How Do You Find a Competent Dog Trainer or Behaviourist?

With the recent furore over Jordan Shelley on The One Show, I thought it would be a good time to post some information on how to find a capable dog training instructor, or behaviourist (from here on, “trainers” will refer to trainers, training instructors, and behaviourists).

I will focus on UK trainers, but wherever you are in the world, there will be similar steps to take.

Currently, there are no legal requirements for animal trainers to meet.  That means that anyone can decide to start a dog training class, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, unless there’s proof that the person leading the class has breached or is breaching the Animal Welfare Act (I’ll be doing a post about this shortly).  In which case, the RSPCA may be able to do something.

I was lucky the first time I needed a trainer – I asked for recommendations, and got two, both for the same local UK APDT-registered classes.  When I searched on-line for other options, as well as wanting some more information on who I’d been recommended, I read all about the APDT and thought “yes, this is what I want”.

However, I’ve heard many times about how someone has been recommended, or seen an advert, for a dog trainer, have turned up to the class and gone along with whatever the “instructor” says, because “they’re charging money to train your dog; they must be able to do it, and they must know what they’re doing“.  Take that statement, and remember: there are no legal requirements for animal trainers to meet.  I really mean that, you can be someone who dislikes people, and hates dogs, and you can hire out some space and charge money to train owners and dogs however you see fit.

So, how do you make sure you take your dog to someone who knows at least a little about dog training and/or behaviour, learning theory, and is up-to-date with the latest scientific research on animal training?  I spoke to several people in the know: Leah Roberts, from Dog Willing; June Lambie from Solway Dog Training Centre; and canine behaviour specialist Jez Rose.

So, to summarise our collective knowledge, we suggest that you: –

  • Start with “word-of-mouth” – ask friends, family, work colleagues, anyone that you trust who is likely to know;
  • Ask your vet for a reference – if your vet is up-to-date with the current scientific knowledge they should be able to recommend a good trainer;
  • Search the web – see if there is an APDT, APBC, or similar that is local to you, or some other body of positive trainers.  In the UK the Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) has recently been set up to “to agree the standards of education and training required for animal trainers and behaviour therapists working in the UK”.  Don’t be afraid to search for the name of a person, or the name of their training classes, you may find they have a website or Facebook page, or you may find some reviews of their classes.
  • Call them – talk to them, see if they seem like someone you want to help you to modify your dog’s behaviour.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, such as how may dogs/puppies are in the class, and whether they are insured.

At any point up until now, if there is any mention of the need to be “dominant” or “the alpha”, avoid them at all costs, both of these ideas have been scientifically proven to be untrue.  Thanks go to Jez for giving me a couple of links: Alpha Dog Behaviour – myths about dog dominance; and The Science of Dominance

  • Go to classes without your dog – see if the other dogs are happy, enjoying their time in class, or if they seem more stressed or anxious to be in class.  Look at what equipment is being used, clickers/markers, harnesses and/or flat collars are good; any type of “training” collar (shock, choke, prong) is bad.  Also watch to make sure that anyone involved in training the dogs is skilled enough to train behaviours without using force, fear, pain or intimidation.

Opting for trainers who use positive reinforcement and reward-based training are a good start – these methods have been scientifically proven to be more efficacious, humane, and effective in both training and modification of problem behaviours.

Remember, positive is not permissive – the correct use of positive training methods (when followed by the trainer and owner) doesn’t mean always having cheese on hand to “treat” your dog; when the time is right food rewards can, and should be, reduced and replaced with “life rewards”.

If you don’t like what you hear when you speak to a potential trainer, or see when you go and observe their classes; then you are under no obligation to take things any further – it would be a great disservice to your dog and your relationship with him or her, if you took them to a trainer you felt uncomfortable with just because you didn’t want to say no to them.  Additionally, if the trainer you have been to observe is not upholding the code of conduct, or any other document, that is on the website of their registering body, please do get in touch with that body and tell them!  If you don’t tell them they can’t do anything, and that person can go on doing what they are doing, which will endanger the relationship that dogs and their owners have, as well as potentially endanger every person that comes into contact with one of the dogs that this person sees.


It should be noted that in early 2013, in a rather ironic turn of events, Jez was “outed” as not actually holding some qualifications and memberships  that he claimed to have.

While liars are – rightfully – seen negatively in society (and I for one don’t condone lying), we must remember that the advice Jez gave was not bad advice.  It wasn’t the type of advice given by someone with little to no knowledge and a big interest in lining their own pockets while relationships are broken down.

Jez knew what he was talking about and gave sensible advice that any owner could safely follow.  Why he felt he needed to lie, I do not know; but to paraphrase something that he said himself – qualifications maketh not the man.


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