How To Choose a Dog Trainer & Dog Trainer Certifications
Updated January 2023
Feel free to use the navigation below to jump to the appropriate section.
- Dog Training Industry Problems
- How To Become A Certified Dog Trainer
- What Are Dog Trainer Certifications And Certificates?
- Why Are Independent Certification And Testing Organizations So Important?
- Recommended Dog Training And Behavior Certifications And Organizations
- Why Is A Dog Trainer Not Certified And How To Tell?
- How To Choose A Dog Trainer And Behaviorist?
- How Much Does Dog Training Cost?
- Why Is Dog Training Expensive?
- When To Find A Different Dog Behaviorist And Pet Trainer?
- Get Professional Help
We all want the best dog trainer and behaviorist to train our beloved dog and teach us how to better care for our pets, but how do we find the best dog trainer in an unregulated industry where everyone claims to be an “expert”?
Dog Training And Pet Industry Regulation?
Did you know that the dog training industry is completely unregulated and that anyone (including yourself) can call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist, make a website and throw up some fake reviews? Scary, I know! Unlike when you search for professionals in other industries such as doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, accountants, psychologists, architects, nurses, teachers, etc. dog training is the wild west.
What all of these industries and professionals have in common, and make them safer to use is licensing and regulation.
Licensing and Regulation keep the neighborhood “expert” from performing brain surgery on a person when they have a headache and prevent someone who really loves bridges but doesn’t understand physics or engineering, from building one across the Hudson River.
Regulation helps consumers’ trust.
As a world-renowned security expert, Bruce Schneier states, “A variety of mechanisms can create trust. When I outsourced my food preparation to a restaurant last night, it never occurred to me to worry about food safety. That blind trust is largely created by government regulation. It ensures that our food is safe to eat, just as it ensures our paint will not kill us and our planes are safe to fly.”
Schneier continues, “When robust consumer-safety regulations underpin outsourcing, people can trust the systems. This is true for any kind of outsourcing. Attorneys, tax preparers, and doctors are licensed and highly regulated, by both governments and professional organizations. We trust our doctors to cut open our bodies because we know they are not just making it up.”
Sadly for dog trainers, dog behaviorists, and most pet professionals (besides board-certified veterinarians,) regulation, and licensing are optional.
I would estimate that over 95% of the search results that come up when you search for, “dog training camp near me,” “dog boarding and training,” dog daycare,” or something similar, the first few pages of a Google search (besides advertisements) are not the Certified, regulated or qualified experts you want helping you care for your dog and family.
These local best “trainers” who come up in search engines like Google, and review sites that have their own business interests at heart (not yours), such as Yelp, often have little to no formal education, experience, or expertise in the field of ethology, psychology, cognitive ethology, dog training, evolution, physiology, neurobiology, sociology, nutrition, learning theory, and animal husbandry.
On a side note, here’s what most people say about yelp which is well-known in the small/medium-sized business community:
Manipulated, fake, and pay-to-play reviews, as mentioned in the video above, needs to be understood by all parents because this danger extends to all pet businesses, from dog boot camp, dog boarding, dog kennels, pet sitting, dog daycare, to dog walking, grooming, breeding, dog rescues and dog shelters and not just dog training and behavior.
We take for granted that the regulation and licensing of professionals keep us safer and guarantee a minimum level of competency and a fair playing field. Without it, society wouldn’t run.
I think all would agree that some form of government, laws, and regulations have a place in society and without them, we would have anarchy. While many would debate the degree to which laws and regulations need to exist, most are not advocating zero regulation.
Unlike all regulated industries, as an unregulated industry, there are few to no barriers to entry in the pet industry or one single way to become a certified dog trainer or behaviorist.
For those seriously interested in becoming a professional dog trainer who dedicates time to learning about the profession, a common route would be to mentor with a Certified Dog Trainer or Behaviorist who has been training dogs and modifying behavior for many years.
If that option doesn’t exist or you would like a more formal education to start out training (which I would recommend), here are a few formal learning environments that cultivate the knowledge and skills that will serve you well throughout your dog training career.
