My name is Ralf Weber and I am a certified dog trainer (IACP CDT) and behaviorist. I am a professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and an evaluator for the American Kennel Club's (AKC) Puppy Star, Canine Good Citizen (CGC) and Community Canine (Advanced CGC) programs. I am the author of the canine behavioral book If Your Dog Could Talk and owner of Happy Dog Training, LLC. I have been working with dogs for over 11 years.
I am not listing my credentials to brag but to highlight that I have the experience and background to write about the topic of dog training. I believe it is important for readers to know if a person writing on a subject matter is qualified to do so and not just sounding off a personal opinion as is so often the case in online postings.
“The only thing two dog trainers will ever agree on is that a third trainer has no idea what they're doing.” — unknown
This joke holds a lot of truth. Seemingly there are as many training methods and philosophies about dog training as there are dog trainers. Apparently there is no limit to the number of different training methods trainers advocate. Common names are clicker training, treat-based training, positive-only training, rewards training, force training, etc. What should a dog owner choose? What is the right way? It can be confusing.
Unfortunately, many dog trainers and dog trainer schools contribute to this confusion by failing to understand some of the fundamentals and further mislead the public in their advertising and client communication. The correct terminologies apparently escape many and so they throw words around they don't fully grasp. Also, distinctions between methods, components or tools in dog training are often not understood.
For example, the most misunderstood and misused term in dog training is probably positive reinforcement. Many trainers claim this to be their method of training. However, positive reinforcement isn't a training method. It is a component of what is known as operant conditioning—the core of all dog training. Trainers who claim to only use positive reinforcement fundamentally don't understand their profession and how the things they do are actually called—more on this later.
What adds to the confusion is, that when it comes to dog training everybody has an opinion—your neighbors, your gardener, your coworkers, your relatives, and so on. However, most people don't have any skills or knowledge that would give their opinions credibility; they are just their opinions. Probably well-intentioned in most cases but ultimately meaningless and not based in fact.
Another fallacy many people—and unfortunately many dog trainers—make is to believe that all dogs respond to and are motivated by the same things. This is not so. An approach that worked for one dog doesn't necessarily work for another. Fellow dog owners who had success with a particular approach often want to be helpful and share their success stories but that doesn't mean this same approach will work on your dog. I recommend you only seek dog training advice from professionals who work with dogs for a living and not random dog owners or online discussion forums.
Please refer to my article on How to hire a dog trainer for more guidance on selecting a knowledgeable dog trainer.
1. How Dogs Learn
Dogs learn new behaviors or commands in one of two ways: classic conditioning and operant conditioning.
During classic conditioning an automatic response is created that leads a dog to act without thinking. The response becomes involuntary and instant. The understanding of this learning process dates back to 1927 when Russian scientist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov authored his thesis on Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. While studying dogs Pavlov installed an automatic feeding system, where a bell would ring before food was dispensed. Initially, the dogs seemed to anticipate the arrival of the food after hearing the bell but would only salivate when the food was in front of them. With time and repetition, the dogs started salivating at the sound of the bell only—even when no food was present or coming. The sound of the bell produced the same physiological response than the food itself. The bell made the dogs feel the same way the food did. The salivating had become an involuntary response. We are calling this type of learning classic conditioning.
A natural example that unfortunately happens way to often is a dog attack on a previously balanced dog. This often happens inside dog parks but could happen anywhere. Such attack will in many cases lead the dog who was attacked to become dog aggressive as a result. The event itself is forgotten after about twenty minutes but the behavior can change permanently. The attack classic conditioned the dog to preemptively strike towards any dog it encounters. This can be resolved but takes several months.
A more pleasant example is the conditioning of markers for obedience training. We will talk a lot more about markers and their relevance in dog training later but for this example, a marker could be a reward word like “good.” Using classic conditioning a skilled trainer can associate a marker word with a food reward until the dog enjoys the verbal reward as much as the food itself. This allows the use of verbal rewards in addition to food during training, helps the finishing work—meaning weaning a dog off food rewards at the end of training—and facilitates a more effective learning process for the dog.
Classic conditioning is also used in training certain commands for professionally trained police and protection dogs but this topic is beyond the scope of this article.
Operant conditioning on the other hand does not create an involuntary response. It still builds an association between a trigger and a response but the dog has a choice if he complies or not. A trigger could be a command like “sit” and the conditioned response would be the act of sitting down. This is what regular obedience training (i.e. basic command like sit, down stay, etc.) or specialty training (i.e. agility, search and rescue, seizure dogs, etc.) is focused on.
In the dog trainer and behaviorist world, operant conditioning is illustrated by “The Quadrant”—a framework also used in human psychology and based on the work of B.F. Skinner.
Over the years, I realized that the terminology used and applied in shaping a dog's behavior can be misunderstood. Dog trainers and behaviorists use terms like “dominance,” “submission,” “reinforcement,” and “punishment.” These terms can hold negative meaning. In the context of dog training and behavior modification, leaving the everyday meaning of these terms behind, helps in understanding the concepts better.
Understanding the quadrant is straight forward once you know the terminology of positive vs. negative and reinforcement vs. punishment as it relates to dogs.
Positive and Negative
“Positive” refers to adding something and “negative” refers to taking something away. It is that simple—not “good” and “bad”—it's just plus and minus. Adding something can be as much a petting or treat, as it can be a correction. It's similar with taking something away. Examples are stopping petting your dog—taking away affection—or taking pain away by assisting after an accident. What specifically is being added or taken away is described in the following term.
Reinforcement and Punishment
“Reinforcement” is used to describe something a dog likes. Petting, giving food, or simply feeling good about what your dog just did, are all things dogs like and are reinforcements. “Punishment” is used to describe something a dog doesn't like. However, punishment should never be confused with cruelty or violence. Many people seem to believe it does, as punishment in human language is rarely positive. In behavior modification, punishment is used to describe a correction your dog understands.
Any correction you give is only appropriate if your dog understands that it is a correction. If you do things that might make you feel better, but are meaningless to your dog, it's confusing for your companion. Inappropriate actions can also damage the relationship with your dog. Inappropriate actions are: yelling at dogs out of anger or hurting them for any reason. None of these actions would be considered corrective punishment in this context.
Combining all Components
In behavior modification we distinguish four components—the four corners of the quadrant—that every trainer and behaviorist taps into. It is impossible to just use one of these components and expect successful outcomes.
The following example will help clarify these concepts: Many dog owners will recognize the scenario of telling your dog to sit down by saying, "sit." This works fine but the dog gets up once you start petting it.
Phase 1: You say, "sit" and your dog sits down—you start petting him as a reward for good behavior—this is called positive reinforcement as you are adding something (a petting) your dog likes.
Phase 2: Next, your dog breaks the command and gets back up while you are petting him—you stop petting him immediately, as you don't want to reward disobedience—this is called negative punishment as you are removing something (the petting) your dog likes.
Phase 3: You issue the verbal correction tsst for breaking the command—this is called positive punishment, as you are adding something—the sound tsst—your dog doesn't like—it knows it's a correction from past training. The correction could of course also be a tug on the leash.
Phase 4: You place your dog physically—but gently—back into the sitting position, as that is where it should have remained. A better trained dog will sit down again after phase three as the correction is understood and your dog wants to correct its mistake—dogs like to please, after all.
In this basic example, we used three components of the quadrant to teach your dog to not break the sit command: positive reinforcement, negative punishment and positive punishment. This example also highlights why trainers, who claim to only use positive reinforcement, are mistaken. The simple act of stopping to pet your dog for breaking the command is called negative punishment. Trainers, who claim to only work with positive reinforcement, don't understand the correct terminology of what they are doing. I also have never met anyone who thought stopping petting a dog was cruel.
Understanding these basic concepts allows you to sort out knowledgeable trainers from rookies. Experienced dog professionals understand these concepts, use the correct terminology when discussing your dog, and take the time to explain.
When working with the four corners of the quadrant, remember that all reinforcements and punishments must to be delivered within half a second of the event you are rewarding or correcting. Otherwise your dog won't be able to make the connection. If it takes longer, your response to your dog's action disconnects in its mind and as a result becomes meaningless and ineffective.
Understanding Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement means adding something your dog likes. A typical example is petting a dog for obeying a command. Any reward your dog enjoys is a positive reinforcement of the preceding behavior. This can be a petting, a treat or a more natural reward like a positive emotion. Dogs sense your emotions.
