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Q: I recently adopted a female 2-year-old pit bull mix, and I want to start training right away. She definitely looks like a pit bull, which is causing some concern amongst my neighbors, so I know I need to go over and above to make sure her behavior is good. I grew up with a couple dogs but have never put one through training and I'm not sure how to go about selecting the right trainer or training program. Can you offer any guidance?
A: Congratulations on the new member of your family and a big THANK YOU for adopting. As a pit bull advocate myself, I appreciate your responsible approach to training and your understanding of the reality of the public's perception of this breed. We can yell all we want about how misunderstood this breed is, but nothing speaks louder than a well-behaved ambassador.
Getting into training right away is a great way for you to create a healthy bond with your dog, and for your dog to start understanding what behavior is acceptable. Whether you choose to go to a group class or work privately with a trainer, you'll want to do your due dilligence to make sure it will be a good fit for you and your dog.
Use the following list of questions when interviewing potential dog trainers to ensure you’re hiring someone experienced and trustworthy:
1. What dog training methods do you use?
You’ll want to know how the trainer teaches your dog a particular behavior. Make sure you’re comfortable with the process. Is there a "correction" or "consequence" component to the training or is it all rewards based? Learn what you can about the different methodologies before deciding what you're comfortable with.
2. How long have you been training dogs?
More years in the business doesn’t always mean a better trainer, but someone who’s been doing it for a long time has seen a wide variety of behaviors and has hopefully learned from their experiences.
3. Where did you receive your training?
Anyone can say they’re a dog trainer; it’s an unregulated industry. Make sure the trainer you choose is certified through a training school, such as NationalK9 or Animal Behavior College. Ask if the person has experience outside of training schools, such as with animal shelters or rescues, which represents a different and useful skill set.
4. Do you participate in continuing education programs to keep your expertise up to date?
A good dog trainer will be able to discuss the latest research and emergence of the latest techniques and tools in the industry. They should also be able to direct you to informational web sites and publications and shouldn’t hesitate to do so.
5. Do you have experience with my dog's breed?
Although not an absolute, pure bred dogs tend to share similar characteristics. It’s helpful if the trainer you choose has worked with your dog’s breed.
6. Have you worked with dogs that have issues like mine?
Dogs are unique individuals with different temperaments and drives, so no dog will be exactly like yours. However, you’ll want to choose a trainer who has dealt with situations like yours before. A good trainer will be able to identify when they’re out of their depth and will gladly refer you to another professional.
7. Can I speak to a former client or do you have written testimonials?
A good dog trainer WANTS you to ask this question and knows that happy clients are what keep his or her reputation sparkling and business thriving. Ask for a referral to a client or two with situations similar to yours.
8. How long will it take before I begin to see results with my dog?
A good trainer should answer this question thoughtfully. There’s no one correct answer; it depends on you, your lifestyle, and your particular dog. But don’t be surprised if a trainer says you’ll see results immediately, especially if your dog spends one-on-one time with a trainer. A good trainer knows how to evaluate your dog’s unique drives and tap into them in short order.
9. Will I be able to continue training my dog once he is finished with your program?
A good dog trainer knows that if the owner can’t replicate the training at home, it won’t work. Be sure the trainer you hire emphasizes the importance of follow-up and is clear about his or her availability after your dog has completed training.
10. What are your rates?
Make sure you understand the full scope of the training program and the cost associated with it from beginning to end. Ask if any equipment you’ll need is included in the cost of the program, and if you get a discounted rate should you decide to seek advanced training.
In addition to finding the right trainer, in your case you might find it helpful to find a meet-up group or advocacy group so you (and your dog!) can socialize with like-minded individuals. One of my favorites for pit bulls is local: Chako Pit Bull Rescue & Advocacy . They offer breed-specific workshops and social opportunities where you're both bound to make some new friends.