The Confusing World of Certification

People often ask me how to become a dog trainer, or how to find a good dog trainer near them. The two questions are related. Today I want to go over some of the organizations that exist in the professional dog training world and what it means for either an aspiring trainer or a customer.

The first thing to know is that dog training in the US is an unregulated industry. There is literally nothing stopping anyone at all from just calling themselves a dog trainer. There are no licensing requirements in any states, though a few are considering changing that. That's why it's important to understand what these agencies are and what they do.

APDT - The Association of Professional Dog Trainers is an educational group first and foremost. They have an annual conference for dog trainers of all levels. Their primary goal is to provide education to make every trainer better at their job. Because that is their goal, they do not have any specific methodology or educational requirements to be listed in their database. They do list some of the certifications from other organizations on their search results page and have some good guidelines on how to find a trainer using their site. In addition to education and consumer outreach, the APDT provides a search function and networking opportunities for trainers. The big takeaway: APDT is a useful group for professionals and consumers, but membership provides no guarantee of quality to the consumer.

CCPDT - The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers is an accredited independent certification agency that offers several different levels of certification. Each certification has certain requirements that must be met including a number of hours of documented professional experience, and an independently proctored knowledge exam. Certificants must also maintain continuing education and ethics requirements. They also offer a search tool for the public to find certified trainers and networking opportunities for members. 

PPG - The Pet Professionals Guild is a combination educational organization and certifying agency. They began as a group centered around a strict compulsion and force-free ethics statement, and have recently added a certification program that tests trainer knowledge. To my knowledge, the PPG has the most comprehensive ethics requirements of any professional organization. 

IAABC - The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants is also a combined educational and certifying agency. Their focus is specifically on behavior consultation rather than training, and their certificate holders are likely able to handle more difficult behavior issues. This is one of the most rigorously tested groups not requiring formal education. They have an ethics statement that is similar to CCPDT's. 

ABS - The Animal Behavior Society has possibly the highest requirements of any certification agency for animal behavior there are. Their CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist) certification requires a doctorate level of formal education, the ACAAB (Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist) requires a master's. This is the gold standard of certification for those who have devoted their lives to the field of applied animal behavior. 

Big Box Stores - The trainers at these stores receive basic training on how to teach that store's curriculum. The curriculum is determined at the corporate level by qualified individuals, often those who hold one or more of the above certifications. The trainers at the store level are qualified to teach that curriculum. The quality of their ability varies, however, from location to location based on how strictly their management requires them to adhere to corporate standards. 

ABC - Animal Behavior College is an educational tool for aspiring trainers to learn the basics. The level of education they receive is highly dependent on the quality of their mentor in the program. The text that students learn from has been criticized for being too superficial, but in my experience trainers who complete the ABC curriculum are either good or bad based on the quality of their mentors. 

AKC - The American Kennel Club is primarily a breeding and show organization, but they offer a certification to trainers to administer their basic obedience testing. Certification requires a monetary fee and completion of an open book exam.

KPA-CTP - The Karen Pryor Academy produces Certified Training Professionals that complete a rigorous coursework designed by Karen Pryor. They are taught a fairly thorough methodology of positive reinforcement training techniques and adhere to a commendable ethics program. I've never met a KPA-CTP that I wouldn't recommend, though they might exist. The certification requires completion of the program under mentorship and continued education.

The Academy for Dog Trainers was created by Jean Donaldson and is perhaps the most rigorous school for dog trainers that exists. They have an exceptionally high standard of excellence for their graduates. 

IACP - The International Association of Canine Professionals are only included on this list for completeness. They are on the surface an educational agency similar to the APDT, but they are corporate sponsored and have an ethics statement that prevents members from advocating against any tools that trainers might use (in my opinion, a clear conflict of interest). Of every dog-oriented organization I'm aware of, IACP is the only one of thousands that does not have a rule that explicitly bans membership to those convicted of animal cruelty. Membership in this organization doesn't mean the trainer in question is a bad trainer, but to me, it is a red flag. 

Putting all that together:

My advice for people looking to find a good trainer is to use the above agencies as a starting point. At a minimum, ask any trainer you're considering hiring the following questions (my answers are in italic:

  1. What do you do if the dog gets something right?
    The dog will be rewarded for desired behavior based on what the individual dog finds motivating. This is often a food reward, but not always
  2. What do you do if the dog gets something wrong?
    As I discussed here, I don't think a dog can be wrong. If the dog isn't doing the behaviors we desire from them, we analyze the training plan to find the flaw. Perhaps the motivation was improper. Perhaps we were expecting too much. Perhaps we were unaware of competing motivators. There are a lot of mistakes humans can make in training animals, and they all lead to things going not as planned. 
  3. Is there a less invasive method?
    If I knew of a less invasive method to teach the desired behavior, I would use it. Continuing education means always learning new techniques, and whenever I find a new method to teach something that is less invasive or aversive to the dog I'm working with, I incorporate it into my plans.

I've met good and bad trainers that are members of organizations. I've met good and bad trainers with no certification at all. I attempted to describe above my opinion of a few of the organizations that exist for consumers to be aware of, and aspiring trainers to consider. There are also local-level organizations and sport-specific groups, but I focused on general training in this article. 

How To Become A Trainer

There is no one right way. If you can afford tuition, I'd strongly encourage KPA or The Academy. They're truly top-notch. My path was through a store to get started, then the CCPDT for more advanced standing. I am planning IAABC and ABS certifications to come. Whatever path you choose, I encourage any prospective trainers to always strive to do more and recognize that no matter what level of certification you achieve, there is always more you can learn.

Benjamin is the owner of Good Doggy Saratoga. You can follow him on Facebook.
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