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Dog Obedience Training: How to Find the Best Training School

Whether you want to teach your new puppy basic manners or your rescue dog needs some refresher training, here's what you need to know before signing up your sweetie for a dog obedience class.

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Read before you enroll

Dog training is an unregulated and unlicensed industry. Believe it or not, anyone can claim to be a dog trainer or canine behaviorist. It's up to you to do a little digging and fetch the best dog obedience training school for your fur baby. Here's what professional dog trainers say you should look for—and what you should know about the training process and your dog. If you have a puppy that you're trying to train yourself, avoid these training mistakes you'll regret later.

Middle aged man surrounded by Labrador puppies while lying on his bed and using his laptop.Erickson Stock/Shutterstock

The best age to start dog obedience training

Puppies are ready for dog obedience training between eight and 12 weeks old, says Nick Hof, a certified professional dog trainer and canine behavior consultant at Paws Look Listen. "The age cutoff is important because of the developmental stages our puppies go through," says Hof. Socialization is critical in this stage. Puppies need lots of positive experiences with people, other dogs, and environments to become happy and confident adults. Since puppies are very sensitive to experiences, look for small class sizes—ideally, one trainer per four to six dogs—and an experienced trainer. Once your puppy's got the basics down, keep the momentum going and teach your graduate these easy tricks at home.

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Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Yes! The old adage that you can't is bogus. Dog obedience doesn't have an age limit. "Dogs of any age can benefit from group classes," says Hof. "There are even classes specifically designed for senior dogs now." Adolescent and older rescue dogs are also prime candidates for dog obedience training. Just don't rush the process. "Give your new dog a couple of weeks to settle into their new family and environment while gently guiding them through the household rules," says Janelle Metiva, a dog behavior specialist at Best Friends Animal Society in Los Angeles. Here's what else you need to consider before adopting a rescue dog.

Lazy sleepy basenji dog lays on cozy bed in room next to his laptop computer and does not want to work or chat with anybody. Close up view.BublikHaus/Shutterstock

Sniff around

Google reviews are a good start, but that's no substitute for getting a closer look at a facility and talking to prospective dog trainers. "Any trainer should be willing to answer questions and participate in an interview about their methodology," says Metiva. Find out how long they've been training dogs, and ask how they respond when dogs don't get something right and when they do. Metiva also says that trainers shouldn't show a reluctance to use food in training. "Animals work for food," she explains. "If they don't, they are probably full/satisfied or overwhelmed/stressed/scared." Don't miss these other dog training secrets you'll wish you knew sooner.

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Watch the trainer

Next, pay attention to how the trainer interacts with the pet parents and dogs. Turn heel and run if the trainer gets frustrated when a dog doesn't "get it" and uses intimidation, harsh tones, a raised voice, force, fear, or pain, says Metiva. A trainer should never use a tool or hit a dog to stop a behavior (unless there's imminent danger). These methods are antiquated and have been proven ineffective, Metiva explains. In fact, this could lead to the development of fears and phobias, or to redirected aggression or suppressed behavior without a change in the dog's emotional response. For example, a dog might stop lunging and barking when forceful methods are used, but he will still be afraid of or frustrated by other dogs. By the way, here's how to stop your dog from barking—without yelling.

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Observe the canine students

To see what really happens during a class, ask the training facility (or the trainer, if they do independent dog obedience training) if you can observe a session. While watching, look for clues in the body language of the dogs, says Metiva. "Are they loose and wiggly, attentive to the trainer? Or are they stiff and tentative?" Dogs who are licking their lips, yawning, or have a slinking or low body posture, pinned-back ears, or a worried expression are exhibiting sure signs of stress. At home, here are the signs your dog is secretly mad at you.

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Verify the trainer's credentials

"There are many schools of training and certifications available, but that's still not a guarantee that the trainer abides by their code of ethics," says Metiva. Seek a dog trainer who is kind and whose focus is building a trusting relationship with your dog. When you have that combo, you're far more likely to get the results you want. Those who are certified by the CCPDT and the IAABC have agreed to a joint code of ethics that adhere to LIMA—a Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive training methodology. Read the certification mission statement and verify the trainer's credentials on the website. Follow this advice and you'll be on the right path to choosing the right trainer. Once things are under way, don't ruin your trainer's hard work by making these common pet parent mistakes.

two young cute labrador retriever puppies in the dog school listening to a commandomanushot/Shutterstock

But trust your gut

Metiva is quick to point out that there are wonderful dog trainers who don't have certifications. If you feel a connection with a trainer who doesn't have certification, dig a little deeper instead of simply moving on. Ask the trainer specific questions, like who their mentors are; what books have they read and would recommend; and what seminars, workshops, and conferences they have attended. "All of these answers will give hints into their experience and methodology that will help a parent make an educated decision," says Metiva.

Beautiful indian girl training her cocker spaniel dogMila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock

Absolute deal breakers

We love guarantees on appliances, but a guarantee in dog obedience training is a red flag, according to Metiva. "Dogs are individuals and living beings," she explains. "No one can make a guarantee on a behavior outcome any more than a doctor can guarantee your health or a teacher can guarantee how your child will perform on a test." Another red flag to be aware of is the use of language like "alpha," "dominant," "submission," or "pack." Metiva says, "Dominance theory in pet dogs has been thoroughly debunked, despite its persistence in popular culture." If you read or hear those words, look elsewhere. Believe it or not, these common "facts" about dogs are totally false.

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Group classes aren't for every dog

"If you have more complicated behavior issues—such as fears/phobias, resource guarding, reactivity, separation anxiety, or aggression—or if your dog has a bite history, be sure to disclose that to your trainer," Metiva advises. Basic dog obedience training won't resolve these types of issues. Instead, seek an experienced trainer or behavior consultant. Try these medication-free tips for calming an anxious dog.

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Homeschooling

It's easy to master the basics when you're under the close guidance of the trainer in class, but what happens when you get home? "A pet dog class should focus on useful skills with real-world applications (stay on the bed when I answer the door) as opposed to standard obedience (practice a ten-minute sit-stay), which makes it easier to use every day," says Hof. To lock in a specific behavior, Hof advises practicing it for two to five minutes at a time, one to three times per day. Keep it fun, and don't stress if your pup struggles. Stick with it, stay calm, and he'll get it eventually.

"Once your dog is doing well with it, try to utilize functional rewards such as going out the door to play ball as a reward for sitting instead of a treat," says Hof. "Training is all about communication and the relationship with your dog." Wish you could understand what your pet is saying? You can! Here are 10 noises your dog makes—and what they mean.

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How much does dog obedience training cost?

The price of dog obedience training classes varies depending on location and the type of experience you're looking for. Typically, a six- to eight-week class will run you around $100 to $200. For complicated behavior issues, Metiva says a private behavior consultation will set you back about $300, with follow-up sessions around $60 to $100 per hour. That may sound steep, but it is so worth it for the long-term well-being of you and your dog. Here's the lowdown on what it really costs to own a dog—and tangible ways to save a little kibble.