Dog training schools that are held in high regard whether you are a seasoned dog trainer or that may help you start off in the industry if you’re a new dog trainer are:
- Karen Pryor Academy
- The Academy for Dog Trainers
- Dr. Susan Friedman’s BW (Behavior Works) LLA (Living and Learning with Animals) – A learning opportunity with a broader scope, for dog trainers, behaviorists, ethologists, zoologists, etc. Full disclosure, I have taken and audited the curriculum of Dr. Susan Friedman’s LLA Dog Behaviorist Classes for several years.
After dog training school, mentorship, or both, most serious dog trainers and pet professionals would then elect to become certified by an independent organization that requires proof and testing of competency, professionalism, practical and theoretical knowledge, teaching ability, and proficiency.
In addition, certification requirements mandate that a certificate holder stays on top of the most current research in training and behavior modification protocols by taking or teaching mandatory annual continuing education units.
What is dog training certification? During my dog behaviorist and training career spanning around 30 years in professional dog training and animal behavior, organizations tend to come and go. Eventually, you will notice an alphabet soup after someone’s name.
In my case, it’s CDBC and CPDT. Which stands for Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Although there are other certifications and certificates I have, it becomes a little ridiculous to list 20 letters after one’s name. Nonetheless, your dog trainer’s certifications should look very similar to this at a bare minimum.
Whether you didn’t finish high school, were homeschooled, or attended a community college, or Ivy League school, in order to become a professional/Board-Certified Medical Doctor, you must pass a Medical Board Exam. Similarly, if you decide to become a lawyer (JD), you must pass a Bar Exam.
These licenses, exams, and regulations are independent of any school and vital for professionalism and the safety of the public.
Unlike mandatory regulated professions such as medical doctors and lawyers, dog trainers, must choose to become certified and volunteer to prove their knowledge (through written testing, video testing, oversite, ethics, etc.) and that they follow and adhere to the most scientifically proven, up-to-date dog training and behavior modification methods, follow strict ethical industry standards and actively take or teach continuing education units (CEU).
However, much of the pet industry is comprised of for-profit businesses with zero regulation that wants to capitalize on selling useless services, certificates, and certifications.
While other for-profit businesses with no certification or regulation set up dog training schools proclaiming to teach people to become dog trainers.
Unlike a traditional accredited animal behavior college or university where the teachers, school, curriculum, etc., are all heavily licensed and regulated at the federal, state, and local levels, the same is not true for dog training schools.
Some dog trainers are merely “certified” by the dog school where they took their educational program through with inherent conflicts of interest and lack of independent oversight, whereas others are certified through independent certifying bodies that are not affiliated with any particular school or program (much like the Bar exam for a lawyer or the Medical Board exam).
So a “certified trainer” could be someone who simply took a five-day course on dog training or someone who has studied dog training and ethology extensively for many years and was independently tested.
Therefore the same certification problem exists for dog training schools as it does for individuals who call themselves dog trainers. The certification and certificates are not worth the paper they are printed on and do not gauge the proficiency or expertise of the professional.
Anyone can pay to go to any dog training school and call themselves “certified” from that school. There are zero accreditation and very few (if any) barriers to entry.
The world of dog training is rife with fly-by-night startups, people dog training part-time, watching dog training “reality” television shows, and copying those shows’ ignorant methods.
Other times someone calls themselves a “dog trainer” because they are unemployed and looking to make some extra cash, or because they grew up with dogs their whole life.
(This list is updated often)
Full disclosure, the organizations listed throughout this article I am affiliated with and are widely believed by Board-Certified Veterinarian Behaviorists and all pet professional organizations to be the most respected and widely recognized dog training and behavior organizations and certifications held by pet professionals.
I am going to stay away from naming all dog training organizations names for the same reasons I don’t name the best dog foods but instead inform parents of dangerous dog foods, ingredients, and what questions to ask their dog food company, distributors, and manufacturers.
Other reasons I won’t mention specific dog training organizations (other than the most respected ones previously mentioned) are:
- They’re unregulated and their business models, ideologies and mission statements change frequently
- They pop up and go out of business regularly
- They get bought, sold, and are difficult to tell who’s behind them
- It won’t be helpful and there are too many organizations to mention
However, I can opine about the organizations I am a part of and certified by.
