Many people have the notion that hiring a dog trainer should be reserved for moderate to severe behavior concerns. While a dog trainer or behavior professional is likely necessary to help modify behavior in those scenarios, it's far better to take a proactive approach instead of a reactive one.
A qualified professional can help you develop a plan to help prevent behavior concerns from developing in the first place. For example, your puppy may be doing fine navigating potty training and you may find it cute that your pup bounces around and tugs on the leash now. What happens when your dog grows and that behavior ceases to be cute and instead starts to be frustrating or even potentially dangerous for you? By introducing a well thought out training plan early, you can not only make things easier on you for years to come, but you can also make things easier on your dog by ensuring they have the skills necessary to navigate the human world. Despite what many believe, dogs do not come with that "software package" pre-installed. While they have been raised alongside humans for many, many years, they are still a different species so it is up to us to teach them how we would like them to behavior in a variety of contexts. If you are expecting to adopt a dog or bring home a puppy, I recommend that you reach out to a qualified training professional as early as possible to help you prepare. Many things can be put in place prior to a dog even arriving to your home to help set all parties up for success.
If you are reading this and have a dog with behavior concern already, the time to reach out for help is now! So often people wait to reach out to a behavior or training professional when a certain behavior has been problematic for months or years. This makes it far more likely that a behavior has become habit and habit takes a longer time to change.
To elaborate, often learning starts as goal-directed where a behavior is influenced by the consequence of that behavior. In other words, goal-directed behavior is flexible and dependent upon availability of a particular outcome. If the relationship between that behavior and outcome changes, the behavior will change. For example, if I feed my dog cheese every time he sits, that behavior of sitting will strengthen. However, if I stop feeding my dog cheese before the behavior has been practiced enough, this will likely result in my dog not sitting. Conversely, after a behavior is practiced over many repetitions, the behavior becomes triggered by context regardless of the outcome and is no longer under conscious control. If you suspect your dog's behavior may have progressed to this point, don't fret! There is still so much that can be done and the behavior can still be modified. Unfortunately, it will likely require more time and effort to change.
For my avid DIYers: while training your dog is something you can do yourself, it's often best to hire a professional to help ensure you are best prepared to do so. Behavior is complex and a qualified dog trainer will help you avoid common mistakes. Unfortunately, the dog training industry is entirely unregulated. That means that there are no education, experience, or licensure requirements. This unfortunately has led to a lot of misinformation in our field leading to lots of confusion for dog guardians. Even worse, this has resulted in a lot of damage done to dogs and their guardians under the guise of training. If you are looking to do it yourself, I recommend first starting in a group class or making sure you are consulting well vetted resources.
So when it comes to deciding when to hire a dog trainer, hire one sooner rather than later. Be proactive instead of reactive! Regardless of when you do, remember that the field is unregulated so ask lots of questions. The Shelter Playgroup Alliance has a great handout on selecting a dog professional to help you get started.
I also recognize that accessing a dog trainer is a privilege that not all have access to. Many dog professionals have sliding scales or scholarship opportunities available - this is something I aspire to be able to offer in the future. If you find yourself in this situation currently, I recommend the following resources:
I also have a list on my Amazon Storefront for some great books to read.