D is for dog

Danielle Haywood, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Buyer beware!


Buyer beware! What to look for in a professional dog trainer.

If you’re thinking about hiring a dog trainer for any reason, first of all, pat yourself on the back for being a responsible dog owner! However, you should be warned, that the field is unregulated. While it’s illegal to pretend to be a doctor when you’re not, and hair stylists need to be licensed in order to work – anyone can simply claim to be a dog trainer, whether they know what they’re doing or not. Horror stories abound; I’ve heard plenty first-hand accounts from clients who worked with other trainers before me and I’ve personally seen not only misinformation but also physical abuse take place under the guise of training. It’s important to know that not all dog trainers are created equally, there is much more to dog training than opinion and personal experience.


So here’s what to look for:

  • Degree.  Look for formal education; undergrad degrees in psychology or zooology, graduate degrees in those or similar fields, like biology, anthrozoology, animal behavior, or applied behavioral analysis. Not everyone goes to college, and that’s okay, but ideally a professional has some kind of education or proof thereof, maybe a certificate from a reputable trade school or other certification.
  • Certificate. There are some trade schools for dog trainers which offer certificates. The best ones by far are the Academy for Dog Trainers (aka Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers or SF SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers) whose graduates achieve a Certificate in Training & Counseling (CTC) and the Karen Pyror Academy, which might be proudly listed after a trainer’s name with the designation of KPA CTP (Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner). There are other certificate programs and certificates for particular subjects as well.

Certification. This one’s important! A certificate for completing a program and an independently earned certification aren’t actually the same thing. You will see letters behind trainer’s names sometimes, different certifications mean different things. The acronyms listed in BOLD below are titles you want to see!

A good standard for any dog trainer is CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA (Certified Professional Dog Trainer). Even better would be CTT-A (Canine Training Technician) or PCT-A (Professional Canine Trainer).

If you’re working with behavior, there are more advanced certifications: CBCC-KA (Certified Behavior Consultant Canine) or CDBC (Certified Dog Behavior Consultant), and PCBC-A (Professional Canine Behavior Consultant).

There are also certifications for specific subjects or types of training, such as the OSCT (Operation Socialization Certified Trainer) and CBATI (Certified Behavioral Adjustment Training Instructor). And Victoria Stilwell approves select trainers to represent her values as VSPDT (Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training).

Behaviorists have their own designations, too: ACAAB, CAAB, DACVB. Note that a behaviorist is either a veterinarian who also studied behavior (veterinary behaviorist) or someone with an advanced degree (MA or PhD) in animal behavior. If someone calls themselves a “dog behaviorist”, ask which one they are! 😉

  • Membership to professional organizations. Memberships act as a support and networking group to learn from and contribute to. They might also have professional requirements or practical and ethical standards which its members must adhere to. Look for trainers who are members of organizations like the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), the International Association of Animal Behavioral Consultants (IAABC), the Pet Professionals Guild (PPG).
  • Keywords. Not all good trainers go to school or have certification yet, they may be working on it. So look for at least a mention of it, as well as certain keywords on their website, in their pamphlet or flyer, or when you speak on the phone with them. You want to hear about “positive training”, “reward-based training”, “force-free training” and words like “teach” or “guide”. The trainer should describe how they’re going to help you teach your dog what TO DO by giving or possibly removing rewards, not by doling out harsh punishment. Beware of words like “correction” that are focused on telling the dog what NOT to do and may include using fear or pain, “balanced” methods which seek to reward your dog for good behavior as well as “correct” their bad behavior, or words like “alpha” or “pack leader” that imply you should be the boss and overpower your dog – this myth is out-dated and erroneous.

If you are reading a trainer’s bio on their website, or a dog walker or pet-sitter for that matter, and their sole claim is that they “really love dogs!”, please don’t hire them based on that alone. We all love dogs! The length of time they’ve dabbled in dog training and how much they charge are not necessarily indicators of expertise or quality service, either. Typically you will not be saving money by hiring someone without credentials; short-term it may appear that way, however, their lack of knowledge and/or skill can be not only counter-productive to your training goals but also even dangerous to your dog. Like many professionals, I’m often hired to undo damage done by other trainers, and my clients always express regret at not having known to look for credentials in the first place. By knowing what to look for, you are better able to make the right decision the first time for you and your beloved pet.

The Humane Society of Boulder Valley was hiring a dog trainer recently, this is what they required and you should too!

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Links to the trade schools and professional organizations mentioned above can be found on the ‘Links’ page of main menu, if not linked here. Please note that I’ve intentionally named only the best – if you see credentials from other schools, they may or may not be good ones. If you’d like help screening a potential dog trainer based on their qualifications, please send me a link to their info! I’d be happy to help.

Best wishes in your training endeavors!


For more information:

How to Choose a Dog Trainer according to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers

4PawsUniverstity’s How to Choose a Dog Trainer

How to Find the Best Trainer for Your Dog from the Whole Dog Journal

How to Hire a Dog Trainer according to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists



  1. This is one awesome blog post.Very thorough!

  2. that i can think you’re a professional on this subject.

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