Your Dog Behaviorist And Trainer Should Be Certified From All Of The Following Organizations
There are many dog training schools that will sell someone a dog trainer certification. There are some wonderful dog training schools but even more terrible ones.
What dog training school someone went to won’t help a parent as much as knowing who the trainer is certified from, what they are certified in, and what level of certification they have. Here are the minimum certifications and affiliations recommended for every certified trainer and behaviorist.
- International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) Certified Dog Behavior Consultants (CDBC). The equivalent of a dog psychologist
- Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT)
- Fear-Free Training Certification
- Pet Professional Guild Member. A membership organization committed to positive reinforcement dog training that does not use damaging force, fear, or punitive devices on any dogs or parents. (corporal punishment)
- In other cases, if your dog behaviorist thinks your dog might need psychopharmaceuticals they will recommend a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist. The equivalent of a dog psychiatrist.
In addition, make sure to check each respective certification body to see how long they have been certified.
For example, I have been certified by the CPDT since 2011 and the IAABC since 2014.
However, take the certification start dates of a Certified Trainer and Behaviors with a grain of salt because well-meaning organizations come and go so frequently that I typically recommend and wait a few years before joining to allow the organization to get established (and make sure they “have legs”) before investing resources to become a member.
Also, make sure to check each organization’s website to see their level of certification.
For example, I have been a fully Certified Dog Behavior Consultant since 2014, just a few years after the inception of the organization. However, one may be an “associate certified member” vs. a “fully certified member”. It is essential to do thorough homework about a dog trainer and each organization.
Even more research and due diligence must be done in an unregulated industry compared to a regulated one.
Make sure to also look at the quality of education of each trainer, their experience, teaching style, accolades, media appearances, how long the teacher and company have been in the industry, trustworthiness, honesty, ethics, awards, recognition, results, professionalism, and the strict use of positive reinforcement dog training.
Certainly, you wouldn’t send your child to a nursery school that practices corporal punishment. Nor should you with your dog.
Most of my clients come from veterinarian recommendations, word of mouth and from parents that have already seen several dog trainers and behaviorists before me, so don’t give up.
That’s a great question and the most important one you can ask a dog trainer, behaviorist, or pet professional.
It’s how you can separate the wheat from the chaff.
One’s certifications (qualifications) should be easily seen all over a professionals website as they are on my header, footer, under my resources page, etc., at the very least to show pet parents that they care about their career and took the time, energy, thought and spent hundreds of hours, and years of professional practice to perfect their art, craft to make you feel comfortable and to help you and your pet in the most efficacious, humane, and compassionate way.
However, a business owner creates their website, so do your own independent due diligence. Go to the certification bodies of each claimed certification and check that the dog trainer is in good standing.
Are there reasons not to become a Certified Dog Trainer? Yes, there are!
- Cost – Sure, it can be costly, and timely to choose, teach and take continuing educations units each year, to renew certifications, become regulated and officially recognized by the state where you do business, and obtain bonding and liability insurance but it’s the very least a professional can do who values their career, you, your pet.
- Mission statements and ethics don’t align. For example, as a vegan, animal activist, and environmental-loving Buddhist, there are tons of business ideologies that do not align with what I embody. I have disassociated with several organizations over the decades as their mission statements, Board of Directors and management diverged from my beliefs. So I make the best choice I can and add caveats where I deem necessary such as with the LIMA protocol (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive) and the AKC (American Kennel Club)
- It’s a long and arduous process to become certified. That’s the idea. It can take years of professional work, with professional veterinarian recommendations, submission of videos, case studies, test-taking, submitting applications, etc. But this can easily be seen as a positive as well.
- Inevitably there is an overlap between many organizations’ certifications and subtle differences in ideologies. I align with some organization mission statements and Boards of Directors more than others.
The positives far outweigh the negatives to becoming certified. Dog training certification benefits everyone involved and hence I have been involved in various lobbying campaigns since the beginning of the millennia to ensure dog training regulation comes to fruition.
