The Dog Trainer’s Dilemma: What to Do When People Ask You for Free Advice

dog collars

By Jamie Migdal, CEO of FetchFind

A professional in any field soon realizes that complete strangers often have no compunction whatsoever about soliciting advice well beyond what you should be expected to give in a casual social setting.

Don’t get me wrong – I am always happy to find teaching moments that can help both pets and their people, but at a certain point being asked for advice starts to feel less like a sharing opportunity and more like a shakedown.

Certainly I have had conversations with acquaintances who are doctors and lawyers and accountants during which I have asked them for referrals and resources, but it’s generally acknowledged that asking them for a full-blown, off the cuff consultation is very bad form. At best, it’s wildly inconsiderate to put people in a position where you’re expecting them to give you possibly life-altering advice without access to the proper diagnostic tools.

However, if you’re a dog trainer, this happens All. The. Time.  Random people routinely ask us to come up with an entire training plan based solely on their puppy’s age and breed. I think that a large part of the problem is that many people don’t see “dog trainer” as a real career. It’s true that we don’t go through years of medical or law school; it’s also true that plenty of trainers hang out their shingles without knowing very much about canine behavior or scientifically-based training methods. What most people don’t know is how many hours (years!) that responsible trainers put into both their formal and hands-on training.

But times, they are a-changin’, and the pet industry as a whole is making a concerted move toward more meaningful standards and certifications. The entire focus of the FetchFind online learning platform is to make high-quality training and education available to all pet professionals. I hope that as the industry becomes (and is perceived as) more professional, the number of people who expect you to work for free (or “for the exposure”) will begin to drop.

In the meantime – what is a “best practices” response when you’re asked for training advice for a dog you’ve never met that belongs to a person you barely know? You empower them, firmly-compassionately-professionally, to find the resources that can help them with their particular issues:

Puppies – Direct them to Ian Dunbar’s free puppy books, send links to Sophia Yin’s Perfect Puppy in 7 Days and Paul Owens’ The Puppy Whisperer, and give them the name of a reputable dog walking company that offers puppy packages to keep housetraining on track.

Rescue dogs – Send a link to Patricia McConnell’s Love Has No Age Limits (also good for senior dogs), tell them about the excellent A Sound Beginning program, and remind them that many dog training companies and shelters have reduced rates for rescue dogs.

Senior dogs – Steer them to the Grey Muzzle Organization website, and direct them to any of Lisa Rodier’s blog posts or articles dealing with special considerations for older dogs. For a good omnibus volume on senior dog issues and treatments, Your Dog’s Golden Years by Jennifer Kachnic is a great resource.

Behavioral issues – Send a link to and the ASPCA, and offer the name of a good veterinary behaviorist. If you live in Chicago, refer them to Kristin Buller’s workshops for people who love pets with behavioral problems.

My short list for the best all-around websites for canine training and behavior information:

And last but not least – keep your business cards ready to hand out whenever someone needs a good trainer.