By Robert Forto
My name is Robert Forto and I am the owner and training director of Denver Dog Works in Colorado and Alaska Dog Works, and my team of trainers and I have built our reputation on the fact that we know our stuff and we are able to provide you and your dog with the most complete up-to-date training methodology. We are not like the other guys that can guarantee a quick fix in a matter of weeks or lessons but our tried, true and systematic approach to canine training and behavior sets us apart bar-none. We are the only school in the Denver area that specializes in canine sports and working dogs and I am an expert in canine aggression, but we will also come to you, nationwide, and work with your dogs when others have tried and failed.
This article is to help you chose a canine trainer. We are not all created equal. There are myriad training styles and methods and sometimes one method will work well for your dog but it might not for another. We guarantee our results because we live our life around working dogs. If it takes fifteen lessons for basic obedience then so be it, it takes fifteen lessons. I encourage you to do your homework and chose your trainer wisely. It is a relationship that should last a long time. After reading this article if you are still having trouble finding the right trainer or if you would like to see us in action give us a call anytime and we will point you in the right direction. Our methodology is about adaption. We have learned through the years that you need to have a flexible approach to canine training or behavior because other methods just do not work.
Dog trainers come in all shapes and sizes and choosing the one that you feel most comfortable with is a matter of individual training method preferences, integrity, honesty, standards, time, distance and money. You should also observe in your research of choosing a trainer that there are as many advertising tactics and philosophies as there are trainers and there-in can lay the dilemma of choosing one that is right for you and your dog.
Once you have clearly defined issues and goals for you and your dog, you can easily reach information overload the deeper you dive into finding that “right for the dog and you” trainer. Be LEARY of trainers who use guilt tactics or that try and convince you that their ways are the only way or it’s the highway. It is only a matter of common sense that not all dogs respond to similar methods equally and in some cases a dog may need a special approach to solve an issue. Some dogs will require more or less effort with a particular method or management style and again you will ultimately set the standard and make that decision in the learning/training journey.
Some things that might influence your decision to choose a particular trainer are listed below and it is up to you to assign the priority which you find most appealing, important or influential. GOOD LUCK!
1. What methods does the trainer use and why? Ask the questions. The trainer may try to dazzle you with scientific jargon such as positive reinforcement or traditional training or say they are an R+ trainer and have used clickers exclusively for twenty years. Just like those late night TV product miracles that promise to make your hair grow back and your shower stay clean for weeks, most often these gimmicks are just that, gimmicks. A competent trainer will have tested and retested the methods he teaches and continually learns new skills that he can offer his clients. Just like the old commercial used to say, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile”, this shouldn’t be your father’s dog training method either.
2. Can the trainer’s method be easily explained? Some methods literally take a degree in psychology to fully understand. Our training methods at Alaska Dog Works are based on the behavior of your dog and not lure and reward training often taught at big-box pet stores that just happen to offer training in the middle of an aisle. He personally oversees all of the training programs at Alaska Dog Works and is constantly learning. His methods are up-to-date and easy to follow.
3. Can the trainer’s method be easily understood by you and your dog? One of the best books out there is: How Dog’s Learn by Burch and Bailey. It clearly explains how a dog learns and why methods work for one dog breed and not another. Any competent trainer has a clear understanding of these principles and can apply them to your dog and his learning capabilities.
4. Can/will the trainer provide you with an honest explanation of the pros and cons of
methods he or she will use if asked? (keeping in mind that any method can have an adverse outcome depending on application) This is a most important consideration. The dog trainers of the past learned from their mentors on the methods that they found the most useful. Many of these techniques are still widely used today but may not be politically correct. Every training method has its pros and cons and each one must be weighed accordingly before you commence a training program. Forto always tells his clients that clicker training might not work for the 70-year old grandma with an uncontrollable Rottweiler but might work well for a dog learning tricks.
In his research for his doctorate dissertation on human-canine communication, Forto read about, tried and tested many of the principles offered throughout the history of dog training. Everything from Pavlov’s salivating dogs (classical conditioning) to pack and dominance theory, to clicker training, to Skinnerian or operant conditioning and many in between. By doing so, and with his 19 years experience in working with dogs of all different temperaments and personalities, Forto provides an educated approach to the best method of training for you and your dog.
5. How dependable/reliable is the training method and how often must you proof the training? Proofing is the process of training in different scenarios at different times and situations. This is a key component of any good training program. Canine training is an ongoing process and needs to be exercised throughout your dog’s life. That does not mean that you need to attend classes when the dog is 10-years old or practice twice a day, every day but every once in a while to keep the training sharp. Just like playing the piano, you may have learned as a child but I bet you couldn’t play twinkle-twinkle little star now if you haven’t practiced in 20 years.
6. Does the trainer provide any guarantees, include follow-up support, and at what cost? Any trainer that “graduates” you and your dog after six weeks of group class is just plain wrong. A dog’s mind is moldable just like a child’s and they have learning cycles that are very similar. So to guarantee that a puppy class will fix all of your problems just wait until that adorable pup is a 70-pound drooling, couch eating, trash grabbing beast. Follow-up support is a key component of any good training program and should be built into the cost of it. Any training class that promises basic obedience for $99.00 is not a good deal. Just like that juicy quarter pounder that looks so delicious on TV and when you buy it at the fast food chain it is the size of a child’s palm.
Be mindful that there is no 100% guarantee in dog training. A good dog training program takes a considerable amount of time and effort on the client’s part. There are often misunderstandings and sometimes legal suits are filed. In your research you may find that there are negative comments posted on the web by anonymous patrons or a suit/complaint has been filed because a client wants a refund. It is often based on the client’s misunderstanding of what is required from them in their training program. Continue your research with an open mind and ask for references and ask questions. The proof is in the pudding as the old saying goes. An experienced trainer is willing to be open and honest about his past client troubles and how he/she dealt with them and the outcome that was reached.
7. Does the trainer require that you buy training equipment, what kind, from whom, and at what cost. Every trainer should be knowledgeable and able to use any equipment that is on the market. Some equipment works well witIts h one breed of dog but not the other. Trust your trainers’ advice on what he recommends and let him show the pros and cons of each. While many trainers have a favorite piece of equipment such as a training collar or a head halter, these pieces of equipment are often used incorrectly by the dog owner. I doubt that the trainer is just trying to make a few extra bucks off of a client by selling them a leash but what is often the case he/she will offer advice on which equipment will work best for you and your dog and help you achieve your goals.
8. Does a trainer offer multiple options, i.e. private consultation, in home, group training, board and train etc? Can/do they provide advice as to which would be best based on your particular situation or does the trainer recommend a “one size fits all” approach? The best trainers will offer a free or low cost initial evaluation to meet with you and your dog and discuss your training goals, time lines, budget, availability, etc. While there is nothing wrong with a trainer that only does in-home classes or group classes they just might not offer what you and your dog need. You should be leary of “cookie cutter” training in which a trainer teaches the same methods to all dogs in a class. A Labrador learns sit differently than a Border Collie than a Boxer and so on. At Alaska Dog Works we tailor all of our training programs to the individual dog and the client’s needs. This is why we do not offer group classes by themselves. All dogs must be under complete control before a client can move to group classes and they are designed to test or “proof” a dog with distractions. This sound principle is what Forto and his team have found works the best and provides the best results.
9. What experience information does the trainer have or provide. Most training schools have a page on their website or the literature that explains their training philosophy and training style. A good dog training school offers trainers profiles and lists their experience in working with dogs of many breeds and behavioral problems. This is the first thing you should research in your quest for finding a good trainer.
10. Does the trainer train/have ADVANCED titles in handling dogs and in what disciplines? Obedience, agility, search and rescue, therapy, hunting, herding, fly ball etc.? A trainer should only teach what he has learned or completed him/herself. A trainer should never teach conformation (dog shows) training or competition obedience if he/she has not completed a dog AND earned a title in that discipline. I mean would you hire a plumber that is a roofer, or a doctor who is a dentist?