What is LIMA and why does it conflict with my morals, ethics, and values?
LIMA (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive) is a code of ethics that each certification holder pledges to uphold.
However, I practice non-harm to all sentient beings as a core value. Hence my ethics and morals do not align with LIMA that the dog training and behavior organizations that I am a part of and the certifications that I hold.
LIMA does not follow non-harm principles or animal rights’ five Freedoms. This is important to understand as the certification guidelines are minimal and do not hold members to practice non-harm towards you or your pet at their cores.
This is vital because of how the LIMA hierarchy interweaves into human psychology. For example, teachers tend to get frustrated, and more aversive in their behaviors, speech, and techniques the more their training or behavior modification protocols don’t work or don’t work fast enough.
When following LIMA, in step 6, punishment is permitted as a “last step.” Because of this glaring conflict of interest for someone that does not practice force or harm to others regardless of an organization’s hierarchy, it brings cognitive dissidence.
The dissension down the moral ladder from non-harm to harm will be swift and apparent the further along the process a trainer or behaviorist is unable to help you or your dog.
Further, reverting to force is inevitable if a trainer believes that force or harm is an option sanctioned by the very organization that they choose to join.
LIMA presents a glaring ethical concern for all those who practice and teach non-harm at the core of all interactions.
This is where my ethics and morals diverge from the organizations that promote and abide by LIMA. While it is true that some of my affiliated organizations follow LIMA, I do not believe in leaving the door open to use pain, force, or abuse to achieve dog training and behavior modification goals, when convenient.
When comparing the price of one trainer to the other, you have to make sure you are comparing apples to apples. Comparing a Certified Dog Behaviorist and Trainer to a non-certified one is like comparing apples to hammers or the prices, quality, and resources available of homeschooling to an investment in an Ivy League education.
Another analogy would be when traveling you can couch surf on a stranger’s couch you found online, or stay at the Four Seasons. They both offer shelters above your head but the experiences, quality and services couldn’t be any more different.
Besides a crude cost comparison, I covered some of the qualitative differences here of what makes a dog trainer great but here are some other important factors.
- Formal educational background – While not vital to becoming a successful and wonderful dog trainer, it is confidence building in parents that a trainer has at least a college, master’s degree, or some type of formal educational degree.
However wonderful and vital theoretical knowledge is, the application of that knowledge, and the art/mechanics of training are equally important because a trainer has to teach people AND apply that knowledge to teach the dog. And since the latter involves coordination, timing, speed, precision, accuracy, and latency, your trainer must also be coordinated and athletic.
- What dog training certifications and certificates do they have? This is very important and covered previously because you only want to hire a dog trainer who teaches you and your pet with compassion, understanding, acumen, an in-depth understanding of theoretical and practical knowledge and who does not use force or fear.
- Did your dog behaviorist go to a specific dog training school and continue their education? If so which ones and in what subject? Very few schools are good and most are a waste of time and money and won’t help a trainer or parent. If your trainer studied dog training tricks or obedience but your dog has separation anxiety or dog aggression, that’s not going to help you.
- Is dog training and behavior practice their full-time career? Or do they moonlight doing it while working other jobs?
- How many years have they been practicing dog training professionally? Do you want to work with a lawyer helping you who just passed their bar exam in the last few years or a seasoned lawyer with decades of experience, expertise and satisfied clients?
This could warrant an article by itself. Comparing services is difficult because each parent’s budget is different. However, there is always a Four Seasons and couch surfing in every industry.
When comparing dog trainers, it’s common for parents to do a cost comparison first. However when comparing the prices of a service (or thing) one must compare apples to apples. Comparing a Certified Dog Behaviorist and Trainer to a non-certified one is like comparing a run-down fraternity house to a Beverly Hills estate.
Certifications are just one of the many factors why there is such a large discrepancy in prices for dog training and pet services.
One dog trainer or behaviorist in a large city might charge $100 an hour while another charges $1,000 an hour. Likewise, one week of dog boot camp might be $1000 with a dog kennel facility and $10,000 with a Certified Trainer, Behaviorist and Nutirioinst with the highest credentials and experience in a private home.
