Why are there initials after your name?
Finding the right dog trainer for you is a major undertaking. You may be wanting to start group classes, puppy classes, or need help with a behavioral issue. But when it comes time to do the research, you find a lot of results of dog trainers and you don't know who you should pick. Should you go with the cheapest? The most expensive? Maybe someone in the middle of the road who lives closer to you? Unfortunately in the United States, anyone can call themself a dog trainer. There are no legal requirements or certifications that someone needs to have when they advertise themselves as a dog trainer. No formal education is required. No experience under another trainer is required. Someone off the street who "loves dogs and has been training dogs their whole life" can call themselves a dog trainer even if they can't even explain what the four quadrants of operant conditioning are, or even basic ethology of a dog. So, how do you weed through this long list of trainers? One way, is to look at certifications and credentials. I personally have a dog trainer certification through the Council of Pet Dog Trainers. I will go over that certification and other credentials a little later. If a certification is not required, then why get one? A certification allows other trainers and owners to know that I have received an education with the animals I will be working with, but also that I know how to train people. A certification allows other trainers and owners to know that I have experience working with dogs and people. A certification through my specific organization also tells other trainers and owners that I am still continuing to get educated in my field and am staying updated on current research and methods for training dogs and their owners.
So, are all certifications the same? Unfortunately, no and there are many newer ones being created. Also, the terms "certified" can sometimes be interchanged when discussing a trainer who studied extensively and was tested by an independent organization to receive a certification and someone who received a certificate as part of their program in learning to become a dog trainer. A certificate is what you get when you complete a program of study through that specific school you have been studying under upon completion. This means someone could get a certificate for taking an online class for a few weeks or they could receive a certificate for taking a program that lasted 6 months. Not all certificate programs are the same, but they aren't all necessarily bad either. One thing to consider when looking at any of these is to look at what is required in order to receive that certification or certificate and if CEUs (Continuing Education Units) are required beyond that. CEUs mean that in order to maintain that credential, the trainer must still continue to learn and educate themselves to keep up with industry standards. Now, let's go over some of the more common certifications and certificates you will see, starting with the one I have.
CPDT-KA: Council of Pet Dog Trainers - Knowledge Assessed
This certification is obtained throug an independent organization that does not train people to become dog trainers. They can objectively certify someone as a certified dog trainer. Someone with this certification has a minimum of 300 hours' experience training dogs and their owners within the last 3 years, signed a code of ethics, provided a referral from another CPDT certified dog trainer or veterinarian, and passed a 250 question test which tests on our instruction skills, animal husbandry, ethology, learning theory, and understanding of training equipment. Upon receipt of certification, trainers must maintain CEUs in order to keep their certification and continue to learn new methods and industry standards for dog training.
CPDT-KSA: Council of Pet Dog Trainers - Knowledge and Skills Assessed
A trainer with this credential must already have the CPDT-KA certification and will also submit a video with specified training tasks that are judged in a variety of areas with dogs and owners the trainer has not met before. Trainers must still maintain CEUs.
KPA CTP: Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
This is a certificate program through the Karen Pryor Academy. Students of this program take a combination of online classes and 4 hands-on workshops. Many well-known trainers do teach some of these students. Trainers with this certificate are also required to keep up on CEUs.
ABCDT: Animal Behavior College Dog Trainer
This is a certificate program also taught online with some hands-on experience. CEUs are not required after graduation.
VSPDT: Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer
This is a membership through Victoria Stilwell in which trainers must be a currently practicing dog trainer who employs only positive reinforcement methods who must answer an essay, provide 5 client references and be evaluated either in person or via video of working with at least 2 dogs. CEUs are not required.
PhD: Doctoral Degree from a college or university
A PhD may be beneficial to have when working with a dog trainer, but is really only relevant if it is in the areas of animal science, pyschology, ethology, zoology, or biology.
M.S.: Masters of Science from a college or university
A master's degree may be beneficial to have when working with a dog trainer, but is really only relevant if it is in the areas of animal science, psychology, ethology, zoology, or biology.
What about the trainers who have been training dogs for decades? Do they really need to be certified? Absolutely yes. Experience training dogs is not a credential. Someone who simply says they have trained for years is not held accountable. Certified trainers must provide proof and documentation for hours training. Someone who says they have been training for years also does not have to continue to be educated on how to actually train dogs and their owners by industry standards as well. A lot of experience-only trainers do not have any formal background in animal learning or behavior and train people and their dogs based on what has "worked" for them in the past. If someone is as knowledgable about training dogs with their extensive experience, then receiving a certification and being tested on their knowledge should be no problem. Having a military background working with dogs is also not a certification. Again, if they have that strong of a knowledge for working with people and their dogs, they should be able to pass a test proving so.
Yes, there are a lot of "dog trainers" out there. But choosing the wrong one can cost you lots of money, time, and even do damage to your dog behaviorally or emotionally if an uneducated "trainer" tries to employ methods that are not backed by industry standards. If I had to choose a doctor, I would go with the educated, licensed doctor that must continue to get CEUs in order to maintain his or her license rather than someone down the road who watched lots of Grey's Anatomy and has been helping fix people up for years. Do your research before you pick a trainer. This list does not accompany every possible credential different trainers can have. For a more extended list, you can check out the link below provided by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT).