Kay Elliott

Kay Elliott is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner and owner of Handful of Hounds. She lives with two rambunctious rescued Rottweilers in Petaluma, Calif.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How to Become a Dog Trainer
Following your passion into a profession

You want to become a dog trainer because you love dogs, right? Makes sense, but before you take the plunge into the career of your dreams, ask yourself this very important question: how do you feel about people?


Most of dog training entails teaching people. Sure, you could land a job training service dogs or dogs living in shelters, but the vast majority of dog trainers earn a living by teaching classes and private lessons for pet-dog guardians. And the success of a dog’s training program depends upon the human’s compliance with that program.


There are many, many wonderful clients who put everything they have into training and rehabilitating their dogs. They do their homework. They are eager to hone their skills. They treat their dogs with kindness. But there are also clients who will challenge you at every level of your being, who will question your expertise, fail to do their homework and then complain that their dog is not improving, and disappear when they recognize how much work is involved. A word of advice: As a person who loves dogs, you can, and will, go the distance for the good of the dog, but at a certain point — sooner rather than later, if you want to avoid burnout — you just have to let it go.


Still interested? Great! Read on. There are many routes one might take to gain the skills and experience required to train other people’s dogs. Many trainers are self-taught, relying on books, videos and personal experience for their education. Others learn by apprenticing with an established trainer. Seminars and workshops provide an education for a lot of trainers. And still others choose a more formal route by attending an academy for dog trainers. The best trainers explore all paths and recognize that the journey never ends.


What follows is a seven-part lesson plan to guide you in your pursuit of training dogs for a living. In no way comprehensive, it’s an overview of some of the possibilities that await you. Where you go from here is limited only by your imagination!


Lesson One: Train thyself

When people catch the training bug — often as a result of working with their own difficult dog or taking an inspiring group class — their first step down the path to becoming a professional trainer is to study the many books, articles and DVDs on the subject of animal behavior and training.


Sarah Owings, owner of Bridges Dog Training in Los Angeles, Calif., says, “Before KPA [Karen Pryor Academy], I was simply an autodidact — totally self-taught animal person devouring books and videos. Like many dog trainers before me, however, my main teacher was Zoë and before her Annie and before her Rocky and Rufus and…”


In order to work effectively with dogs, you need to know how to read and understand canine body language. Every training library should begin with Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, by Brenda Aloff. Other must-reads include Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor; Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson; Excel-Erated Learning, by Pamela Reid; The Other End of the Leash, by Patricia McConnell; and Complete Idiot’s Guide to Positive Dog Training, by Pamela Dennison.


Of course, self-education can take you only so far. At a certain point, you need to learn hands-on skills from someone with more experience.


Lesson Two: Get your hands dirty

Perhaps the most frequently traveled path to becoming a professional dog trainer, and one that seems to follow naturally after reaching the limits of educating oneself, is the apprentice/ mentor relationship, which can take many different forms. Some dog-training academies include formal apprenticeships as part of their programs. Some trainers offer internships through their own businesses. And sometimes, an informal apprenticeship grows out of a trainer/client relationship.


Jill Dextrase, co-owner of Sit Happens!, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, met her mentor when she enrolled her own problem dog in a group class at the local humane society. After apprenticing for several years with the instructor, Jill took over her mentor’s business and now teaches classes and private lessons out of her own facility. Volunteering at an animal shelter is another excellent way to gain hands-on experience with a wide variety of dogs. Many shelters now have training programs in which volunteers are instructed how to train the shelter dogs so that they become more adoptable. This can be as simple as teaching a dog to wait at doorways or as complex as behavior modification for reactive or fearful dogs. If your local shelter doesn’t have a training program, volunteering to establish one, once you’re qualified, is a terrific way to gain client referrals from the shelter staff and other volunteers.