However, at the very least, you should first search for is if the trainer(s) you are seeking out are both Certified by the same organizations, at the same level of certification and have the same amount of experience, expertise and skill.
You will pay more for an amateur dog trainer’s learning curve by needing many more training sessions. You will also pay more at the expense of your pet’s health, your bond with your pet, the accuracy of the information, and what you learn.
There are many other certification organizations however the ones previously mentioned are the bare minimum all dog trainers should have before you start a comparison amongst who you would like to work with.
Dog training is an investment in your family and best friend.
Dog training acts like compound interest where you will see lifelong results and are able to use your newfound knowledge for all pets, now and in the future. Secondly, the entire family is learning, not just one person.
You can pay more for a service the first time and get the most up-to-date, humane and correct advice and facts about your dog, his health, training, and behavior or you can spend many sessions spinning your wheels and going nowhere practicing damaging dog training techniques and unrecommended behavior modification protocols.
A quick time breakdown for a beginning dog training and behavior modification session will offer some perspective.
First Session Dog Training Approximate Time Breakdown:
- 2 hours of emails back and forth and filling out requisite forms, scheduling, studying behavior cases and preparing before arrival at client’s home (could easily be more)
- 1-2 hours to drive to a client’s home (could easily be an hour longer in Los Angeles traffic)
- 1-2 hours first session
- 1-2 hour drive back to the office (again, could easily be an hour longer in Los Angeles traffic)
- 2-3 hours to write a unique, comprehensive behavior analysis and detailed dog training plan with abundant supporting resources to set a client up for success
- 1-2 hours of follow-up emails (could easily be more)
So a conservative minimum time investment of a first dog training session, without considering any other business expenses or costs, is around 8 hours minimum if everything “goes as planned”. (I’m still waiting for everything to go as planned). I hope this helps elucidate the cost of a dog training session.
Cheap dog training costs too much! The adage holds true if you think a professional is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.
Certifications, continuing education units, insurance, business structures, and all formal business-related expenses cost tens of thousands of dollars each year. When someone chooses not to be certified and not to invest in their career, pets, and clients, they will save thousands of dollars every year and can charge very little (at your family and pet’s expense).
Careful, thorough, and comprehensive behavior modification and dog training with attention to detail are not scalable, or quick.
It has been my experience when I look for the lowest cost provider, that is the exact quality and service I get.
Certifications and education are mandatory but just a starting point in your search.
Comparing the best dog boot camp is even more important, complex, and nuanced.
There are many other factors to consider and questions to be asked before deciding on which Certified Dog Behaviorist or Trainer to hire.
Helpful questions and a checklist to guide your selection of a behaviorist and pet trainer and when to keep looking.
- If your dog trainer and behavior specialist are not certified by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), the CCPDT (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers), and Fear Free Pet Trainer.
- If someone guarantees dog training results, provides “deliverables,” or results in a certain period of time find another dog trainer. Not only are guarantees against the code of conduct and ethics of most ethical certification bodies but it is simply impossible and unethical to do. Would you go to any lawyer that guaranteed you would win a court case? Or to a doctor that promised you would live to 100 and never be sick a day in your life? Nor should you go to a trainer that guarantees results.
- If the dog trainer is not, bonded and insured (and to what amount and degree). A trainer should be all of the above and preferably not bonded & insured just to meet the minimum required level.
- A Service Agreement contract that spells out clearly and transparently all of the details of their business, transparent about both parties’ responsibilities that protect you, your dog, and a trainer.
No one should use legalese or intentionally trick you with loopholes in their service agreements. They should be very clear verbally and in writing and honor what they said and expect you to do the same. If not, find another dog trainer.
- Is your dog trainers company legally operating in your state? Check the Secretary of State’s website.
- Do they have a long list of continuing education courses and classes, they have taught and/or participated in regularly? If not, their dog training and dog behavior skills may be just as outdated. A lot can change in one year nevertheless decades.
On a side note, most retail dog/pet stores pay people poorly and employ poorly qualified trainers.
- Does the dog training company practices fear-free positive reinforcement dog training?
