I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked “how do I find a good dog walker?” or “how do I know if a trainer is good or not?”. It is quite literally a minefield out there, from highly skilled, vastly knowledgeable people to people at the other end of the spectrum that have very little to no knowledge or experience, and sadly, I have heard too many horror stories.
The problem with the pet industry is that there is virtually no regulation. Words like “trainer”, “behaviourist” and even “veterinary nurse” are not protected, meaning that absolutely anyone can use these terms without having to complete any courses, or have any experience. This can make finding a professional even more difficult, as we assume these words make someone qualified, but sadly, that is not the case.
So what do you look for? As there is no regulation, there are many routes to setting up as a dog professional. You may find a highly experienced person, with no affiliation to an organisation or you could find someone that has invested in lots of courses, but which are completely outdated in modern training and handling. So here are some things to ask, look at, and question when looking for a professional. It isn't an exhaustive list, but can help in getting on the right track.
Are they insured for the job they are doing? This is important, as if they are not insured, and something happens to your dog due to their negligence, then they have no insurance to pay out. It is not a legal necessity to be insured so do not assume that all businesses have this. If they are walking dogs, they will have a limit on how many dogs they can walk at one time. This is usually eight, but varies between insurances and some insurances allow more than eight dogs to be walked together if there is more than one walker. Think about how many dogs you would be happy for your dog to be walking with, and ask questions about the walkers policy of how many dogs they walk together too as this may be different to what the insurance allows. If you are handing over house keys, the insurance should also cover key loss so that if the walker loses your keys, the insurance will pay for lock replacement. Note that many insurances that cover for pet sitting, DO NOT cover for house sitting so bear this in mind. If they do not have insurance and/or cannot produce a certificate to show you they are insured, then avoid the business.
Canine First Aid
There are different kinds of first aid training, theory certificates that are generally done on the internet, or practical first aid that is normally done as a day course led by a veterinary professional that allows to ask questions and practise skills. Both are good, but I do think the hands on day is essential to allow people to have practised the skills they have learnt, and so that the person leading the course can instruct further if the skills aren't being practised correctly. If there was an emergency would you expect someone working professionally in the canine industry to be able to act and give first aid to potentially save your dogs life? I wouldn't expect a human carer to be working when they aren't human first aid trained, so I would expect the same of someone looking after my pet. Ideally this should be updated every year, but I believe it is essential for a practical course to be attended every three years in line with the human industry.
Most businesses do not require licenses to work, but there are a few exceptions. All home boarders require a home boarding license which means that they are inspected by the council and have to pass some basic guidelines to prove their home is suitable to care for your dog, maintain hygiene standards and to separate and manage any illness if necessary. In some places doggy dog cares will also need a license, but not all places require this. Dog walking is similar in that some places may require professional dog walkers to have a license to either walk more than a certain number or dogs, or to be able to use public parks to walk their dogs. This varies place to place, and if you are unsure if the area you are living in requires dog walkers or doggy day cares to have a license, you can contact your local council to find out.
Website, Branding and Wording
Again, this doesn't always tell you everything. Just because someone spends a lot on branding, doesn't necessarily mean they operate a good business, however there are tell tale signs. What does their website say? Does it talk about pack leaders and being Alpha? If so, avoid them. Pack leaders, alpha and dominance theory have been debunked for years. They are a very old way of training, based on a theory that was disproved by the very person who wrote it. Look for words and phrases like “positive reinforcement”, “modern”, “clicker training”, “reward based” or “force free”. These are more likely to be trainers who are keeping their practises more updated. Look for photos or videos, if you see slip leads being used to correct, choke chains, shock collars or anything used to scare dogs like training bells, water sprays or bottles of stones, then avoid. Again, there are much kinder ways to train a dog, that do not have the risks to relationship or behaviour attached to them that aversive training does.
Uniforms and Vehicle Branding/Signs
This is a much debated topic and one that will be personal to what the customer prefers. There is no right or wrong answer here, and there are arguments for and against uniforms and vehicle signage. The for argument is that the business is able to advertise and it makes them easily recognisable which can deter people from doing anything they shouldn't be. The against argument is that it could highlight that there is no one in the home and that there is a dog there when collecting your dog. What you choose will be personal preference, and what kind of service you are having.
Word of mouth is a powerful tool so ask people. Check the businesses Google or Facebook reviews or ask on local Facebook groups. A recommendation doesn't always mean the person is good or bad, or, qualified or not, but it can be a good starting place.
Knowledge, Training and Experience
If choosing a walker, home boarder or pet sitter at the very least they should have a good understanding of canine body language. They should be able to recognise discomfort, arousal, reactivity and anxiety and know how to manage these. If you are looking for a trainer, and they are offering basic dog training (commands, puppy classes, recall training etc) they should have courses, workshops or seminars that they have attended to gain a good understanding of how dogs learn and different ways to teach dogs. If trainers are offering to work with behavioural cases like reactivity, dog aggression or obsessive behaviours, then ask what makes them qualified to do this? Trainers taking on behavioural work should have a good base of study, experience, observation, being mentored, and courses/workshops/seminars. Don't forget to ask about experience too, as “worked with rescue dogs” can mean anything from cleaning out kennels, to helping to rehab dogs. If they have just started a business, with no previous or minimal training, but are offering behavioural work then I would recommend avoiding these.
Due to the industry not being regulated, there are a huge amount of organisations out there offering affiliation. My experience is this leads to highly confused clients who have gone with someone who is affiliated because they thought that meant they were trustworthy and qualified, only to find out that the affiliation was just like a membership, with no checks done on the professional. Affiliations do not necessarily make a trustworthy, reliable, quality professional, so don't take them at face value, however they can give some valuable insight into the ethics of the professional. Unsure about what letters or affiliations mean? You can find some listed *here*.
The one thing that has always horrified me, is that no one has ever asked to see my insurance. No one has ever asked if I am first aid trained, or what experience I have with dogs. Are dogs left alone in the car? What happens if one of their dogs collapse on a group walk? How would I manage a dog fight? No one has ever asked me any of these questions.
These are only some of the things that can help you find someone that can care for your pet, or help to train them, but they still are not fool proof. Never be worried about asking questions! If someone is cagey, annoyed or doesn't answer your questions then they probably aren't the person you should be going with. If you find you have hired someone, or gone to a class, and you are uncomfortable with how they are working, do not be afraid to leave. You are your dogs advocate, they cannot speak up for themselves, only you can do it for them. There are plenty more professionals out there that are right for you and your dog.