Finding a Trainer by Pamela Dennison ©2007
(original article was for a German Shepherd magazine)
May not be reprinted without written approval.
It is important to know that before fences were as commonplace on farms as they are now, your German Shepherd Dog was originally bred to protect property, keeping predators away from in many cases, a flock of sheep. The breed started with a "base" of Collie (herding), developed into a more guarding type of dog and then used for tending (keeping predators away while keeping the flock together). Because of those guarding and protecting propensities and the biddability (the short definition is "willing to work with and for their owner/trainer") of these dogs, we humans created many new jobs as we needed them to fill; Search and Rescue, Police work, including bomb and drug detection, guarding, patrolling, "hold and/or bite the bad guy," and more. Since World War I, German Shepherd Dogs have been used more for protection than for herding.
The predisposition that German Shepherd Dogs have for these types of jobs creates a very high drive, very smart and very protective dog. While these attributes can be great if directed at an early age, they can also spell trouble if your dog isn’t trained to a high degree—even if his only job is to be your best buddy. Without training, your German Shepherd Dog can become a loaded gun with a hair trigger that doesn’t know the difference between a person threatening you with a gun and a five-year old child who happens to wander on your property.
Accredited as a Master Trainer in 1993 by the Washington State Police Canine Association, and a primary speaker at Karen Pryor’s ClickerExpo, Sergeant Steve White says, "The gene pool of German Shepherd Dogs has been artificially skewed to create certain characteristics (as have all breeds). The addition of German lines into American lines can create some problems for those not prepared for that type of dog. In the German system a GSD cannot be bred unless it has participated in Schutzhund competitions and earned a BH title. The sport's emphasis on dogs that are hard, sharp and resistant to the pressures associated with aggression training yields dogs that keep even the best trainers on their toes. Astute breeders control their gene pool by keeping their best dogs while giving the second tier dogs to those close at hand. Everything else goes to the highest bidder. European breeders are no exception, thus many GSDs imported from Europe are third or fourth tier dogs (including police dogs). That's not necessarily a bad thing if the importer can find dogs more suitable to the less Schutzhund-inclined North American market. Alas, too often dogs that wash out of police, protection, or sport work are then sold to anyone that wants to pay for the dog. Many of these dogs ‘from German lines’ are less biddable because of the qualities cited above. Nonetheless, they eventually become part of the gene pool in this country."
"Make no mistake. Historically speaking, German Shepherds are more a protection breed than a herding breed. Any breed that has protection as a purpose in its genetic history must have control established with behaviorally sound principles. Sergeant White suggests turning the old "build drive and then control" approach on its head. Instead build a behavioral "containment vessel" for your German Shepherd's drives through wise use of positive reinforcement-based methods. Start young and have your management system (training plan, crates, kennel, and trainer) in place before bringing your dog home. Make yourself exciting to your dog by being "predictably unpredictable" within a very structured system. If you keep things interesting and give German Shepherd Dogs structure, they will thrive. Structure doesn’t mean punishment. Structure means being unwaveringly consistent in controlling the dog's access to reinforcement. The brighter the dog, the more challenge you face as a trainer and the more reward you get when you meet those challenges. German Shepherds are very bright dogs, so the reward you get when you create a healthy relationship with yours is satisfying beyond description."
When you get a puppy or a rescue dog, you always hear, "find a good trainer!" But what does that mean, "a good trainer?" Aren’t they all alike?
The short answer is "no," all trainers are not clones of each other. Methods and understanding of training, the learning process and behavior vary from person to person. In the dog training industry, anyone can hang their shingle and call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist. There are no standards, no "real" certification that will guarantee that the person you go to is a good trainer. I am a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, but does that mean I am a good one? (I am, but the average person may be "dazzled" by the "certified," thinking it is some sort of guarantee. It isn’t.) Many of the "letters" you may see after a person’s name simply mean that the trainer passed a written test, however it doesn’t mean they are good. Just like medical doctors, we are all different and all have a better (or worse) skill set. Even Veterinary Behaviorists with impressive degrees may lack sufficient knowledge of dogs and behavior! The Veterinary Behaviorist may wear a white coat, but remember, so does the Good Humor man.