11. Does/can the trainer provide written documents as to their philosophies and are they clearly understood verses, ones that require great time and effort to fully understand and perform? The trainer’s philosophy is a set of principles by which he/she teaches. The most common you will hear is: positive reinforcement (or R+), traditional, balanced, pack leader, clicker, and lure and reward, and shaping. While all of these methods are effective given the right circumstances, it is important that the trainer convey their philosophy in clear and understandable principles that they can teach.
12. Does the trainer give demos or clinics for the public? A good trainer is only as good as his “demo dog” It’s true you would not buy a new car without a test drive or buy a suit without trying it on. A demo dog and his trainer are constantly working together trying new techniques and skills so that he can further his education as a leader in the industry.
A good trainer also attends local expos and events to promote his training business and to get his name out to the public. Forto and Alaska Dog Works make it a practice to attend as many of these events each year. This year they attended: The Colorado Pet Expo, The Furry Scurry, The Donor Dash, The Lucky Mutt Strut, just to name a few. These events allow the public to meet a trainer not just call someone from the phone book or the internet because they have the biggest ad or the flashiest web site.
13. Is the trainer a member of particular organizations that you find influential? Some of the big ones are The Association for Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI), Canine Good Citizen Evaluator (CGC Evaluator), American Boarding Kennel Association (ABKA) and of course the better business bureau and the chamber of commerce are just a few. All of these organizations offer networking opportunities for trainers and qualification specifics for trainers who are members. Most trainers are members of at least one of these organizations and this shows that they are dedicated to their job and their education is continual.
14. Does the trainer offer feedback forms to be filled out by each client that you may view? This is the best way for a trainer to fix his faults. Critique is the life-blood of dog training and if your trainer asks how they are doing the best answer is an honest one. You will never hurt their feelings if you are honest and by giving feedback will enhance the training experience for clients in the future.
15. Does the trainer offer special training for aggressive dogs, therapy dogs, assistance dogs, protection, tracking, herding, search and rescue etc..? Be leary of a trainer that says that they can do every kind of class known in the canine world. Most trainers have a specialty and they strive to offer programs built around that specialty. Forto’s advice is: if the trainer hasn’t lived it, they shouldn’t be teaching it. Be mindful however that many trainers have a strong trainer referral base and often “share” clients that have complementing interests. For example an obedience trainer that works with German Shepherds might have a referral to a good protection trainer. Also, many trainers are constantly learning so they might offer “fun” classes in agility and other sports while they hone their own skills. While these classes will teach you the basics in these types of classes they are not meant to replace classes geared toward competition.
16. Is the trainer easily accessible and will the trainer provided prompt responses to your questions and concerns? This is one of the biggest complaints from most of Forto’s clients and most trainers will attest. It is hard for a trainer to be available at a moment’s notice to answer a clients question. Please be mindful that the trainer has a business to run and you are not his only client as you might think so. Please be understanding he if does not call you right away. Most trainers will as soon as they get a chance. Forto’s policy is he listens to messages and returns phone calls after 4:00 pm each day. This is when his training day is winding down and he can spend adequate time with the client and their concerns. Of course the best way to communicate is by email where you can state a question and concern and your trainer can answer in a thoughtful and logical manner.
17. What experience in health issues/health care does the trainer have? A competent trainer should know the basics of canine form and function of all the breeds that he trains on a regular basis as well as canine health, medications and vaccinations, canine first aid and CPR, canine nutrition and psychology. Forto tells his aspiring dog training career students that it is easy to buy a book on canine training and become a trainer overnight. It takes years of practice and a solid education to understand how a dog learns and why.
