Decoding the language of dog trainers
Looking for a dog trainer should be fairly easy, right? You get on Google and search for “dog trainer” or maybe “dog trainer, city.” You get a page full of results. How do you know which dog trainer to choose? Which one is the best? Which one is the most budget friendly? In search of these answers, most people go to the reviews. Reviews are just as frustrating, because all the trainers have 5-star reviews, and you don't even know if they're real, because the review-writing industry is booming. So what are you supposed to do?
Choosing the right trainer for your dog is just as important as choosing the right daycare or preschool for your child. This choice affects your dog’s future, just like the right daycare affects your child’s future. An equal amount of effort needs to be spent researching each website and checking off your must-haves and must-not-haves. Still, it’s fairly easy to interpret a daycare’s website. A dog trainer’s website may be full of terms and abbreviations you aren’t familiar with. In the following paragraphs, I will help you interpret the language on their pages.
Methods of Training
Traditional/Compulsion/Force. There aren’t as many of these trainers around as there used to be. These trainers use force and coercion to train dogs. They do not believe in rewarding dogs for behaving as they’re asked. These trainers use techniques such as hurting a dog until it obeys, then stopping. You may see one of these trainers subduing an aggressive dog with two people holding the end of slip leashes while the dog thrashes in between them. They are also known to punish dogs by “helicoptering” them, which is where they grab the leash and whip the dog around the air above their head before slamming them down into the ground. If the dog resists in any way, they do it again. Not all of these trainers employ these punishments, but a number of them still do.
Balanced. This refers to a trainer who uses both positive reinforcement when a dog correctly responds to a cue and applies punishment when the dog does not. Punishment comes in the form of leash pops and/or use of slip leads, prong collars, and shock collars. This method may seem logical to most people, because isn’t that how we traditionally teach children? Give them candy when they’re good and spank them or yell at them when they’re bad. People in this camp also mention that this is the way a mother dog teaches its puppy, which makes it a natural way to train (not a valid argument, because we aren't dogs). Many balanced trainers advertise themselves as positive reinforcement so potential clients will make the assumption this is the only method they use, but a deeper dig into the photos on their website and social media will show you they use prong and shock collars.
LIMA. This is an abbreviation for “Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive.” Trainers who follow this directive follow the Humane Hierarchy, which proposes a path for training interventions starting at the very least aversive (positive reinforcement) and escalating all the way to the most aversive (applying punishment). Trainers who follow this guideline will reserve the most aversive punishment as a last resort to save a dog from euthanasia. You will find this abbreviation on some trainers’ websites. In short, this means that this trainer will start with positive reinforcement, do their best to keep using positive reinforcement, but will not rule out the use of punishment as a last resort.
Force Free. Force free trainers believe that there is never a reason to use punishment to train a dog. A force free trainer will work to determine and meet the needs of the dog, whether they are emotional or physical. A force free trainer focuses on giving the dog the right to make their own choices when it’s appropriate and won’t compromise the health or safety of the dog. They also work closely with the client to teach the client how to meet their dogs’ needs, and they help the client understand the training process. This type of trainer makes it a point to work equally with the client and the dog.
In the US, there are a lot of certifications a trainer can obtain. If you see a certification you’re not familiar with, do your due diligence to see what it represents and the requirements for obtaining and maintaining it. This article does a wonderful job of breaking down the possible certifications, their abbreviations, and what they require and represent. It also describes the difference between a dog trainer, behavior consultant, and behaviorist, which can be a confusing but important distinction to make. It’s an excellent resource to bookmark as you wade your way through the different websites.
Words, words, words...
I want to point out the nuances of the words trainers with different approaches will often use on their websites. Why is this important? Because words matter. The words we choose to use are imbued with nuance that can cause you to lean toward or against an idea. Think about the difference between Gay Marriage and Marriage Equality. The second phrase lends a very different interpretation to this movement than the first. When people started referring to Gay Marriage as Marriage Equality, more people chose to back the movement. That is the power of the words you choose.
The words trainers use in their company names and websites represent their training philosophies. I suspect this is subconscious, as people naturally speak and write in a way that reflects their beliefs. Trainers whose focus is on strict, disciplined obedience, and immediate compliance with no room for errors tend to use words that imply a more militant approach to training. Words like this include command, order, respect, obedience, compliance, dominance, boss, etc. LIMA and Force Free trainers use words that reflect their beliefs about training, such as cue, signal, respond, perform, cooperate, choice, consent, agency, etc. Obviously, this is just a rule of thumb. There are many more words you can find in both categories, but these examples should help you get a feel for the trainer’s attitude toward training and the relationship between the dog and its guardian.
Which method is best?
Obviously, I’m biased, but I will always prefer a Force Free trainer over all types of trainers. A trainer with a LIMA philosophy would be acceptable to a certain extent. And I would never train with a trainer who uses any kind of force, fear, pain, or intimidation. Now that you are familiar with the lingo, you will be able to discern a dog trainer's methods and beliefs when you evaluate their websites and other public platforms. If you’re curious about why I’ve made a choice to be Force Free and why I don’t accept the use of force and pain under any circumstances, read my previous post about training collars.