals.

You want to look from someone who…

  • can explain WHY they use the methods they do, and why they feel these methods will work for your dog.
  • explains WHY your dog is acting/behaving a certain way.
  • Isn’t just stopping an unwanted behavior but who is also teaching the dog what the appropriate behavior is.
  • Is there for you and your dog, not just you and not just your dog.

Trainer Red Flags

  • Any trainer who openly trash talks any other trainer.
    • There are plenty of ways to politely, and professionally, disagree with other trainers without being rude or disrespectful.
      • Unless someone has actually worked with that trainer hands on, we can only speculate the entire process/method they use.We can only speculate how much growth they have or have not done.
      This is a HUGE red flag for me if it is other local trainers, as well as more popular/famous trainers.
      • There is ALWAYS a polite way to say that you do not agree with another trainer’s methods and WHY without trashing them.
      This also includes trainers who post on other trainer’s social media in aggressive or condescending manners.
      • Unless a dog is being harmed, tools being used incorrectly, false information being spread, there is no reason for aggressive comments from one trainer to another.There is almost always a way to state your opinion, experiences, express concern and voice moral/ethical conflicts in a polite/respectful manner.
    • This also includes if they go on other Trainer’s social media with claims their own technique is “better” while stating the other Trainer’s techniques are wrong, bad, etc but refuse to answer even simple questions regarding their methods.
      • It’s not a bad thing for a trainer to not explain every detailed break down of how to do their method, but a basic explanation is rarely difficult to come up with.
        • It is not a bad sign if a trainer refuses to give specifics of how to fix a specific problem for a specific dog. Most trainers will not give specific advice about specific issues/with a specific dog if they have not evaluated the dog. Some behaviors can be made worse with incorrect techniques for the individual dog’s specific underlying issues causing a bad behaviors.
          • Common example: Leash reactivity/leash aggression
            • You would approach leash reactivity/aggression differently depending on the root cause of the behavior:
              • Is it caused by fear, actual aggression, over stimulation/excitement, resource guarding the owner, or something else?
              • Depending on the root-cause you would likely address the situation differently in order to get the best results, and some techniques with certain root causes may actually make the reactivity/aggression on leash worse.

I am a firm believer that there is too much hate in the world to begin with, fighting amongst professionals only paints the whole spectrum of professionals in a bad light. In the end this mostly hurts the dogs and their owners, rather than “educating” or “helping”.

**Note: This is in regard to working professionally and speaking with clients. How a trainer feels “off clock” and how they vent about disliking certain trainers, methods, or tools in their private lives is understandable. We all do this. It is when it is openly posted in aggressive manners on their professional pages, or to/toward other trainers and/or clients that this becomes a red flag.

  • A trainer with multiple, identical, social media pages.
    • If a trainer, or anyone for that matter, has multiple personal and business pages that are active is a huge red flag.
      • This is often someone who has been blocked or banned by numerous people, groups and companies and needed to make multiple accounts to bypass those blocks/bans.
      • This is often a sign of someone who will continue to harass and/or stalk people and/or companies even with an attempt has been made to prevent them from doing so.
      • They often have the exact same name on every account and will often share their own videos/posts etc across all of their personal platforms in order to “stay active” on each and appear a particular way for those that follow that individual account.
    • Please note: Some Trainers (and many other types of professionals) may have a “public” personal page for their clientele and a “private” personal page for their family and friends. This is not a red flag and is very common to help keep a professional air for their clients while still being able to have the freedom to be relaxed and unprofessional with their friends and family.
  • Any trainer who believes, and openly states, their methods are the ONLY ones that should be used, are the ONLY ones that work, are the ONLY ones that are humane, etc.
    • I do not believe that there are any “cookie cutter” methods, but there are PLENTY of great methods and opportunities available.
    • There is no “one-size-fits-all” in dog training.
    • It is NOT a red flag if a trainer specializes in a specific method/style and is not comfortable, for moral reasons, ethical reasons, or experience (lack thereof or distaste from prior experiences), to use other methods.
      • In fact, them acknowledging that they specialize in a specific method/style of training and do not have experience in another, or are not comfortable with other methods, is a GREEN FLAG to me as long as their style meets your own ethics/morals/ideals as long as they are open and honest about this AND do not claim it to be the only or “best” best way.

It is okay to have different morals and ethics but be mindful that not everyone shares those beliefs and that’s okay. The goal with dog training is to give dogs and owners a better life, and to help bridge the communication gap between your dog and you/your family. The goal should always be developing an enjoyable and happy relationship for years to come.

  • Overuse of absolute language
    • “Always use this method.”
    • “Never do this technique with your dog under any circumstances.”
    • “That method never works”
    • “My method always works.”
    • “I can handle any dog with any issue.”
    • “It’s a hard and fast rule…”

Of course, take this within reason. There are some things that you should most definitely never do with or to your dog. What I am referring to is more so the overuse of absolute language. In dog training you need to have some flexibility, some dogs learn better with different techniques even within the same method. For example, for absolute language as well as inflexibility, I know over 3 different positive reinforcement/force free methods to teach a dog to lay down. Sometimes, a dog may excel with one but flounder with another. Saying that only ONE of these THREE methods “always” works would be a fallacy and would be cause for concern.

  • Their personal dogs are out of control.
    • How does this Trainer’s dogs react to their commands?
      • Do they listen?
      • Follow through?
      • Blow off their trainer’s commands?
      • Do they politely greet people or jump all over like a loon?
      • Are they calm and collected?
      • Do they react aggressively to certain situations?

Of course, there are other things to take into consideration such as the age of the dog and any behavioral issues the dog may have had when coming into custody of the trainer. Dog Trainers tend to collect dogs with difficult behaviors and management needs, using their skills and training to give these dogs better lives. I am in no way suggesting that Dog Trainers do not have difficult dogs, or often have dogs with management needs due to behavioral issues that may or may not be able to be resolved with training.

What I am saying is that if you set up a consult or evaluation with a Dog Trainer, and they have a dog with them or bring a dog with them to the meeting, that dog should be a good representative of the Trainer’s skills. The dog should be able to demonstrate what their training can, and should be able to, accomplish. If this “Demo Dog” is actively not engaging with the trainer, being unruly, jumping on people, rudely greeting other dogs, not listening to commands and overall does not appear trained or not trained to a manageable level that is where the Red Flag comes into play.

This isn’t to say that their dogs need to be dogs with a ton of flawless tricks, and competition level training, but the dog should be well manners and responsive to commands.

Obviously, dogs have off days and they are not robots but if this is a reoccurring issue that you see with a particular trainer’s dog(s) take note and proceed with caution.

>Note: This is coming from a trainer with dogs trained for real life and not competition as well as a trainer who owns dogs with behavior management protocols for certain reactivity issues.<

  • Any trainer who is inflexible with their training plans.
    • Every trainer should, and usually does, have a training plan and general idea of what to train, when and how as a general rule of thumb. The issue comes when this general idea is set in stone and there is no room for change.
    • Some techniques, even within the same methodologies, are not the best technique for all dogs. Just as all people do not learn the same information the same way: some people are visual learners, some audio and some by doing. Dogs aren’t much different, some techniques are better for an individual dog and some may need a different technique, or method all together, to learn as quickly and effectively as possible.
      • Note: “quickly” does not equal short cuts. Training is a process, regardless of method and technique however some dogs learn better with different techniques/methods and thus will learn faster with them.
      • This does not automatically mean they will learn fast just that they will learn faster with one technique than they would another.
  • Any trainer that shames or disrespects you.
    • Regardless of technique or methodology differences, if your trainer insults, shames or disrespects you this should be a red flag.
    • Some trainers may whole heartedly disagree with a training method, technique or tool that you have used in the past, or your decision to try alternative methods. That is okay, not all trainers agree in the same methods, techniques and tools. However, they should not become aggressive or abrasive when discussing your prior/current attempts.
      • If they disagree with what you have been doing, the tools you have been using, etc they should be able to politely explain to you that they do not agree with these methods/techniques, why (without going into their opinion of whether or not it is abusive/mean/etc) and be able to go into their methods and techniques.
        • Keep in mind that a trainer can, and is well within their right, to refuse to use certain tools, techniques or methods that do not align with their ethics, morals and ideals of methodology.
        • There is nothing wrong with a trainer who will not work with certain tools or methods, as long as they are respectful and polite to their client/potential client in the process.
      • There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with another method, disagreeing with the use of certain tools, or not agreeing with a specific technique. There is something wrong with making an owner, who is doing their best with the knowledge and experiences they have, feel like a failure, abusive or mean to an animal that they adore and want nothing but the best for.

