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February 27, 2015

At some point, many independent retailers decide to take a page from big-box superstores and offer dog training classes in their establishments. Others can’t offer obedience classes due to space constraints but like the idea of presenting dog and cat problem-solving lectures. And yet others, while not interested in offering classes at their locations, are open to referring their customers to dog trainers. In every case, retailers need to know what credentials and experience to look for and what questions to ask a prospective dog trainer.

What to Look for in a Trainer

During the interview process, the first step is to evaluate the trainer’s education and experience. When considering a candidate, formal education is important but not mandatory, provided that the trainer has at least 7 to 10 years of full-time professional experience. Formal education means being a graduate of a dog training school and/or having a degree in animal behavior.

Full disclosure, I am the president of Animal Behavior College, a school that teaches and certifies professional dog trainers. But there are thousands of great trainers who have graduated from other schools. Karen Pryor Academy and Starmark Academy are just two of the many that offer vocational dog trainer education. Certifications are available from some vocational institutions and/or from organizations such as Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) and International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP).

Experience is critical. Because the dog trainer will either directly or indirectly represent you and your store, the best combination to look for would be someone with a formal education, including certification, combined with years of experience.

Next, you must determine which training methods you will offer. Currently, there is a great deal of controversy in the dog training world about which methods are best and which ones are to be avoided. Many trainers focus on teaching and strengthening desired behaviors by strongly rewarding them, while at times ignoring behaviors they don’t like. The theory is that proper behaviors will—in time—become stronger than improper ones. Some trainers focus on correcting undesired behavior using different types of punishment and still others combine the two by positively rewarding desired behavior and using punishment to lessen unacceptable behavior.

In my experience, I have found that the most effective trainers are open to a variety of methods and base their choices on each individual’s issues and circumstances. Of course, most trainers follow the adage “do no harm,” meaning that the method used cannot injure or traumatize the dog in any way.

What to Ask

How do you know what will be best for your clients? Speak with the prospective trainer and ask how he or she would counsel a customer with a particular issue, for example, a dog who jumps all over people. Examine the answer and how it’s given. This can provide insight into what the individual may be like to work with. Does the trainer explain the solution to you in a clear, easy-to-understand fashion? Or, does he or she preach to you and use behavioral jargon that you don’t entirely understand and/or you’re pretty sure your customers won’t understand either? Do the training methods seem overly harsh or punitive? Will this be someone you think your customers will listen to and learn from? Would you want this person interacting with you, your family and your pet?

Assuming you believe the trainer has sufficient education and experience and you are comfortable with their personality and delivery, the next step is to ask for professional references. Any trainer with years of experience should be able to offer contact information for a few referring veterinarians, other pet stores, kennels and/or groomers. Ask for two or three and give each a call. Have these folks had complaints about the trainer? If yes, how were they handled? Is the feedback positive?

If the references check out, this is a person you most likely can feel safe referring to your hard-earned customers.

Depending on your needs and circumstances, there may be other things to research before making the decision to hire and/or work with a dog trainer. Though this is just a preliminary guide, it does provide the essential first steps to consider prior to adding obedience classes to your store’s list of services.

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