Positive reinforcement requires your dog to do something you like first—a desired behavior of some kind. If a dog misbehaves, any kind of reward is misplaced.
Understanding Positive Punishment
Positive punishment is adding something your dog does not like. A typical example is a correction for disobedience. This could be jumping up, leading on the walk or more serious offenses like aggression towards other animals or people.
All undesired behaviors have to be corrected the instant they occur, so your dog learns when something is not acceptable to you. Corrections can be physical, verbal or best a combination of both. These can be corrections with leashes (i.e. a check), sounds (i.e. tsst) or any other trained cues.
However, it is imperative to only use corrections your dog understands. It is never acceptable to hurt a dog in meaningless ways because a behavior is frustrating. A correction is only meaningful, if your dog can understand it, learn and change. Also, corrections must always be followed by establishing an alternative behavior. This way your dog learns what you would like instead and you should reward once the change occurs.
In the previous example we added a verbal tsst for breaking the sit command—a positive punishment. Then we placed your dog back into the sit position—the desired behavior. Once back in the sitting position, we rewarded again even if you we to physically assist—a positive reinforcement.
Only the full cycle of correction—change—reward helps your dog learn.
Understanding Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement means removing something your dog dislikes. Should your dog stoop his nose into a porcupine, come running to you, and you remove the thorns, you are making the pain go away. You are providing relief for the punishment delivered by nature and your dog learns to come to you when in pain—a valuable lesson.
Negative reinforcement is the core principle of aversion training, which is uncommon today. I oppose aversion training and consider it cruel. In my view aversion training is unnecessary and damages the relationship with your dog. Giving proper corrections is not aversion training. A more general example would be the release of pressure of any kind.
Understanding Negative Punishment
Negative punishment means taking something away your dog likes. Typical examples include stopping to pet your dog when a command is disobeyed or removing food or toys your dog is possessive of. By claiming a food bowl you also teach your dog who controls the food supply, which helps establishing proper pack structure in your household. This particular action will not be accepted by a food aggressive dog. The dog will most likely bite to control you instead.
Following through on the steps necessary for resolving this kind of problem is dangerous and requires a professional behaviorist. However, stopping to pet a dog that breaks a command is something anyone can and should do. Never reward bad behavior, if you want to change it for the better.
The Quadrant illustrates the basic ways dogs learn—these four components cover everything. For dogs, it's all quite simple. They are nature on four legs. It is usually humans who complicate matters by trying to invent new training methods incompatible with nature's design.
Understanding the basics of how our furry friends learn is the key to resolving all behavioral issues and achieving any training goal.
Repetitions: The Journey from Operant Conditioning to Classic Conditioning
The above diagram was adapted from Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions, Jaak Panksepp, 2004.
When we begin training a dog the first 50 repetitions of training build a general understanding of what we are asking for. At that stage, the dog is operant conditioned to the behavior. That means the dog knows what we are asking, considers the request and chooses to follow or not follow it. This is where most dog training ends and the dogs will only respond to the handler if they are paying attention and/or are taking the request seriously. Continuing the conditioning another 400 times (sometimes more) makes a behavior classic conditioned. That means the execution becomes habitual and is no longer thought about. This is true reliability. In our training system, we take the conditioning of markers and commands to that level.
Reconditioning a classic conditioned behavior requires 3-4 times that repetition count, or 1200-1600 repetitions.
2. Training Methods
All dogs are trainable. It is irrelevant what breed a dog is or what age. The only training restrictions are physical limitations of your dog and your imagination. Especially the breed of a dog is not as important for training as inexperienced trainers claim. The key factors in training a reliable dog are:
- Understanding a dog's motivations
- Understanding a dog's drive strengths
- Understanding a dog's temperament
Good dog trainers evaluate a dog's drive strengths and assess its temperament during training and adjust their approach as necessary. Understanding drive strengths and temperament is outside the scope of this article but we will take a closer look at motivations as they directly relate to training methods.
There are four ways to get a dog to cooperate in training:
- Food rewards
- Toy rewards (prey items)
The first three approaches are rewards-based and the forth approach is correction-based. No approach is superior to another. Which approach is the most effective in any particular case depends on your dog, what it responds to, and your training goals.