As a Dog Trainer there are some dogs, owners, methodologies, or situations that we are not comfortable working with. That is completely okay. There is nothing wrong with a Trainer admitting that they are not a good fit for you, your dog or that their morals/ethics do not align with your goals. This is NOT a Red Flag, at all, and I truly have respect for any Trainer who will honestly tell a client that they are not a good fit for them. This is an important, but undervalued, situation that often can arise when you are searching for the “right” Dog Trainer.

  • They don’t get results
    • If you are working with a Trainer and are doing the homework (here is where you need to be honest with yourself again) but are not seeing any progression in the training this may be a Red Flag.
      • Please keep in mind that this is a delicate Red Flag.
        • What this means is that there are many variables for this type of situation.
          • Are you doing the homework?
          • Are you being consistent?
            • Are other family members being consistent?
          • Are you seeing results but they are slower than you would like?
          • Are you seeing no results?
          • Is your Trainer seeing results?
            • Are you seeing results when your dog is being handled/worked with by the Trainer?
          • Have you discussed this concern with your trainer?
            • How did they respond?
    • If you are meeting many of these trainer’s clients and they also have not had many results from their training sessions/packages, then this could be a Red Flag.

It is important to remember that when considering this as a Red Flag there are many variables, as mentioned above, that need to be considered. Maybe people want a “quick fix” and get upset when they do not have instant results, this can result in bad reviews or people not seeing the results due to the results not being instant or not doing the work at home. So be careful when evaluating this as a Red Flag or not, many Trainers are unaware of their former clients’ struggling after a package has ended, while the dog did wonderful during training with a consistent training schedule.

  • Guarantee their training
    • It is often seen as a Red Flag if a Trainer guarantees their training. I think that it depends on their definition of and how they enforce their guarantee.
      • Me personally, I do not offer a guarantee because there is too many variables when it comes to training dogs. I can only guide an owner and lay a nice foundation. Many Dog Trainers feel the same.
        • It is very difficult to guarantee something that has so many variables that there is no way to assure the long-term results.
      • Some Trainers, usually ones who do Board and Train programs, offer a lifetime guarantee. The guarantee being that if the dog reverts, needs more training, the owners are struggling, etc the Trainer will do a free refresher for the dog and/or owner to get back on track for the life of the dog. I would not consider this a Red Flag.
      • Some Trainers, have a “Satisfaction Guaranteed” which simply means that if you are not satisfied with the progress your dog has made in the training, they will either a) continue working with you and your dog until you are satisfied or b) they refund the cost of the program purchased. I would not consider this a Red Flag.
      • Other Trainers may offer a guarantee for their dog training such as “the only training you’ll ever need” where a Trainer claims that after they’re done with your dog you will never need training again. Huge Red Flag.

It is important to look at these Guarantees and truly understand them. Any trainer who does not acknowledge the role you and your family plays in upkeeping the training is where the risk comes in. A Trainer who understands the role you play, but is striving to give you the best possible experience and support should not be discredited simply because they “guarantee” the training they do. If their “guarantee” really means continued support and help training if issues arise it shouldn’t automatically be a red flag, as Trainer support is often key and should be encouraged rather than damned.

                Red Flags vary.

                When selecting a Dog Trainer and moving forward with working with a specific trainer keep in mind a few things: Red Flags can vary from one person to another. Different people will feel different things are Red Flags, and different Trainers will also have different ideas on what a Red Flag is. Based on the original self-reflecting questions at the top of this article, you can determine more in depth Red Flags based on your individual needs and ideals.

My partner once told me something that I think every Trainer and Dog Owner should keep in mind on their search:

“The only thing two Dog Trainers will agree on is that the third one is wrong.” 

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