18. Does the trainer provide information on the vet he/or she uses/recommends and are policies clear and to your satisfaction? A veterinarian is a trainer’s best friend and resource. Not only is the vet/trainer relationship an excellent source of referrals but the relationship also exists if there is a medical element to your dog’s behavior problem. As a canine behaviorist, Forto is in near-constant communication to his veterinary referral network for medication requests, medical screenings and tests. These are important components to his training protocol.
19. Does the trainer check the dog for structural problems, hearing, sight, and other health issues that affect training upon receiving your dog for training? As stated above, Forto routinely works with his veterinary referral network or the client’s own vet to rule out any medical problems before training commences.
20. Does the trainer require dogs to be up to date on all required vaccinations and are dogs inspected for fleas and other parasites while on premise? Almost all trainers will ask for an up-to-date vaccination record. This is not only a requirement of most states but it is to protect your dog from sickness and disease while attending classes or staying at a training center.
21. Does the trainer clearly explain all policies, to include rules, regulations, and any refund policies? Every trainer should have a clearly defined contract and a policy guideline of his classes and procedures. A competent trainer does not teach on a whim and make up the rules as he/she goes. Be advised that most trainers do not offer refunds. This is normal in this business. Dog training is an on-going process, similar to learning how to play the piano. Results cannot be achieved without practice and more practice. If an owner does not see results quick enough they often ask for a refund. But, if I dare be so bold: would you ask for a refund at a fine restaurant if you already ate the meal?
22. Is the trainer licensed as a business and meet all city, county, state and federal regulations? It has been said that in order to become a dog trainer all you need is three things: a business card, a leash and a smile. Over the past few years more and more trainers have found that this is just not enough and they are seeking certification in dog training. While this certificate implies that they have taken a course in dog training it does not regulate how a trainer conducts his business. A reputable trainer is always learning and attending seminars and other gatherings on the latest methods and equipment. If your trainer has a training center he should be licensed by the state and have all the required insurance and other documentation. But please understand that most trainers work out of their home and they are considered small home-based businesses. This does not make them ineffective however. Forto started this way in 1990 in Duluth, Minnesota teaching group classes in local parks. Now he owns two kennels and is looking to opening a third in the Twin Cities of Minnesota called Twin Cities Dog Works in the near future.
23. Does the trainer make you feel comfortable and at ease to include handling your dog? Forto’s advice on this is very clear: If a trainer is afraid or uncomfortable working with your dog leave right away. There is a saying in the canine training field that some people are dog people, some people are people people and a few are dog and people people. A dog person who is a trainer does excellent in training dogs in a board and train situation where he/she works with your dog while they stay with them at their kennel but when it comes time to teaching the human part of the team they lack the communication skills to do a good job. The people people are good at working with the human part of the dog/owner team but stumble when it comes to working with the dog. That does not make them bad dog trainers but does make them very good coaches, in which they give the human the directions and they train the dog at home.
It is rare to find a dog and people person. This type of trainer can work with any dog and any person and excel at it. They know how to read the dog’s behavior and react to it as well as educate the owner on what the dog is doing and why. If you find a trainer like this hold on to them because they are one in a handful and they will be an investment for the life of your dog.
24. Does the trainer have experience breeding dogs or whelping litters? While this is not a necessity by any means it is good to know if your trainer specializes in a breed of dogs. The rule of thumb is, and always has been that a trainer should not teach a class unless he has completed it him/herself. A breeder/trainer can do wonders for a new pet owner in offering puppy classes and breed referrals.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT NONE OF THESE ATTRIBUTES GUARANTEE OR MAKE A GOOD TRAINER IN THEMSELVES!
If you are still struggling to find a canine trainer or the one that you have been working with just is not the right fit for you and your dog I encourage you to call Robert Forto at 907-841-1686 to schedule an evaluation. The trainers of Alaska Dog Works will come to you wherever you live and we will show you why we have the best and train the rest.
Robert Forto is the host of The Dog Works Radio Show and is the training director of Alaska Dog Works. Robert Forto can be reached through his website at www.alaskadogworks.com