Lesson Three : Get schooled

There are more dog-trainer schools out there than you can shake a stick at — and many of them deserve to have a stick shaken at them! Be diligent when researching schools; many proclaim themselves to be “positive” and “humane” while continuing to promote techniques and equipment that are quite the opposite.


Until recently, there were two biggies in the arena of positive-reinforcement training academies: the Karen Pryor Academy and the Academy for Dog Trainers at the San Francisco SPCA. But in 2009, the SF/SPCA Academy closed its doors.


Jean Donaldson, founder and former director of the SF/SPCA Academy, recently announced the details of her new Academy for Dog Trainers, which will take the form of lectures and training demonstrations on CD, as well as self-assessment tools and virtual classrooms. Students work at their own pace with their own dogs in their own homes. Graduation requirements include an online final written exam and submission of a video of the student training with specific criteria. Jean hopes to establish a mentor program for graduates of her academy (academyfordogtrainers.com).


The Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) also offers the convenience of distance learning, but combines it with four weekend workshops with the instructor and fellow classmates. KPA instructors are extremely well regarded in the industry and are located across the U.S. and internationally; students may choose the instructor they want to work with. The curriculum is entirely online and includes training exercises and interim tests. One unique feature of the KPA curriculum is the requirement to train an animal of a species other than canine. Graduation requirements include an online final exam and inperson teaching and training assessments. Passing all three assessments earns graduates the right to put “KPA CTP” (Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner) after their names. Certification can be revoked at any time if a graduate does not continue to meet the quality standards of the Karen Pryor Academy (karenpryoracademy.com).


When you’re ready to take your skills, as well as your understanding of the science behind how animals learn, to the highest point possible, then you’re ready to take Bob Bailey’s Operant Conditioning and Behavior Analysis Workshops (a.k.a. “Chicken Camps”). Bob teaches four levels of these eminent workshops; unfortunately for those of us in the U.S., he now teaches them only in Borlänge, Sweden (houseof- learning.se).


There is no substitute for learning from Bob, but if Sweden is out of the question for you, you can learn to train chickens (which sharpens mechanical skills like nothing else can) with Terry Ryan at Legacy Canine in Sequim, Wash. (legacycanine.com)


Lesson Four: Get out there

Conferences, seminars and workshops are fantastic sources of knowledge as well as great networking opportunities. From one- or two-hour evening seminars to weeklong conferences, there are enough educational events across the country to keep a trainer learning, meeting and greeting all year long.


The biggest get-togethers for dog trainers — and anyone interested in dog training — are ClickerExpo (clicker expo.com) and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference (apdt.com). ClickerExpo is held twice each year at various locations across the country and features three days of speakers as well as hands-on “learning labs” (yes, you can bring your well-behaved dog!). The APDT conference takes place annually in a different city, lasts five days and features many of the top trainers and researchers in the field.


There are also numerous smaller workshops and seminars held all over the world every month of the year. Positively Trained and PuppyWorks are two companies that organize and host educational events for professional as well as amateur trainers. The Yahoo! list “DogSeminars” is a great resource for finding seminars in your area.


Lesson Five: Make your own path

And then there are the approximately bazillion other routes one might take to become a professional dog trainer. Laura Monaco Torelli, Director of Training at Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago, Ill., began her career with marine mammals in Ken Ramirez’s trainer program at the Shedd Aquarium and went on to work with zoo animals before becoming a dog trainer. Kristen VanNess, owner of A-Frame of Mind Dog Training in Granville, Ohio, learned to train dogs first as a 4-H club member, which led her to become more involved in dog projects as a 4-H advisor and eventually to co-found a 4-H kid-and-dog camp, Ohio 4-H Teen Dog Experience.


Lesson Six: Get credentialed

It’s a commonly lamented fact that anyone, at any time, can hang out a shingle declaring him- or herself a dog trainer, with nothing more invested in their services than a business card — and even that isn’t essential. But while it’s true that there is no government regulation of dog trainers in the United States, there are a number of organizations through which you can earn credentials. The most common is the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, which offers the Certified Professional Dog Trainer — Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) certification (ccpdt.org). Earning a CPDT-KA isn’t a cakewalk, but you’ll learn a lot along the way and your clients will understand that you are committed to a high level of learning.


