Lately, I have been searching for a new school for my daughter. I am one of those moms who is not afraid to flag down complete strangers with children in the grocery line, restaurants and hair salons to ask them about local schools. Despite the vastness of the Internet, the best way to find a great product or service is still by word of mouth.

Then, I called the schools that seemed to fit and interviewed the director of admissions for each school. (I am sure that they thought they were interviewing me.) Then, I visited the schools with my paper and pen to take a tour. I asked questions about the curriculum, qualifications of the teachers, discipline policy, bullying, accomplishments of alumni, and school philosophy. I have a complete list of schools now and can make an informed decision about which one fits my child.

Oh, if only we were half as careful with whom we trust to train our puppies as we are with the teachers of our children! Puppy classes are one of the easiest ways to get the socialization process started, but finding the right class and the right trainer can be challenging if you don’t know what to look for. If you choose wisely, you could hit the ground running toward a well adjusted dog. If you choose poorly, you could be staring down the barrel of a behavior problem which requires long-term treatment. To make it easier, I made a list of questions that I would ask a trainer about him- or herself and his/her classes. Hopefully, they will help you find the right person for your pup.

1. What type of methods do you use?

This is the million dollar question so you might as well lead with this one! The trainer should answer that he or she uses positive reinforcement techniques using some type of reward like play, treats or toys. Positive reinforcement training began to really penetrate the dog training community over 20 years ago. If a trainer is still jerking dogs around on choke chains and holding them down in the dominance down, they are way, way behind. The science points to positive reinforcement training as the most effective way to train a dog AND as least likely to do your dog any harm.

2. Do you have any certifications?

Dog trainers do not have to be licensed in any state. This means that there is no level of required knowledge before someone can call themselves a dog trainer, pet behavior consultant or animal behaviorist.

However, dog trainers can be voluntarily certified by the CCPDT (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers). If a trainer has CPDT-KA after his or her name, you can assume they understand the basics of teaching and training dogs. You can find dog trainers with this certification at ccpdt.org. Some dog trainers may also have a bachelor’s degree (BA or BS) or a master’s degree (MS) in an animal related field. It is always a plus to work with someone who has an education in animal behavior. Yes, training animals is an art, but first and foremost it is a science. Knowledge of how things work makes working with animals easier.

Dog trainers can also be certified through the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Academy (KPA). These trainers understand positive reinforcement training very well and are committed to teaching your pet without hurting it (force-free training). Keep in mind that a membership in an association is not the same as a certification. Most anyone can be a member, but to be certified you must have passed an examination and received credentials of some sort.

3. When is the last time you went to a continuing education seminar?

No matter how much experience you have and what your profession is, there is always something to learn from others. A dog trainer should have attended at least one continuing education seminar in the past year, not including the ones that may have been given by the company that he or she works for. You will find that the best ones attend a lot more seminars than that! Think about it, would you want a teacher who graduated from school and never learned anything since then to be responsible for teaching your child? Of course not! You want to know that your trainer is reaching out to others outside of his or her circle to improve their level of knowledge.

4. How long have you been training dogs?

There is no replacement for laying your hands on as many dogs as possible. You want a dog trainer who has been training dogs other than his or her own for at least a year. No, training their own dogs doesn’t count; it is much easier to train your own dog than to train someone else’s dog. Trainers who don’t have a year of experience may work under someone who does have more experience. You may feel comfortable with a trainer with less experience if he or she is working under one who has logged more hours. If this is the case, make sure that he/she will be consulting the more experienced trainer if need be.

5. What dog breeds have you trained?

Dog have different personalities and predispositions. Trainers have to know those differences and have tools in their tool-belt to effectively train each type of dog. An accumulation of tools only comes from an accumulation of dog training hours. If the trainer has a Golden Retriever who is very well behaved, that doesn’t mean that he/she can train your Rottweiler who isn’t. We are talking about apples and oranges here. While you don’t have to hear “your” breed in his/her answer, you should hear something similar in size and temperament.

I personally love to hear trainers say that they have rescue dogs or mixed breed dogs. One of my friends has two purebred rescues. They both came to her with problems and now are well adjusted and well behaved. A little street cred goes a long way in my book!

6. Ask about the gear that he or she uses to train the dogs.

Look for flexibility, humane choices and up to date knowledge of tools here. If the trainer says that he/she puts the same collar on every single dog without even assessing their needs, he/she doesn’t have the flexibility needed to train all kinds of dogs. Politely hang up. He or she should use products that don’t cause pain by design, and he/she should have knowledge of the newest collars and training tools such as head collars, no pull harnesses and clickers.

7. Ask what the curriculum is for puppy class.

The primary purpose of puppy class is not to produce an obedient dog. The purpose is to produce a well-adjusted dog. It is similar to sending your toddler to preschool. The 3-year-olds are learning their alphabet and numbers, but they are also learning how to be polite, play nicely with others and accept separation from their parents. Later on, they will learn in earnest how to read and perform math calculations. That is what puppy class is about, too. The trainer should tell you that he/she exposes the puppies to each other for controlled play sessions. The trainer should also say that the puppies will be exposed to sounds, sights, handling and other stimuli in the environment. If the puppies learn "sit," "down," eye contact, and leash walking, that is great, too.

8. Do you guarantee the dog’s behavior after it is trained?

If the dog trainer says that they can guarantee your dog’s behavior, politely hang up! Really?? Can you even guarantee how you will behave today? Have you never behaved in a way that made you feel embarrassed? We all want that guarantee, whether it be from our doctor, our spouse, our child’s teacher or our dog trainer. Just as your child’s teacher can’t guarantee that your child will be an astronaut, your dog trainer cannot guarantee your dog’s behavior. There are way too many factors (e.g., you, your dog, the environment) which affect your dog’s behavior for anyone to guarantee results.

9. How early are puppies allowed in class?

The answer should be that the puppies are allowed in class as early as a week after their first set of vaccinations and deworming. The trainer should encourage puppies to get to class before 14 weeks of age. If he or she says that you should wait to enter class until your puppy is 16 weeks of age, politely hang up.

10. Is the class indoors?

Puppy classes should be held indoors so that the area can easily be cleaned. There should be a place for urination and defecation that is cleaned as well.

11. What do you do if a pup comes to class sick?

Puppies who are sick should be sent home. That really stinks for the puppy and for the owner, but it has to be done for the sake of the other pups.

12. What do you clean the area with, and when is it cleaned?

The puppy training area should be cleaned before and after each class with a bleach solution.

If you ask the questions above and get the right answers, you have found a great trainer — so get your pup out and get to work!

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Susan Schmitz / via Shutterstock