Most people consider rewards-based training “nicer” but not all dogs respond to food rewards. About 20% to 30% of dogs will not work for food or any other reward you offer. If your dog falls into this category you have two choices. You can either use a correction-based training approach or leave your dog untrained. It is ultimately your decision if you can live with your dog's behaviors or not. But it is important to consider that misbehavior in dogs tends to get worse over time if not addressed.
The first step in training is to determine which training approach will be most effective for a particular dog and the first method I recommend trying is rewards-based training. Training a dog with food is powerful as it positively improves the relationship with your dog. However, this is only possible if your dog responds to this approach.
If a dog initially doesn't respond to food rewards, we try to create food motivation. This can be accomplished in several ways:
- Add movement to offering food rewards. A moving treat is more tempting than a stationary one.
- Skip breakfast and train on an empty stomach. If your dog is hungry it will be more motivated to work with you for food.
- Stop feeding our dog outside training sessions and feed the entire daily food ration during training.
If food rewards don't get your dog to cooperate in training the next best thing to test are toy or pray items—some dogs for example love tennis balls. It can be very motivating to use a toy as a reward. However, using toys as rewards will most likely slow down training as the dog has to be allowed to chew the item for a bit before you can reclaim it and repeat the exercise.
Praising a dog—verbally or physically is generally a nice addition to rewarding but by itself rarely enough to get your dog to cooperate in training long enough to accomplish a training goal. But there are dogs where praise is enough; it's just uncommon.
The second and last method is force. This is also referred to as the Kohler Method. This method was the predominant dog training method in the 1960s and 1970s and was for example used by the traditional Walt Disney movie dog trainers. The force method is correction-based and while not the nicest way of going about training, generally speaking always works in terms of achieving command reliability. The force method can however damage the relationship with your dog if applied incorrectly—meaning using too much force or doing the wrong things. Using force in dog training without causing problems requires skill. This kind of training method is still widely used today in protection and police dog training.
If your dog doesn't respond to any motivational methods and you're uncomfortable using a correction-based approach your dog will have to remain untrained, which is a perfectly fine choice if a dog's behavior is not dangerous.
I hope at this point is has become clear that there are only two dog training methods: Rewards-based Training and Correction-based Training. This is it. Any other method you hear advocated is not a method. Anything and everything dog trainers do falls in either the rewards-based or correction-based category.
3. Rewards-based Training
If possible, rewards-based training is ideal as it helps building a good relationship with your dog but unfortunately many trainers don't seem to bother learning doing it correctly. Throwing food at a dog without any structure or process while hoping for the best is not serving dog owners or dogs well and is quite frankly an embarrassment for our profession. In this section I outline how rewards-based training should be structured. I hope it helps readers interview and hire the most qualified trainers possible for their training goals.
The first step in establishing a learning system is to create engagement.
If your dog responds to food rewards, the first step in training is to create an understanding in your dog that treats have to be earned. This means you make it your dog's job to figure out what you want it to do to get the tasty treat you are holding in your hand. This approach teaches your dog the learning system we are using for training. This process is called Creating Engagement.
During this process resist the temptation of issuing any commands to your dog. By creating engagement, we are laying a foundation to draw from for when we are ready to start training commands. Having a formal learning system in place allows you to train a dog to be reliable and not just follow commands when you have treats or when it feels like it. Unless your dog comes to you every time you call it, no matter what else is going on around you, your dog hasn't mastered the "come" command. This kind of reliability is not created by handing out treats without a clear training process and hoping for the best. This kind of reliability can only be created using an effective learning system.
To create engagement, take a high-value food reward into your hand in a way that your dog can lick it, nibble on it, and get excited about it but can't snatch it from you unless you release it. Hold the treat right in front of your dog's nose. The treat and your hand should touch your dog's nose and mouth. He will sniff, lick and try to get to it. If you get slobber all over your hands you are doing it correctly.
Next, move your hand and your dog will follow it, trying to get the treat. The goal is to making your dog's body move by moving your hand—if your dog follows your hand it is engaged. Move your dog around and whenever your dog does something you like say the word "yes" to mark the behavior—more on that below—now immediately surrender the treat to your dog. Again, don't say any commands at this stage. Use this approach to make your dog follow you, walk in a circle, sit down, or whatever else you can accomplish. It doesn't matter what you make your dog do at this stage. This is about your dog engaging with you in the exercise.
