Dog training 101 — How to set realistic goals and where to get started : Life Kit If you recently searched the internet for "dog trainers near me," there's a good chance you became immediately overwhelmed by the options, certifications and vocabulary. There is a lot of information out there! So we consulted some experts on where to start. Here's what they say.

Dog training 101 — How to set realistic goals and where to get started

Dog training 101 — How to set realistic goals and where to get started

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Winnie, Samantha Balaban's dog, shakes hands with her human. Balaban says dogs can benefit from working with a trainer, whether it's to improve their skills, manners or behavior. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Winnie, Samantha Balaban's dog, shakes hands with her human. Balaban says dogs can benefit from working with a trainer, whether it's to improve their skills, manners or behavior.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include additional precautions on e-collar and shock collar training that are addressed in the audio portion of the story. Listen to the episode above for more information.


My (Samantha's) dog, Winnie, has always barked at the door — be it for the mail carrier or her best friends. This was always a little annoying but manageable. Until we moved into a condo in D.C. with nine units. That's nine doors, plus the front door, and Winnie was barking at all of them.

I tried saying "UH UH" and pointing my finger angrily. She was unmoved. I tried giving her a treat every time she stopped barking. She still barked. I tried separating us by a door. I tried to never schedule another Zoom meeting ever again.

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Then I tried calling a trainer.

"Helping the dog feel comfortable in its skin, comfortable in the lifestyle that you have together — that is a really good basic goal that I would have for every dog out there," says Kayla Fratt, a certified dog behavior consultant and owner of Journey Dog Training.

No matter the case — whether you recently brought a puppy home from the breeder or have had your dog for years — all dogs can benefit from training throughout their lives.

But where to begin the process? If you recently searched the internet for "dog trainers near me," there's a good chance you became immediately overwhelmed by the options, certifications and vocabulary. There is a lot of information out there! So we consulted some experts on where to start. Here's what they say:

Identify your training goals

Margo, Winnie and Zero show off their skills in the gifs below. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Margo, Winnie and Zero show off their skills in the gifs below.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

There are (essentially) two levels of dog training. If you're interested in skills training, or basic manners, such as teaching your dog to sit, stay and lie down, that's the realm of a dog trainer. If your dog has a behavior problem — anxiety, aggressiveness, fearfulness — then what you need is a dog behavioral consultant, like Brianna Dick of Pack Leader Help.

"The way that I approach dog training is behavioral psychology based," says Dick, who is a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals. "We're not looking at just the physical behaviors of dogs. We're looking at their emotions and the relationship they have with their humans."

If you need both skills training and behavior training, start with the more complicated of the two: behavior training. A dog behavior consultant will also be well-versed in teaching your dog how to sit, but a dog trainer will be much less equipped to help your dog deal with separation anxiety.

Be realistic.

As Fratt says, "Just like not every human is going to learn to love going to raves, not every dog is going to learn to love going to the dog park."

Kim Brophey is an applied ethologist, a family dog mediator and the owner of The Dog Door Behavior Center. She also wrote a book titled "Meet Your Dog: The Game Changing Guide To Understanding Your Dog's Behavior." Brophey uses a framework called L.E.G.S (learning, environment, genetics, self) to explain dog behavior. Say, for example, your dog is barking at your guests.

"That might be a breed of dog that was selected for hundreds of years to defend against people walking in your front door," says Brophey. Since you can't train away a German shepherd's genetic impulse to defend its territory, you may need to change your expectations, instead.

Decide how you'd like to train your dog.

A greyhound against a pink backdrop shows how to sit

Notes

Zero demonstrates the command "sit."

When it comes to training methods, you have a few options: group classes, one-on-one training, board and train, day training and self-led training, to name the most common. Group classes are cheaper but less personalized. Board and train facilities are more expensive and riskier, says Fratt.

"If the trainer spends all this time training the dog in this really specific context and then basically just hands you the leash, takes your check and walks away, there's a very good chance you're not actually going to be able to implement those new strategies and skills ... successfully in your home."

