I love obedience, so it’s probably not really surprising that I tend to keep my dogs in classes *most* of the time. (At one point, I had dogs in classes ALL the time- we usually had less than three weeks each year that we weren’t attending at least one class every week, although my current club and curriculum don’t allow that). A *big* part of what makes it enjoyable, though, is finding the right instructor.
Dog training is not a highly regulated field. Anyone can put out a sign and advertise themselves as a dog trainer. Some states have, I believe, restrictions on certain terms (such as behaviorists) but I don’t believe Texas is among them. (Since I consider myself a trainer, and refer serious problems such as aggression and resource guarding to more experienced folks, this doesn’t really affect me). This can make it pretty tough for consumers, though, to find just the right person to work with.
One good place to start is with the APDT – the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. A professional organization for dog trainers, their requirements for membership aren’t all that strenuous, and membership alone doesn’t guarantee a person’s ability, education, or training philosophy. But it can be a good place to search for trainers in your area.
Another overlooked resource is your local kennel club. You can find out about local clubs at the American Kennel Club site (for AKC events and breeds) and UKCDogs.com (for UKC events and breeds- there are fewer UKC clubs by a large number, but they can be a great resource if you have them.) Not all clubs offer classes- and some use methods that I’m not a fan of- but it’s worth checking out. Even if they don’t offer classes, club contact people are, by definition, dog people, and may be able to give you a suggestion about where to look or who to ask next.
Some people recommend asking your vet. I am generally not a fan of this approach- I love my vets (I have three- a ‘routine stuff vet’ (who I like best but isn’t terribly nearby at the moment), an emergency vet (has been our family vet for years- her brand new practice is in a very expensive part of town and I’m slowly phasing her out- more on that in another post), and a repro/testing vet who is the most highly recommended by reputable breeders locally for health testing and reproductive issues.)- none of them are behaviorists or have much background in the way of dog training, although vets #1 and #3 *do* maintain good lists. (#2’s list is the one I want people to avoid, much as I like her otherwise!) It really depends on your ability to evaluate the information- true of all the approaches, though.
When I’ve got some names, the next thing to do is set up an initial meeting. It doesn’t need to be all that long, and typically I’ll ask if I can attend a class without my dog and observe. I want to see a trainer who is NOT heavy handed, and uses positive reinforcement with both dogs and students freely. I want to see one who has classes of a moderate size- no more than 12 people, and if there’s more than 8, I’d expect to see an assistant. If there’s reactive or aggressive dogs in the class, I want to see that the trainer manages them properly, keeps an eye on the owner who may or may not be all that well equipped to handle them, and sets them up to succeed by NOT pushing them over thresholds repeatedly.
I love clicker training, but a good generic positive trainer is, IMO, better than a poor clicker trainer. (The clicker is NOT equal to praise, and we have a few local trainers who use it that way.) And I’d rather take a traditional (leash correction, crank & yank) class run by an instructor who gives good feedback to handlers and manages the dogs and space effectively than n overly permissive trainer- but I’m assertive and protective enough about my dogs that I won’t allow anyone else to manhandle them and have the confidence (at this point :P) to do my own thing in a class setting- this is NOT ideal. So attending a class is crucial- see how the instructor handles things. See how the dogs react to him. See how he or she interacts with the dogs- does she approach respectfully and appropriately to each individual dog – straight on with confident dogs, but sideways and slower with cautious dogs? How about petting? Is she a head-patter (most dogs HATE this) or a chest thumper (which big dogs generally enjoy, but most small dogs don’t unless it’s done very gently.) Ask for references and follow up on them. If you’ve done your research and background reading, and have trainers whose training models you particularly respect or think will work well for your dog (mne at the oment, are Leslie McDervitt and Emma Parsons- but I will also ask what the trainer thinks of Karen Pryor’s work, Jean Donaldson’s, Carol Lea Benjamin- and the last is a red herring, as she’s more old-school than I prefer for my dogs) But most of all? Be an educated consumer. Use your gut. And don’t be afraid to walk out of a class that makes you uncomfortable.