Choosing a dog trainer is just like choosing the school your kids are going to go to. The decision you make is going to determine important things like how your dog behaves for the next 15+ years, the methods you use, and will even effect your dog’s personality.
It can be hard to pick out a dog trainer. Sure, you can look at reviews, but since your dog is an individual, and so are you, you really need to pick out a trainer based on your own criteria and not someone else’s.
However, if you are new to the dog training world, or haven’t been in it for a while, then you may get confused by all the language we trainers tend to thrown around, forgetting that you may not understand.
So, here is a list of jargon words you may hear when you are deciding on your next trainer.
This has become one those “vogue” words that everyone throws around nowadays. And, if you are new to the industry, you may think that any trainer using these words uses only positive reinforcement (treats, praises, toys, etc) with no punishments (corrections). However, there is a very broad spectrum of positive trainers out there – from those that believe in a “balance” of reward and punishment to those that are purely positive – and everything in between.
Your dog trainer should be able to clearly and concisely tell you their training philosophy so you know what to expect going in.
In the family of positive reinforcement are clicker trainers. I have had a lot of people think the clicker is the signal for the dog to do something (like whistling at your dog to get him to come). However, the clicker comes after a behavior a dog does to let them know they did the right thing. Other trainers use verbal markers (another jargon term) such as “yes” or “good.”
On the purely positive side of positive training. Force-free training means your dog is never corrected or coerced into doing something. There are not many truly force-free trainers out there. For example, my herding instructor is a true “Force-free” trainer. When my puppy decides he is going to sit at the fence and bark for 15 minutes, we wait him out, wait for the good, and then reward. Most positive trainers would find it acceptable to remove him from the situation by leading (pulling may be in involved in this situation). They are still not correcting the dog, but some force is involved.
Ever see this on a site and wonder what the heck that means? They are referring to correction training. And, again, there is a spectrum – from using shock collars and “hanging dogs” (lifting them by the leash until their feet are off the ground) to using a combination of corrections like leash pops and positive rewards. Again, your trainer should be able to explain their philosophy accurately. Beware of the trainer that is elusive about their methods used, they may be harsher than you would like.
Ever had a trainer tell your dog was a resource guarder but then leave you to figure out what that meant? We tend to forget that not everyone is a dog geek. Resource guarding is a serious behavior issue where you dog guards whatever “resource” she deems important. It can be food, toys, beds, people, anything.
Another term dog trainers use a lot, without thinking about it. Reactivity is what it sounds like: your dog reacting to his environment by lounging, barking, growling, etc. This is the important part: it is not necessarily aggression! A lot of people think dog trainers are using reactivity as a nicer word for aggression, but most dogs do not react out of pure aggression. It can also be fear, excitement, an impulse control issue (like my dog with sheep, for example, where he can’t control his instinct to chase and gets frustrated when he is on leash and unable to do so), to name a few. That is not to say it can’t be aggression, it can, but it is not synonymous.
Some of you may dimly remember this from a human development class you took as an undergrad. But, like most things we learn is school, it probably is just a faint memory. However, for dog trainers, especially positive dog trainers, it is a foundation upon which we build a lot of our training plans around. Basically, classical conditioning is where you pair something in your dog’s environment with a positive reward, so your dog starts associating that “something” with the reward. The most famous example is Pavlov’s dogs, who started to drool when they heard the bell, because it had been paired with the bringing of food enough times that, to the dog, the bell now equated to getting food.
With all of our dogs having to get along in urban setting, counter conditioning has become more and more important. Like classical, you are pairing something with a reward your dog likes, but in this case it is something that your dog dislikes, fears, hates, etc., in order to change (counter) his response. For example, a dog is scared of people but if you pair people with say, steak, enough times, your dog will start equating people with steak and now people are not so scary.
These are just a few “top tier” terms that dog trainers use and forget to explain. If the trainer you are interviewing says something you don’t understand – ask! It not only shows that you’re really invested in your dog’s training, but it will show you how well the trainer really knows his stuff.
About the Author
Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She is the founder of, A Fairytail House, a unique all-positive all-sport dog training facility that helps rescue dogs in her area and provides free seminars and training classes for the community. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.
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