If your dog disengages his nose from your hand immediately move your hand back to the nose to get your dog re-engaged with you. If—after several attempts—this fails, your dog might simply be tired and needs a break. Don't force it. Take a break and get back to it an hour later. Dogs have short attention spans.
Creating engagement sets the stage for training reliable behavior. Your dog learns three things in this process:
- Your dog can get food for working with you.
- Your dog has to figure out what you want from it.
- You are fun to be around.
The second step in establishing the learning system is to condition the understanding training markers.
Conditioning Markers (aka Charging the Mark)
Contrary to what many trainers seem to believe, using markers is not a training method; it is a tool used when utilizing the rewards-based training method. A marker (i.e. a clicker) holds no meaning to a dog unless it has been conditioned to understand that marker. Dog trainers also call this conditioning “charging the mark.”
Dogs live in the moment and disassociate events as time passes between them. This is best illustrated using an example: When teaching your dog to sit on command, you want to reward it for sitting down.
If your dog sits on command and you wait five seconds before rewarding it with a treat, your dog will enjoy the treat but it will have no understanding that the treat was given for sitting down. Too much time has passed between its butt touching the ground and getting the treat. The maximum amount of time you can let pass to not lose the association between the training event and the reward is half a second. There is some discussion if the time could be one or even two seconds. However, as we don't know for sure if we have this additional time, it safer to stick to the half-a-second-rule until we know for sure. In any case, physically giving a reward in time is difficult or even impossible depending on the command you are teaching.
To manage this challenge, we developed the concept of markers. A marker is a bridge that allows you to let your dog know it did well and a treat will be coming but it gives you enough time to do so without losing the required association. The best-known marker is probably the clicker but anything distinctive can be used as a marker. I personally don't find clickers useful as I have to hold them in my hand in addition to the dog's leash and a treat. I prefer using my voice as a marker and simply say the words “yes,” “good,” and “wrong” to mark training events. I recommend you do the same as it makes things simpler but examples of possible markers are:
- Auditory markers, for example your voice (say the word “yes”) or the click sound of a clicker.
- Visual markers, for example hand signals or lights—these only work if your dog looks your way (this can be helpful when training deaf dogs)
- Kinestatic markers, for example the vibration of a remote collar or a physical touch to the body (this can be helpful when training deaf and blind dogs)
All markers have advantages and disadvantages and which marker works best for you and your dog is a personal choice but before a marker can be used in training to mark desired behaviors your dog has to learn what the marker means. I recommend you use your voice as marker by saying the word “yes.”
To teach your dog the meaning of a marker you have to associate it with a reward first. This is also referred to as charging the mark. This means—in the beginning—you give your dog a treat instantaneously after saying the word 'yes'. Theoretically you could stand in front of your dog with a bag of treats and repeatedly say the word “yes” and feed treats. This would build the association after thirty to fifty repetitions but your dog would get lots of treats for doing nothing and that will backfire during training. It is preferable for your dog to learn that it needs to work for treats.
It is more effective to combine marker conditioning with creating engagement as described earlier. Whenever your dog engages with you and does what you want, first mark that event with the marker (say “yes”) and immediately afterwards—not simultaneously—feed the reward. This accomplishes several important outcomes:
- Your dog learns it has to work for rewards.
- The marker becomes meaningful as part of the activity.
- With enough repetition the marker becomes as rewarding to your dog as the treat itself (see Classic Conditioning)
Only after your dog understands the marker/reward relationship can you start using it during training. Once your dog has learned what it means to hear/see/feel the marker you no longer have to be fast in feeding a treat. You can then say the marker word to mark the desired behavior and take your time to retrieve a treat and feed it. Your dog will now understand that the treat was for obeying a command as you have bridged the gap with your marker.
Certain commands—for example the “sit” or “down” commands—could be effectively trained without establishing a marker system but most commands and behaviors can't. Whenever it takes longer than half a second to deliver the food reward, your dog won't understand what you are rewarding it for and as a result your training results will become sloppy and your dog's command obedience unreliable. Spending the time to lay a solid foundation for training pays off quickly.