Lesson Seven: Get in business

So, you’ve chosen your path, you’ve learned all there is to learn about training dogs (yeah, right!), and now you’re wondering, “How do I start, let alone run, a business?” Fortunately, Veronica Boutelle, former director of the SF/ SPCA Behavior and Training Department and author of How to Run a Dog Business, recognized a need among dog trainers, and founded dogTEC, providing business consulting services to dog professionals (dogtec.org).


It’s a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together. If training dogs professionally interests you but you’re not sure about making the transition from whatever you’re doing now, take just one simple step toward your goal, and then take another: Read a book. Watch a DVD. Complete a class. If the bug catches you, you’ll know it, and you won’t be able to stop the momentum. And whatever you do, even after you’ve been training dogs for 30 years, don’t stop learning and improving your training skills. You can never know too much about dogs, and the world and its dogs need as many great trainers as they can get. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Foreclosed but Not Forgotten
Groups help pets in need

Making a serious problem worse, record housing foreclosures are escalating the nation’s already sizable numbers of homeless and abandoned pets. Thankfully, some enterprising organizations and individuals are stepping up to lessen the burden on individuals as well as shelters.

For example, the not-for-profit No Paws Left Behind was created specifically to be the “voice” of pets affected by foreclosure; the website has a database of no-kill shelters and foster groups, searchable by zip code. Long-established sites such as Petfinder.com also help people locate shelters in their geographic area. Finally, at least two websites—Homewithpets.com  and Peoplewithpets.com—provide free searchable databases for pet-friendly rentals.

Not surprisingly, the housing crisis has also put an additional burden on animal shelters. To help them cope, national entities such as HSUS and American Humane have created grant programs that offer financial assistance to shelters and rescue organizations that are helping families keep and care for their pets.

On the other side of the equation, people who are in a position to help are stepping up too. Perhaps the most inspiring is Mimi Ausland, a 12-year-old from Bend, Ore., who created Free Kibble, a sponsor-supported online trivia game in which each answer scores 20 pieces of kibble for shelter animals. To date, she has donated well over 10 million pieces of kibble to the Humane Society of Central Oregon, and plans are in the works to add more shelters.


Culture: Stories & Lit
Chase! Managing Your Dog’s Predatory Instincts
Dogwise Publishing, 136 pp., 2010; $16.95

As human to a couple of large, highly prey-driven dogs, I was thrilled and relieved to learn of Clarissa von Reinhardt’s book, Chase! I had done a fair amount of research over the years on the topic but hadn’t learned much beyond the fact that good management and a fail-proof recall were in order. Until I read Chase!, that is.

Every good training program begins with a solid foundation, and Reinhardt’s is no exception. The fundamental element of the program is what Reinhardt calls “communicative walks,” which she defines as “using the walk as an opportunity to build a strong bond between you and your dog through interaction and communication,” including discovering “sausage trees” together, among other activities. (The sausage tree is one of several unique and creative training ideas.)

Reinhardt provides instructions for humanely and effectively training behaviors ranging from basic to the more unusual. She also includes a chapter on mental stimulation, in which she emphasizes the importance of play and outlines games that are appropriate and inappropriate for prey-driven dogs.

While I found everything in the book to be of use, I did not find everything of use to be in the book. Two things in particular were conspicuous in their absence: instructions for training a fail-proof recall and a serious discussion on working with dogs who have killed prey animals.

Regardless, Chase! is definitely worthwhile if you’d like to be able to allow your prey-driven dog off leash. Reinhardt’s training philosophy is right on: “The success of anti-predation training doesn’t just depend on how well you train your dog to steer his natural tendencies in an alternative direction— toward you—but also how well you concentrate on the dog as your partner.”

