Five of the area’s premier dogtrainers answer our questions

By Ranny Green

Your dog destroys a household item when you are away at work. Or maybe you’re afraid to take that new pooch for a walk because you can’t control it. Or that 3-year-old rescue dog you adopted recently isn’t exactly what you had bargained for.

Sound familiar? Now what do you do? Most would seek out a dog-obedience instructor or animal behaviorist in hopes of remedying the problem. But remember: There are no easy or quick fixes out there. It takes time, commitment and consistency to repair most behavioral issues.

Since Washington State does not require a license, anyone can claim to be a dog trainer. That’s when it becomes incumbent on you to do your homework and search out the best.

To help you, here are several key questions we posed to five highly respected long time experts and their responses.

The trainers are Colleen McDaniel, Academy of Canine Behavior, Bothell; Kathy Lang, Family Dog Training Center, Kent; Dana Babb, Paw-Abilities Total Dog Center, Fife; Steve Duno, pet behaviorist/author, Seattle; Dalene McIntire, obedience class instructor and obedience chair of the Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show, Renton.

Photo courtesy Family Dog Training Center. Ingrida Robinson, a Family Dog Training Center instructor, teaches an exercise to Boddington, a Polish Lowland Sheepdog.


Q: What is the most common problem you see with new owners and their dogs? 

CM: They want the dog to love them, so they work very hard to be nice to the dog and in the process may be setting themselves up for failure. We encourage them to understand that they are entering into a long-term relationship with the dog, and the key is two cornerstones: communication and respect.

KL: Misconceptions about dog behavior, household (pack) management and the need to be proactive.

DB: Lack of understanding the creature on the end of the leash. Most new dog owners treat their dogs like disobedient children.

SD: Dog-on-dog aggression, particularly during on-leash situations. An overall inability for dogs to be comfortable in social settings with dogs and strangers. As an underlying problem, it is inability of owners to understand what makes dogs tick, and how to treat them.

DM: Lack of control of their dog and no idea what to do about it. People try to put too many human emotions in their dog and can’t understand why the dog doesn’t appreciate all they do for it.

Q: If you were asked to recommend a training book to a frustrated dog owner, what would it be?

CM: There is a big difference between a training book that delves into the mechanics of training and many of the books that explain the broader picture of dog ownership. If a person could only get one book and want taste of many things that have to do with dog ownership, including training, I would recommend “Dog Training for Dummies,” by Jack and Wendy Volhard.

KL: I have yet to find one book that applies to every dog and every dog owner. In 35 years in this business, I’ve seen distinct changes in the way people learn. Today’s clients are more visually responsive and learn best when verbal instruction is supported with live demonstration.

Photo courtesy Family Dog Training Center.At the Family Dog Training Center in Kent, these four-legged students are on a stay command in sit and down positions.

DB: My favorite book is “Dog Training for Dummies” by Jack and Wendy Volhard. The book is simple to understand. As with all Dummies books, the sense of humor is inherent, the methods are common sense, proactive and positive.

SD: I usually have them read my book, “Be the Dog,” to get a deeper understanding of what makes dogs tick and why so many neophyte owners inspire canine misbehavior.

DM: I would recommend the “Koehler Method of Dog Training,” even though it has gone out of favor with people because of some of the harsh corrections.

Q: What are the chief values a new dog owner can take from a structured dog-obedience class?

CM: There are three reasons one would want to take his/her dog to a class: (1) Teach the dog things and get instruction on how to do that; (2) They have a dog that listens to them at home when nothing is going on, but the second distractions are introduced, the dog stops being obedient.  They need to attend class to work with the dog around other dogs and people; (3) Accountability. If you are signed up for a class you are more likely to work with your dog.

KL: In terms of economic value, for less than $20 a week, an owner will receive seven hours of classroom instruction from one of our professional trainers. In terms of moral values, the new owner will learn to: (1) Respect and understand his canine partner; (2) Have an appreciation for what it’s like to be a dog; (3) Take responsibility for lack of training or guidance that results in the dog’s misbehavior; (4) Appreciate the value of being proactive rather than reactive; (5) Marvel at the intelligence and intuitive skills of every canine; (6) Enjoy a positive relationship with, and be proud to own a well-trained dog.

Photo courtesy Academy of Canine Behavior. At the Academy of Canine Behavior, trainer Chaya Anderson practices a down command with a German shepherd.