I personally use and condition three different marker during training to be able to distinguish multiple behaviors I want my dog to learn. I use the word “yes” to mark correct behavior and allow the dog to break the behavior afterwards. I use word “good” to mark correct behavior and require the dog to continue the behavior and I use the word “wrong” to mark incorrect behavior so my dog learns what it just did was not acceptable to me.
For dog trainers, who want to learn more about the correct way to create engagement, using markers and train using the rewards-based method I recommend the training DVDs by Michael Ellis available at Leerburg.com.
4. Correction-based Training
The correction-based training method is usually also referred to as the Kohler Method although there are correction styles that are different from what Bob Kohler did. One could argue that these then should be considered different methods but I disagree. Just like using a toy instead of a treat as reward isn't a different rewards-based method, applying corrections differently doesn't create a different correction-based method.
The three styles of correction we can distinguish are:
- Traditional force training (aka The Kohler Method, aka Jank-and-Crank)
- Modern leash-pressure training (leash guidance, the mildest style)
- Aversion training (don't ever do that or I will hunt you down)
Traditional Force Training
The traditional force training style used to be the only training style everyone used but we have since learned that most dogs—not all—can be trained in much nicer ways. This style is still widely used in protection sports and police dog training but has become uncommon in obedience training. The general approach is giving a dog a command that he may or may not know yet and immediately afterwards give a strong check with a corrective collar to force the dog's body into the position (i.e. sit) or behavior (i.e. come) being taught. The dog will quickly learn that to avoid the correction it has to comply with the command. It is not a very nice way of going about training but it does work. Soft-temperamental dogs can be traumatized by this. Hard-temperamental dogs will not be phased by this at all. However, it certainly doesn't build a good relationship with your dog as it just learns to comply to avoid punishment. Having seen this style applied on trained protection dogs I have to add that the dogs this is generally used on have an extremely hard temperament and are not really comparable to a personal pet dog. I never saw a dog this was used on, seemed to be troubled by it. But do think the protection dog and police dog training world should reevaluate their methods and update them to some extent. Some of the things that are done in this arena by some training organizations—not all—are unconscionable and trouble me. Dogs are conscious beings with feelings and not just tools.
Modern Leash-Pressure Training
The modern leash-pressure training style is a variation of the traditional style that takes the brutality out of it and as such is much easier to accept if your dog is of the stubborn kind. Using a corrective collar, we can apply a technique called leash pressure to gently guide a dog by leash and collar into a body position or behavior. If performed correctly, this not mean and doesn't damage the relationship with your dog. It is the technique I personally use on the 20% to 30% of dogs that can't be convinced to cooperate with any motivational approach. Using leash pressure correctly takes some experience and skill. If you suspect, it might be necessary with your dog ask trainers you interview if they have experience with this technique. If a trainer doesn't know what that term means, keep looking for someone more skilled; it's a pretty basic skill for a dog trainer to know.
Aversion training is despicable and inexcusable. I am not sure I could stop myself from beating the crap out someone doing this to a dog should I witness it. It would certainly quality for an animal cruelty charge. Aversion training is a practice of inflicting punishment on a dog until an unknown command is followed by accident. For example, a dog who doesn't know the command would be asked to “come” and is then stimulated with a remote collar until it happens to turn and run towards the handler. I consider aversion training cruel and meaningless as pain prevents learning.
I don't recommend dog owners use any style of the correction-based method on their own. This is best left to professional dog trainers who know what is and isn't appropriate.
I hope this article helps you finding a skilled trainer who can assist in achieving your training goals. Trainers who misuse basic terms usually also don't understand how to train reliable behavior in dogs. Trainers who take their job seriously have a broad skill set and work with you to guide you as to the correct training method and style for your dog.
A common mistake people make is looking for the one correct way of training a dog. There is no such thing. The correct method and style for your dog depends on its motivations, temperament and drive strength—not its breed, which is another misconception. So interview trainers and let them guide you as to what they recommend. Keep an open mind and don't preselect a method and style because you like it better. The correct training method for your dog depends on what your dog responds to and not what you want it to respond to.
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Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer (IACP CDT, CDTA) and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen, and Community Canine certifications.