Before picking out a trainer, you need to decide what you are looking for and what methodology you subscribe to. I know that for the novice (and not so novice) dog owner how hard it is to find the "right" information about training dogs. There are hundreds of dog training books on the market as well as a myriad of dog training shows on TV and the one thing that they all have in common is that they all have different ideas on what makes a dog tick and the best way to train them! The old joke, "ask 10 trainers one question and you’ll get 100 different answers" may be funny, but not helpful to the new dog owner that is trying to make some sense of training and do the best thing for their dog.
Training doesn’t have to be an "us" versus "them" mindset. Our dogs are not our enemies or a totally alien species out to "get us" (really!) so that we must dominate, threaten, coerce, intimidate or terrorize them just to get them to walk on a loose leash, not jump on guests or go potty outside. Even if your goal is to compete in the myriad of dog sports available, the "traditional" way is really not necessary.
Teaching our dogs should be a matter of building a bond, helping and gently guiding; breaking down complex behaviors into tiny pieces and not moving forward until he understands the previous step, rather than inflicting pain or using intimidation in an attempt to force him to do what we want. You want to find a trainer that wants to help dogs learn and co-exist in our human world with a minimum of stress and stress related behaviors.
The most common punishments doled out to our unsuspecting canine companions; yanking and jerking the collar, helicoptering them in the air, ear pinches, shoving them in position, yelling, hitting, punching, kicking, spray bottles, shake cans with pennies in them, shock, prong, choke, citronella collars, cattle prods, etc. These are pretty severe. Many of the "wrongdoings" of our dogs are just simple mistakes or lack of understanding or motivation that you want them to walk nicely by your side, sit and down when asked or come when called. What may seem simple to us is very complex to our dogs.
Are these methods compassionate, civilized or humane? Do they teach the dog to be thrilled with learning something new and be a willing worker for you? Sure, there are some dogs that will take punishment better than others and many of the really successful traditional trainers go through quite a few dogs, always on the lookout for the dog that can withstand that kind of training.
How does one "find a good trainer" or even recognize what a good trainer is? First you need to decide what you are looking for in terms of training—are you looking to compete in competition obedience, tracking, Search and Rescue, Rally, agility or do you just want a good pet dog with nice house manners? You certainly want to ask any prospective trainer what their credentials are in those sports, however, just because they may have tons of ribbons or titles after their dogs name, doesn’t necessarily mean they are the trainer for you. You can even avoid making the trip by asking a few pointed questions over the phone. I personally love it when prospective students ask me these types of questions, because it tells me that they are doing their homework and will make a great student and dog owner. If the person you talk to gives you a hard time about answering these types of questions, then by all means, say thank you and hang up.
There are a few places you can start your search for a good trainer. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (www.apdt.com), International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (www.iaabc.org), or Truly Dog Friendly (www.trulydogfriendly.com) are good places to start. Be sure to check any trainer’s references and observe in person their teaching methods. You may find a good trainer at PetsMart® and other such places, however, the amount of training those trainers receive is minimal (as in a mere two weeks). Stay away from anyone that offers a guarantee. One just can’t guarantee behavior; there are just too many factors involved. Owner compliance and consistent practice sessions (or lack thereof), handler sensitivity and understanding as well as other aspects, all contribute to success or failure. Let the buyer beware!
So what about Board and Train; where you drop your dog off and "in theory," pick up a well-trained dog after a week or so? Dogs are not like cars—you can get a mechanic to fix your car and it will run well for you, whether or not you know much about cars. Not so with dogs. Traditionally, board and train facilities do not utilize positive reinforcement methods. They are not helping you build a bond with your dog and so you lose a great deal of "transfer;" the dog may work well for the trainer and not for you. The joy of owning a dog is also the joy of learning together.
I often get calls from people across the country looking for a positive trainer in their area. When reading websites to find the best trainer for them, it is hard sometimes, even for me, to separate the wheat from the chaff. If I am not sure, I may recommend a particular trainer, but with the proviso that they watch a few classes first.
