Should Dog Trainers Offer Guarantees?

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

When I was a kid growing up in New York, I had a friend who hated her nose. Her parents eventually agreed to allow her to have a rhinoplasty—a “nose job.” After careful research and consultations with various plastic surgeons, they settled on one who guaranteed that if they didn’t like the results, he would modify it again, free of charge. Armed with this assurance, they moved forward. As it turned out, my friend did not like the results. In fact, she hated them. As promised, the second surgery was performed free of charge. Unfortunately, it yielded results no better than the first. My friend was not any closer to having the straight, narrow nose she’d envisioned, and although I would never have said so, it now looked downright odd. It took a third surgery, performed by another surgeon, to get it right.

The problem here was…well, as plain as the nose on her face. The initial surgeon lacked the skills to perform the job correctly. This begs the question, what good is a guarantee of further services if the provider is not skilled enough to get it right the first time? Let’s say a dog training company guarantees results. They even go so far as to state that they will fix your dog’s problems in one session; if not, they will keep coming back until the problem is resolved. Is this a good bargain, especially if the first session is very expensive? Doesn’t the very premise of this “quick fix” structure belie a lack of understanding of the time required to change certain canine behaviors, especially ones that are intense or have been ingrained?

Keep in mind that we're talking about private lessons here, not group classes. Sure, there are basic skills that can be taught quickly and minor behavior issues that can be resolved in one session. But in most cases, trainers promising immediate results for major problems like aggression are using punitive methods. That instant cure may look like a miracle, but there is fallout from the use of punishment—it only suppresses behavior, rather than addressing the underlying problem. And, the owner may not get the same results when attempting to do what the trainer did; people have been known to be bitten that way. Besides, do you really want to treat your dog harshly, and potentially even lose his trust? Of course not.

If you were having a plumber fix your sink, it would be reasonable to expect a guarantee that the problem would be fixed within a specific time frame, at a specified cost. But when dealing with dogs and humans, behavior cannot be guaranteed. Should a dog who has an excellent, rock-solid recall, for example, be expected to come to you immediately when called 100% of the time? No. Dogs aren’t robots. Should you expect the dog to comply a very high percentage of that time? Sure. But perhaps one day Buddy isn’t feeling well, or there’s an unusually intense distraction in the area. Real life happens, regardless of how much work we put in and how well we train.

Then there’s the human end of the behavior equation, which can be guaranteed even less than the dog’s. Once a trainer has completed a training session, it’s up to the owner to continue to practice. We all know how hectic life gets, and sometimes in that multitasking frenzy, things fall through the cracks. Trainers returning for follow-up visits have heard, “I didn’t have time to practice with my dog” more times than we’d like to count. But again, there goes the guarantee. We must also account for handler error on the part of the owner, who is, after all, learning new skills along with the dog. If the person doesn’t lure the dog with the food treat in the correct manner to achieve a sit or down, or doesn’t properly manage the dog who jumps on visitors, it negates the chance for the skill to be taught or the problem to be solved, no matter how good a job the trainer did.

The truth is, finding a trainer who is experienced, personable, and uses positive, gentle methods is more important than a guarantee of a quick fix. Any ethical trainer will strive to work with you until your dog’s problems are solved, no price gauging involved. If you cooperate with the trainer and put in the time and effort to practice with your dog in a kind, consistent manner, not only will new skills be learned and behavior problems solved, but you will also be strengthening the bond between you. And that’s a guarantee.

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Positively Expert: Nicole Wilde

Nicole Wilde is the author of ten books and lectures worldwide on canine behavior. She is a columnist for Modern Dog magazine, and blogs for Positively, the Huffington Post, and her own blog, Wilde About Dogs. Nicole runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern California.


11 thoughts on “Should Dog Trainers Offer Guarantees?

  1. Stormi King, CCS

    Thank you. Along with choosing a trainer who truely understands and has properly educated themselves in the principles of learning and behavior in animals, this is always one of the big flags owners should be aware of. I've had more than a few owners ask me how long it would take to "fix" their dog's behavior, when, as much as it'd be nice to wave a magic ward and make their wish come true, it just doesn't work that way. Behavior modification requires owner participation, patience, and understanding. Its a shame when some aren't willing to put forth that effort and opt to instead blame it on the bad dog and drive to the nearest shelter. Having a realistic understanding of what to expect before even adopting or purchasing a dog will save everyone involved a lot of trouble and heartache.

  2. Cynthia

    I'm a board certified behavior analyst in training and we are taught to never guarantee anything. In spite of the thousands of experiments that have been done, each individual is unique. People who offer guarantees end up looking like the trainer in Marley and Me.

  3. Rachel

    Perhaps you are misunderstanding or misreading the guarantee of the dog training company you are discussing. The guarantee is for SUPPORT, not behavior. The trainer returns as often as needed, as the owners' coach and mentor because, as you mentioned, people get busy and distracted and don't always follow through.

    Since you are experienced trainers yourselves, you know that just as there are different methods of parenting, there are different methods of training dogs. Not all methods work for every owner, or every dog. Bad mouthing other trainers does nothing to advance your case.

    Keep in mind that many dog owners' level of frustration and unhappiness with their dog's behavior lead them to seek some kind of relief - not a quick fix - but guidance and hope that their dog's problems can be resolved and that the dog is not then given up or worse, euthanized.