- If your dog behaviorist does not explain the science of dog training, ethology, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, habituation, and desensitization and counterconditioning I would think twice before hiring them and would find another dog trainer.
Caveat: Because “positive reinforcement dog training” is a marketing buzzword to attract clients, this in and of itself does not mean a great deal.
- If a trainer uses “corrections,” leash pops, practice archaic dominance theory, force or manipulate dogs into position, are confrontational, tells you that you need to be the pack leader, boss or uses any punitive equipment (choke chains, pronged collars, shock collars, “E” collars) run the other way.
Do not be fooled by catchphrases such as “balanced dog trainer”, “traditional dog trainer,” or “Modern Dog Trainer” make sure the dog trainer or behavior expert meets all of the requirements above or something very similar to fully understand how they train dogs and educate people. Read their website fully. What it says or doesn’t say will be a red flag.
- If they tell you to be the “alpha,” or that your dog is trying to be the “alpha” or to dominate you. If a trainer compares dogs to wolves, says that dogs are pack animals, (they’re not) advocates eating first, sleeping in a higher position, or postulates that you must go through a door first, walk in front of your dog on walks, or that your dog must be on your left side to show them who is boss and for you to be the leader of the pack find another dog trainer and ethologist quickly.
- If their website looks like they are trying to sell you something mysterious (dog whispering) or secretive proprietary dog training methods, find another dog trainer. If they claim to have some special secret technique or training methodology that no one else knows about that was passed down to them from the gods (or dogs). Any secrets that won’t be revealed or don’t make sense and can’t be scientifically proven and explained are huge red flags. There are no dog training secrets. It’s science.
- If they don’t require that your dog be up-to-date on basic vaccinations or don’t care if your puppy has all their vaccination before attending a dog training class or dog boot camp, find another puppy trainer.
- If they have a lot of confusing sales pitches, unverified claims or try to obfuscate their lack of credentials, it would be time to find another dog trainer.
- If they request to have a session alone with your dog, be especially careful. Dog boot camp and boarding and training are notorious environments for abuse. While I offer the antithesis to a dog kennel and boot camp, this is one of the services that are wildly known to be dangerous for dogs in uneducated, volume-based dog kennels or when in an amateur dog trainer’s hands.
- If you see a dog trainer claiming to practice positive reinforcement dog training and then hypocritically claim not to use treats, food, or rewards in all of their dog training methods I would find another dog trainer.
- If the images on a dog trainers website show dogs wearing choke chains, prong collars or shock collars (look for black boxes attached to a collar around a dogs neck) run the other way.
- If your trainer is seen poking, forcing, prodding, jerking, yanking or popping the leash, bullying or using any physical force or intimidation on the dog such as: staring, looming over the dog, making threatening gestures, forcing the dog to do something, or flooding an animal.
Sadly, all of the above are not only very common in Los Angeles but also all over the country. This is the unfortunate outcome of an industry with licensing and regulation.
Other caveats are that although the criteria for taking certification examinations and staying current are stringent, this does not mean that all trainers with CDBC, CPDT, and fear-free certifications are good!
I know plenty of doctors, lawyers and accountants that you couldn’t pay me to work with. Merely acquiring theoretical or practical knowledge about something does not make one proficient or even marginally equipped to create and execute a successful behavior modification protocol and/or to help teach a family.
In reality, it takes much more than a certification to be truly great at something.
The CDBC, CPDT, and Fear Free Trainer Certification are simply the bare minimum certification standards and starting point before you really dig in to find the best teacher, trainer, and behavior, specialist.
Check the animal behavior college and/or university the trainer attended, the certifications of each of the organizations that the dog trainer or behavior specialist belongs to, and make sure that they have the above qualifications from independent certification bodies that have no affiliations with any dog training schools.
Although not a panacea, as no licensing/regulations are, regulations are far more helpful than having none, and certifications are simply a starting point for a parent to begin their pet professional research.
It’s sad but true that more pets die each year from behavior problems than from any medical issues. Therefore all pet professionals would be well served to be certified and not just dog trainers and behaviorists.
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