DB: Training is something the dog and owner do together, as a team. The teams bonds more closely and both learn more about each other. Trust forms. With trust comes understanding and respect.

SD:  Routine and consistency: Owners need to understand that training is more of a sport, or an avocation, than it is a psychological or educational exercise. Calm, decisive action: The class should teach them to keep their cool, to be “calmly indifferent,” and to take necessary action, when called for. Indecision is poison to owner credibility.

DM: Learning to discipline their dog in a humane way and learning to be consistent in their approach to their training so they end up with a reliable dog, one that minds when asked to. Learning to think very basically when it comes to dogs, not put human reasoning into their dog.

Q: What should a dog owner ask when checking out a trainer’s credentials?

CM: Identify your goals first. I see so many people who want to “train” their dog but have no idea what they want to train the dog to do. Once you establish what you want, you will have a better idea of what trainer will be able to help you realize those goals. As you build a relationship with your dog, you are entering into a relationship with your trainer.  Ask these questions: Is the trainer a good communicator? Is he/she knowledgeable enough to earn your respect?

KL: How long have you been training dogs professionally? What have you personally accomplished with your own dogs? What are some of your students’ accomplishments? Describe your training philosophy? How do you feel about positive reinforcement and the use of food in training? How do you feel about corrections in training? How do you deal with shy and fearful dogs? How do you deal with aggressive dogs? Can my family (children) attend and participate in class?

DB: Why are you a dog trainer? May I meet your dogs? May I sit in on a class session of my choosing? May I talk freely with your students? Do you have experience with my breed? How long have you been training dogs? What are you primary methods and why? What is your fee structure for classes?

SD: References, please? Do you have any positive press or published material? What is your overarching training philosophy?  (Look for a pragmatic approach that does not preach one method, but instead teaches adaptability/versatility according to dog, owner and environment.)

DM: Even though most people are not interested in showing, they should avoid those who say they don’t train for shows. My graduations (at the end of 10 weeks) are run like a novice class at a dog show. Those who decide they want to show are prepared; those who do not end up with a well-trained dog. People should ask to look in on a training class to see how the work is accomplished and observe the trainer’s attitude.

Q: If you had to select only one of these as the best source for finding a good dog trainer, which would it be and why: (1) friend; (2) relative; (3) veterinarian; (4) co-worker; (5) breeder; (6) pet-store manager?

CM: A good breeder understands their breed and what the genetics are going to bring to the equation. Also, a good breeder is going to be there to answer your questions about any training program in which to enroll.

Photo courtesy Academy of Canine Behavior. While trainer Becca Graham focuses on a German shepherd, another Academy of Canine Behavior instructor helps others.

KL: A friend, because of first-hand experience and word-of-mouth referrals. The “friend’ who has taken a class or private lesson from the trainer has the advantage of knowing you, as well as the trainer, and can give specific examples of how you and your dog will benefit  from that trainer’s instructions.

DB: A friend – friends are far more honest with you than a co-worker. There is a better chance to see the dog in several settings and watch how your friend interacts with the dog and how the dog interacts with the owner.

SD: A friend.

DM: None of the above. People should seek advice from someone who has a well-behaved dog or visit some classes they have heard about. See what kind of results the students are getting and talk to some of them following class to get their opinion.

Q: When a frustrated dog owner comes to you after having met with little or no success with another obedience instructor, what is usually the No. 1 reason?

CM: They may have a problem that takes a better understanding of behavior instead of simply being a training issue. Many things factor into a dog’s behavior. Training is surprisingly only a piece.  Once you can help people understand why their dog is doing something, it takes a lot of frustration out of the problem and opens the door to more success in resolving it.

KL: Lack of expertise. Many of our clients come to us after they’ve dropped out of other programs because the training philosophy and/or techniques were ineffective for various reasons, including (1) The instructor did not offer alternative techniques when a method didn’t work; (2) The instructor did not adjust techniques to suit the breed’s characteristics; (3) Classes were too large and/or out of control; (4) There was no formal lesson plan; (5) The client’s dog had a bad experience in the class.

DB: Lack of connection with the trainer or with the trainer’s methods. “The trainer didn’t like me” or “the trainer didn’t like my dog” is consistent with this reasoning. Generally, it means that the owner didn’t understand the method used or how it pertains to his/her dog.