There are many catch phrases you need to be aware of that help mask what methods the trainer really uses. If they truly use dog friendly positive methods, they will come right out and tell you (verbally or on their websites) in detailed specifics. If they couch their responses in ambiguous terms, then be aware that they are most likely a traditional trainer. No trainer is going to list on their website that they use force or coercion. Many of them have latched onto warm and fuzzy words to hide their methodology.
A few vague phrases or words to look out for;
- Tap ‘n tell, tapping, touch and tone, training collars or stimulation (these all relate to electric shock collars),
- Tools (but if they don’t spell out exactly what those tools are, be cautious),
- Balanced training, or one using "all quadrants of operant conditioning" (Means they use positive reinforcement as well as positive punishment. A positive trainer will use positive reinforcement and negative punishment only),
- Instructive reprimands or motivational pops (That trainer uses punishment)
- Alpha, dominance (Indicative that the trainer uses punishment)
- Leadership (This one can go either way—it can mean being a leader in a dominating manner or it can be in a relationship "give-and-take" way)
A few questions you can ask a prospective trainer;
- What kind of equipment do you use?
If they say, "prong, choke collars, shock collars, head halters and the like," say thank you and politely hang up.
If you hear "Plain buckle collars or comfortable harnesses," keep talking with them.
- If my dog won’t lie down, what would you recommend?
If they say, "Pull their front legs out from under them or push down on their shoulders" or "step on the leash and force their head down," or "you have a very dominant dog," say thank you and politely hang up.
If you hear "Lure him with a treat" or "make a tent of your legs and lure him underneath," keep talking with them.
- If my dog won’t come, what should I do?
If they say "go to him and drag him in while screaming, "I told you to COME!" or "press the remote on the shock collar," say thank you and politely hang up.
If you hear, "Train the dog to know that "come" is a great thing" or "Don’t let your dog off leash until he has a better recall," keeping talking to them.
- My dog pulls on leash, what would you recommend?
If they say, "yank him back" or "keep the leash so short that they have no choice but to stay with you," or "put this prong, choke or head halter on," say thank you and politely hang up.
If you hear, "Put your dog on a comfortable harness and a very long line and reinforce with a few treats or some toys every time he looks back at you, and then give him treats whenever he stays by your side," keep talking with them.
- My dog jumps on every person he sees, what should I do?
If they say, "knee him in the chest, squeeze his paws so hard that he screams, step on his back toes so hard that it hurts, yank him down," say thank you and politely hang up.
If you hear, "teach him that a person approaching is a cue to sit," or "before the dog jumps, remind him to sit," keep talking with them.
(if I answer the phone, keep talking <g> - this obviously is a joke, but I just couldn’t resist…Pam)
- (Optional) What is your background of education?
Most of us are self-taught, go to many seminars by top trainers or are lucky enough to mentor with top trainers, read, read, read and read some more. Having a degree "may" be helpful, but is not an indication that the methodology is sound.
If you are at the class observing, (and you should watch many different trainers before deciding) look for these things and watch the dogs and their owners conscientiously. Are the dogs happy and willing or are they confused and frustrated? Are the owners happy or frustrated? Listen to any advice that is given—is it gentle and nurturing and in line with making it more clear for the dog or is it a variation of the standard punishments listed above? You also don’t want to overlook how the trainers talk to and interact with the owners. Are they helpful, nice, encouraging, happy and enthusiastic?
I know how hard it is to find a good trainer that will work with you and your dog rather than against you. Go with your gut feeling and do not let anyone hurt your dog. You may have to drive over an hour to get to one. Do it. You and your new best friend are worth every penny of gas and time spent for a lifetime of trust and respect.
Pamela Dennison is the author of five books: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Positive Dog Training," "How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong; A Roadmap For Rehabilitating Aggressive Dogs," "Bringing Light to Shadow; A Dog Trainer’s Diary," "Click Your Way to Rally Obedience," and "Civilizing the City Dog" and two DVDs/videos: "Camp R.E.W.A.R.D. for Aggressive Dogs" and "Positive Solutions for Standard Behavioral Problems."