Culture: Reviews
Last Dog on the Hill: The Extraordinary Life of Lou
St. Martin’s Press; $24.99

Adding to the long (and growing) list of dog-related memoirs, Steve Duno’s Last Dog on the Hill: The Extraordinary Life of Lou tells the story of a dog who truly is extraordinary. Lou saves the lives of people and dogs, takes down criminals, and has a profound impact on just about every creature with whom he comes in contact.

Fate, if one believes in such things, plays a central role in Last Dog on the Hill, beginning with Duno’s first glimpse of Lou, his mother and littermates scurrying up a hill beside a northern California highway. Duno and his girlfriend stop the car and get out for a better look at the pups. Duno whistles, “just to see what would happen.” All of the dogs continue into the tree line at the top of the hill … except for one: “the last dog on the hill,” who, though feral, “made a mad downhill dash toward us, as if recognizing someone.”

When Duno hesitantly allowed the flea- and tick-infested, six-month-old Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix into his car, it marked the beginning of a nearly 16-year friendship. It was a friendship that would change the lives of both man and dog in more ways than Duno could have imagined were possible, perhaps most significantly by inspiring Duno to become a dog trainer and an author of pet care and training manuals. And while some of Duno’s ideas about dog training and “dominance theory” (barely noticeable in this book, but evident in some of his others) are outdated, his relationship with Lou is clearly based on love and trust, and is immensely rewarding for both of them, as well as those around them.

It’s easy to anthropomorphize when writing about dogs, and Duno does. But Lou, with his keen ability to sniff out bad guys and assist in the rehabilitation of fearful and aggressive dogs, provides a persuasive argument for anthropomorphizing, and doing so doesn’t affect the strength of Duno’s prose, which is engaging and even lyrical at times: “The essential crime committed against all dog owners is born of the love we hold for them, which, like the love of a child, runs deep. No parent should have to bury a child, they say, but that is what we dog owners must do, not once but time after time, throughout our lives. While we remain unchangeable to their sweet eyes, they run from birth to the grave in an instant of our own measure.”

Lou, not unlike Ted Kerasote’s Merle, is a once-in-a-lifetime dog who teaches even more than he learns, gives far more than he takes. Duno, in a fitting tribute to his best friend, offers Lou’s story to us, and we are better for it. As Duno puts it, “Lou set me straight. He gave me these words. He wrote this story.”

Culture: Reviews
Love Is the Best Medicine
Broadway Books, $23.99

First, a confession: I did not expect this book to win me over. A confirmed cynic, I naturally am on guard against the sentimental or prosaic. But, contrary to my intentions, I fell for the story, its characters, and veterinarian Nick Trout’s insightful writing.


Love Is the Best Medicine is Trout’s second book. His Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon has been loved by many Bark readers; it offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a typically hectic and fascinating day in the life of a veterinary surgeon at Boston’s Angell Medical Center. Love Is the Best Medicine takes a different tack, delving deep into the lives of two exceptional dogs and the people whose lives they affect, not least Dr. Trout’s.


The narrative follows the medical plight of two parties: Helen, a stray elderly Cocker Spaniel with the good fortune to cross the paths of Eileen and Ben Aronson; and Cleo, a Miniature Pinscher with an unusual and enduring gift, whose owner, Sandi Rasmussen, possesses an incredible generosity of spirit. But at its essence, Love is bigger than the story of these two dogs and their people; it is a meditation on benevolence, selflessness and guilt. It is an acknowledgment of the power inherent in an acute bond between a pet and her person. It is what happens when a scientist accepts that this power has the capacity to heal. 


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the one problem I found: On two occa- sions, the author refers approvingly to Cesar Millan. Dr. Trout would do well to check in with the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, and the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (among others), all of whom have spoken out against the punishment-based methods used by Millan.