Your choice will depend on your budget and your training goals. For example, if your dog is acting aggressively towards another dog in your home, that's probably not well-served by training that takes place outside of your home.

Also know that you will have to be involved in training your dog, but it doesn't have to take up a huge chunk of your day. Fratt says she spends about five minutes a day on training. A lot of the homework that trainers will give you can also be fun, and is easy to work into your everyday life.

If you don't want to pay a lot of money for dog training, our experts suggest these free or low-cost resources you can find online:

  • Kikopup on Youtube and Instagram 
  • Fenzi Dog Sports Academy
  • K9 of Mine

Dick has also compiled some free resources on her website, and Fratt has a series called Training Tuesday Free Lessons.

Understand the methodologies.

A dachshund jumps up to touch the hand of a person

Notes

Margo demonstrates the command "touch."

Dog training is a completely unregulated field, meaning anyone with a website, Instagram page or storefront can claim to be a dog trainer. This also means that there is no definitive rule book for what methods to use when training a dog, and many trainers disagree. Many trainers, though, fall into two broad categories:

The first is positive reinforcement trainers like Fratt. Positive reinforcement means giving your dog something good — like a treat — when they do something good, so they repeat the behavior. Or giving your dog something good so they associate something (they think is) scary with having a positive experience.

The second is balanced trainers like Brianna Dick. Balanced trainers use positive reinforcement methods, but are also more willing to incorporate corrections, like e-collars, into their training.

E-collar training involves "a collar that your dog wears, which you control via remote, that emits a stimulus to your dog's neck — a shock, sound or, say, a citronella spray — whenever they need a correction," Dick explains. E-collars are divisive in the dog training community, especially the ones which emit a shock.

Dick says to be wary of any trainer who uses e-collars on every dog. "That is cookie cutter, and it's never going to garner very good results," she says. "You want someone who is getting to know you, your relationship, your lifestyle with your dog."

Find a good trainer.

Gif of a medium sized dog following a trainer's finger around in a circle

Notes

Winnie demonstrates the command "spin."

If what you need is a solid list of positive reinforcement trainers or balanced trainers in your area, a good place to start is with lists compiled by various professional associations. There are many, including:

  • International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC)
  • Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT)
  • The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT)
  • Karen Pryor Academy (KPA)
  • Pet Professional Guild
  • The Academy for Dog Trainers
  • Pat Miller Certified Trainers

And then do interviews! Call former clients. See which trainer makes you feel most comfortable. Make sure they can explain their training methods.

Don't rule out medication.

It can be scary to change your dog's brain chemistry. But if your dog is experiencing fear, anxiety, panic or aggression, that can't be treated by training alone. And you should treat it like the medical condition it is.

"It's kind of like having a patient with diabetes, right? You don't not give your dog insulin for its diabetes, because that's what it needs to maintain the appropriate level of hormones in its body," says Dr. Andrea Y. Tu, a behavior veterinarian and the medical director at NYC Behavior Vets.

"At the end of the day, this is a chemical imbalance. And it needs to be treated."

What if you've tried everything — from positive reinforcement training, balanced training, medication to switching trainers — and nothing has worked? Maybe your dog just can't get over his fear of your children, or she is too scared to pee outside on a busy city street. At the end of the day, and this is not a fun topic to bring up, you may come to the conclusion that your home is not the best fit for your dog.

"It's hard, but I do think rehoming, if you have a great option for a dog ... where all the conditions can be set up to provide for that dog, then it can be the best move," says Brophey.

It shouldn't be shameful to consider rehoming. Sometimes it's the most loving decision you could make. But we hope this isn't the case for you! There are many things you can try to train your dog before you get to that point.

As Fratt says, most dogs are imminently trainable: "It's never really too late for a dog to learn, and it's never really too late to bring the dog to a trainer."


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Janet W. Lee.

Thanks to Samantha Balaban, Meredith Rizzo and Meghan Keane for sharing the talents of their dogs, Winnie, Zero and Margo respectively.

We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

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