Your dog walker should not be training your dog. Handlers vs Trainers - What's the difference?

Before I started training dogs I was just a "pack" hiker. Before that I was a dog daycare attendant And I was only a little better than average as a dog professional when I started, but as I sought to learn all I could and applied that knowledge daily over all the years I was working, I became a damn good dog handler. Here's how it happened. I have an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility, so when shit happens, as it inevitably does, my immediate reaction is to search for something I can learn or do to prevent shit from happening again, or to be better prepared for it when it does. Of course, some things are beyond my personal control, but this mindset did drive me to become overqualified as a dog walker and I was suddenly providing skills and information I wasn't being paid to provide. I can't tell you how many times I was asked for specific training and behavior advice and would repeat the phrase "I'm a handler, not a trainer…"

A golden retriever with a goofy expression sits behind a lab table with miscellaneous lab equipment on it. The dog wears safety glasses and the image is photoshopped to look like they are using a paw to pour something from a beaker into a mug. White text on the image reads "I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING."

[Image Description: A golden retriever with a goofy expression sits behind a lab table with miscellaneous lab equipment on it. The dog wears safety glasses and the image is photoshopped to look like they are using a paw to pour something from a beaker into a mug. White text on the image reads "I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING."]


and when enough people said "you know so much! You certainly sound like a trainer…" it forced me to think about what the difference is. So here is a basic guide to the difference between a handler and a trainer, and what you should be able to expect from either. 2 caveats here.

  1. This is not an exhaustive list of job duties and qualifications, and there are outlier situations. It's a basic and general guide.

  2. Bear in mind that the pet industry is completely unregulated. Very, very literally, any old schmuck regardless of any kind of knowledge, skill, or lack thereof, is legally allowed to offer you pet care or training services in exchange for your hard earned cash. The following essentially reflects my own opinion on what I think the standards for these professions should be.

2 screen caps of a scene from The Hobbit where Bilbo considers keeping the ring. Instead of the original dialogue the text reats "after all... why not?" on the first picture and "why shouldn't I make the rules?" on the second

[image description: 2 screen caps of a scene from The Hobbit where Bilbo considers keeping the ring. Instead of the original dialogue the text reats "after all... why not?" on the first picture and "why shouldn't I make the rules?" on the second]

Handler

Trainer

Has at least a basic scientific evidence based understanding of dog body language and behavior

YES

YES

Has a thorough or extensive scientific evidence based understanding of dog body language and behavior

NO

YES

Has a thorough knowledge of safe environmental management and direct dog handling management including types of equipment, dog-dog, dog-human, and dog-critter interactions, and practical application experience of these with a variety of dogs.

YES

YES

Has experience with leash/equipment handling, and reinforcement delivery mechanics with a variety of dogs

YES

YES

Certified in pet first aid and CPR

YES

YES

Able to recognize at least common, even if subtle signs of physical pain or discomfort in a dog

YES

YES

Has at least rudimentary knowledge of the technical definitions of reinforcement and punishment, and how they affect behavior

YES

YES

Has an in depth knowledge and understanding of the scientific principles of how behavior and behavior change work

NO

YES

Performs day-to-day general care duties for your dog

YES

NO

Determines which training or behavior change protocols are appropriate for your dog

NO

YES

Teaches you and/or your dog new skills, behavior, and/or helps change your dog's feelings about specific stimuli

NO

YES

Maintains or utilizes existing skills and cues your dog already knows per your instruction

YES

NO*

May collect data on your dog's behavior

YES**

YES

Can and should determine which data is relevant to collect on your dog's behavior

NO

YES

*A trainer will need to do this to some degree, but it will be at their discretion, and only insofar as they need to in order to progress your and your dog's learning **This is not something your dog walker or pet sitter will do automatically, but if you are working with a trainer and they have asked you to collect data, ask them if it's appropriate to loop in your dog walker. If the thing you're working on is relevant to your dog walker or pet sitter's duties, you absolutely can ask them to participate in data collection. Because there is so much overlap here, and because good training begins with wellness and good environmental management, it may seem like your dog walker is training your dog. And in some ways, they are. Dogs are always learning. All the time. Much in the same way we humans are learning all the time. As humans and dogs move through the world we respond to our environments and figure out what works and what doesn't to make it as easy as possible to exist in the world. We do things that seem to work more often and do things that don't seem to work less often. And if the care professional who is handling your dog is consistent about reinforcing behaviors from your dog that you've asked them to, those behaviors will strengthen. But that is where the amount of training a handler does should start and stop. So while it may be tempting to prod your dog walker for training or behavior advice... don't. Unless they are also a trainer- in which case, please respect their time and hire them in an additional capacity for training. Handlers handle (and manage). Trainers teach- including teaching you handling and management ;).

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