  4. Katrina Kiefer

    Like you, I tend to find myself somewhat amazed, and amused, by the idea that any one method of training or behavior modification is exactly the right one for every dog and will work every time. The only thing one can count on are certain instinctual behaviors in domestic canines, and breed specific behaviors within that framework. Instant success for the trainer dealing with a mild behavior issue is not so unusual. We all agree that it's that follow-up part by the owners that counts most. But if the owner can be taught, or already knows, how dogs socialize with each other, then that's half the battle. The rest is a learning curve specific to the animal itself.

    Enter my personal dilemma. I now work exclusively with shelter dogs at a No-Kill shelter, both in the shelter and once they've been re-homed, always free of charge to the adopter. It's a completely different world. Particularly when the shelter one works in doesn't seem to care a fig about genuinely helping dogs get ready for a knew home. It's somewhat understandable; they're busy getting dogs out as fast as possible. No-Kill shelters tend to run out of room pretty quick.

    Officially I'm simply a senior volunteer dog walker. Which means I'm expected to struggle to get in a kennel while the dog is struggling to get out, struggle to get a harness and leash on, struggle down a madly barking row of dogs while keeping any fence fighting from occurring, have my arm nearly ripped from its socket, or blithely go skidding across an ice-covered path behind a frantically galloping behemoth of a dog, struggle to hold the leash while I pick up his poo, then engage in a battle of wills about going back into the building, trip over the dog as he bolts through every door, revisit the fence fighting game, struggle to get the dog back in his kennel, get the harness off and manage to get out without him getting loose. And I'm supposed to do this with eight dogs in two hours. But here comes the kicker: the "rules" on the dog-walking sheet they hand you day one includes a directive to "give the dog a treat once he's back in his kennel." ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Positive reinforcement for THAT circus ride? Ain't gonna happen with me.

    I have mostly ignored the dog-walker's sheet as I go about the task of insisting on good manners from start to finish, particularly with the long-term inmates. I've been fairly successful with most of the dogs around long enough to "get it". I'm not looking to train formal obedience, just some basic manners. Some of them already KNOW good manners, you just have to ask them for it. Right now my methods are cherry-picked from every source I can get my hands on because about the only thing I can count on with shelter dogs is that their behavior in a shelter is rarely anything like their behavior at home, and in fact may be masking some much worse issues. So, if one method isn't getting me a positive result, I try another.

    I feel quite alone in my quest. The dogs need help, but they need it from behaviorists and trainers willing to leave their fiercely held beliefs at the shelter door. There is no the exact right method for a dog under that kind of stress.

    Please join me in my fight to help shelter dogs be family dogs, with a head start on manners. There's a survey for shelter volunteers to answer on my blog. Takes all of three minutes to answer it. I'm trying to figure out if my problem is as pandemic as I think it is.


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  6. Chris

    I am a certified in-home dog trainer and I offer a support guarantee also. With the increased number of retired seniors getting puppies the normal 8 group sessions isn't always enough to produce the results needed in the home. Trainers all know that training the owner takes more time than training the dog - but for the longest lasting results possible it's the only way to go. I have to stay open to the possibility of returning more often for some owners than others and I price my services accordingly. Some owners will never change, but I can promise to be there again if they are working with their dog and still getting stuck here and there. Any trainer worth her salt can get measurable results in the first lesson. If not, you are in the wrong business. Also, negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement are just that - reinforcement. You never have to "scare" an animal to get them to understand that you don't like a specific behavior. When your dog is counter surfing, just the look on your face is "negative" reinforcement. Now, if he truly trusts you he will get down with just a look. Then with positive reinforcement for getting down he learns how to stay out of trouble. Dogs do not perceive all "negative" feedback with a negative experience. If they did they wouldn't still be chewing your sofa. Remember, pregnancy tests can be negative or positive. It's just your perception of that event that makes that result a negative or positive experience for you.

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  10. Patrick

    As a dog trainer, I LOVE it when other trainers in the area guarantee results. No one can guarantee results. As a trainer I guarantee support in the form of more one-on-one lessons, meeting at dog parks, at the vet, phone call, Skype and FaceTime support too. Furthermore, I state quite clearly that at the end of the initial lesson, if a potential client does not like our humane, natural approach of communicating with dogs, or they feel their dog has not responded in a manner in which the owner appreciates, the potential client is not obligated to pay me one penny. Like your friend and her nose, who would keep going back to a trainer for another 5 week season for $120 bucks off the first five week session for $120 was lousy and did not fix it, It doesn't usually take more than 10 minutes to communicate with and teach a dog that jumping, barking, pulling and other common issues are not cool.

    BTW - the use of the word positive is very misleading. If any trainer says "no" to a dog, then they are using positive punishment as outlined in the science of operant conditioning. How the word positive is too often used is when it refers to positive reinforcement, like saying "good dog" or giving a treat. I am always amused by those trainers who claim to be "positive" only and then literally turn their back on a dog if the dog is doing something wrong. What school teacher would literally turn their back on a student who needs help? Communication is the key to laying the foundation on which relationships are built. Some trainers communicate with the dog's stomach, other the dog's pain receptors, the good ones communicate with the dog's brain. Honestly, ask yourself, would you use the same philosophical principles teaching a child as you would your dog? Ice cream for treats, paddles instead of gentle leaders. If you would not do that to your child then why are you doing that to your dog? Not very humane if you ask me. TALK. COMMUNICATE. #SPEAKDOG

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