SD: Often, the trainer he/she tried stuck to a rigid philosophy and could not adapt to the limitations of the situation.

DM: They have gone to someone who trains with treats. It gives people great immediate success, but not reliability, especially if you forgot to bring your treats. It not only takes longer to get solid results, but the reliability is lacking.

Photo courtesy Paws-Abilities 2009. Instructor Suzanne Bolwell, left, offers praise to Diane Funai and her golden retriever Lily at a Paws-Abilities training session.

Q: List some of the values need to be a longtime, highly respected dog trainer?

CM:  Being honest with the client, even if you have to tell him/her something he/she may not want to hear. And not knocking someone else’s training program.

KL: Professionalism; integrity; outstanding communication skills; passion; respect, understanding and empathy for dog owners; respect, understanding and empathy for the dogs; excellent class-management skills; knowing the difference between training dogs and teaching people; proven personal success with his/her own dogs; proven track record of success with clients’ dogs; demonstrated willingness to “give back” to the dog world and dog-owning community.

DB: Being non-judgmental and patient and having a sense of humor. Treating all clients with respect, regardless of age or ability and working with them to develop their strengths and skills. Developing the ability to connect with clients, both canine and human, while building a sense of trust in both.  Most importantly, understanding that there are no stupid questions and having the ability to answer such a question as though it was the most interesting question you’ve heard.

SD: Success, versatility, tenacity, speed and confidence, coordination, imagination, good with people, originality.

DM: The same values you would want in anyone you deal with or in your friends. While money is involved in dog training, never let it be your top priority.

Q: What is your approach when a client brings in a young rescue dog with an unknown past for training?

CM:  We offer free evaluations so that we can see the dog and spend some time talking to the owner to get as much history and background as possible. This gives us the opportunity to observe the dog in a relatively non-threatening environment and also to get a feel for what type of person the owner is.

KL: All new clients complete a questionnaire prior to meeting with us for the first time. The questionnaire is more extensive for private lesson clients who are usually meeting with us for specific and/or behavior issues.

DB: First, observe the dog. How does it hold itself? How does it feel about itself? This can tell you a great deal about the dog’s life experience. If the dog is willing to be touched, a physical and structural evaluation would be next. If you are unable to perform a hands-on, a visual examination will still provide some information. The next step would be to evaluate the possible relationships it had with other humans.  Does it use its nose to meet someone new, or does it use its eyes? Is it hand-shy or does it come up to be petted? How does it react to a steady gaze? Does it take a treat willingly, suspiciously or not at all? Will it take a toy and bring it to the human to play? All the information gathered is shared with the owner during the evaluation. I also advise he/she take the dog to his/her veterinarian for a thorough examination.

SD: Evaluate dog and owner, behaviorally, physically, concentrating on moods, energy and attitudes. Watch posture and sociability of both. Draw upon experience to ascertain the situation and develop a training plan.

DM: Start them on a solid training program, which will enable owner and dog to bond. Do not use the fact the dog is a rescue dog as an excuse as to why the owner is having trouble training it. Dogs live in the here and now and don’t dwell on the past, except in the rare case where the animal is mentally or genetically unsound.

Q: What do you do to sharpen and update your training skills?

CM: We are active in the whole dog community, and have competed in most venues that are available for owners to compete in with their dogs. We still read books, articles and go to seminars, but the biggest teachers we have are the dogs themselves. Each one brings another tiny piece to a very big picture.

KL: I read nearly every new dog book published and subscribe to a variety of newsletters and magazines. I also read a wide range of general business and psychology materials to better understand the science of humans and how we learn. My instructors receive ongoing educational support and monitoring from me. My students are my greatest teachers . . . and inspiration!

DB: I read new training manuals, attend classes and interact with other trainers who I respect. The trainer who insists on using the one method or approach that he/she started with years ago and refuses to adapt to or recognize new approaches is doing his or her clients a huge disservice. It’s extremely important to be aware of new trends and approaches in our industry.

SD: Take on hard cases, sometimes for free, to keep sharp. Vary techniques and evaluate successes or failures. Spend time watching dogs and owners in public parks, walking out and about. Read a variety of books.

DM: I used to go to a lot of training clinics, but decided Koehler was the best and have just stuck to his training for 45 years with much success. Most of the seminars today are food-oriented and I don’t believe in that.








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