Love Is the Best Medicine will likely cause tears, but not from any manipulative pulling of heartstrings. The tears — not to mention chills — come in response to acts of kindness performed by exceptional people and animals. And, while Helen and Cleo truly are extraordinary dogs, and Eileen and Sandi extraordinary dog guardians, they also represent us — when we open our hearts and give away what is so freely given to us.

Culture: Reviews
Chill Out Fido! How to Calm Your Dog
Dogwise Publishing, 200 pp., 2009; $15.95


As our shelters fill to bursting with dogs surrendered due to their “out of control” behavior, Nan Arthur’s new book, Chill Out Fido! How to Calm Your Dog, arrives like a mercy, offering an understanding of why some dogs act wild and crazy and what you can do about it in order to live peacefully ever after with your canine friend.   Even if your dog is already the epitome of a mellow fellow, there is still much of interest and importance in this book, too much, in fact, to do justice to in a short review. Far from a how-to manual on teaching basic obedience skills, Chill Out Fido! is a guidebook to the foreign culture that is canine.   The book is divided into two parts: Part One identifies 14 possible causes of a dog’s disorderly behavior, ranging from poor early socialization or the wrong diet to insufficient or (gasp!) too much exercise.   Part Two takes a look at the tools necessary to uncover the well-mannered dog our rambunctious pooches are hiding on the inside. Arthur presents 11 exercises, each of which builds on the previous one, designed to teach your dog to relax and to focus on you, including—among other important skills—choosing to relax and greeting strangers calmly.   The book is full of fascinating information, backed by scientific research, that occasionally contradicts commonly held beliefs. For instance, many of us have been taught that exercise, exercise, exercise! will result in calmer behavior in our dogs, but Arthur writes that we need to give our dogs the right kinds of exercise for them, and that “high excitement and overly aroused states such as those seen during hard play or extensive exercise … can force dogs into an overactive stress response.” And stress, as we well know, does not lead to a calm, focused individual. Another example: Did you know that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior states that, using common-sense precautions, early socialization is more important than sequestering a puppy to guard against the risk of infection from other dogs?   This is the first book from Arthur, who is a faculty member of the Karen Pryor Academy and owner of Whole Dog Training in San Diego County, Calif. According to her bio, Arthur’s “quest”—in her work as a trainer and animal-rescue worker as well as in this book—is to “help pets stay in their homes,” and that, it seems to me, is the backbone, the beauty, of this book. I predict that it won’t be long before Chill Out Fido! becomes one of the books most commonly recommended by trainers and behavior consultants for their clients with problem-behavior dogs. We would be doing well as a “humane” society if Chill Out Fido! became required reading for dog guardians everywhere. It’s a simple premise with an enormous reach.  


Dog's Life: Travel
Namesake: The White Dog Café
A Philly legend with a national reputation

Twenty-five years ago, Judy Wicks opened the White Dog Café on the first floor of her Philadelphia brownstone, selling muffins and coffee to go. Today, the restaurant—which now takes up the entire residence, plus two adjacent houses—has a national reputation for both its award-winning cuisine and its owner’s social activism.

The restaurant’s name honors former resident Helena P. Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society (which emphasized altruism, unity and compassion in everyday life), who occupied the brownstone in 1875. The dog entered the story when Madame Blavatsky was laid low with a serious infection of the leg. Refusing to allow doctors to amputate, she addressed the problem by having a white dog lie across her leg at night, “curing all in no time.”

The café and its associated nonprofit, White Dog Community Enterprises (WDCE), have established a tradition of community-building with their support of global fair trade, environmental sustainability, socially responsible business, and peace and nonviolence. Wicks is widely recognized for her work in the local, living economies movement and has a plethora of accolades to her credit, including the distinguished James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year award.

The White Dog Café celebrates its 25th anniversary on September 12 with a “Dance of the Ripe Tomatoes” block party. You can pay $45 for the event (profits are earmarked for the Philadelphia Fair Food Project, one of WDCE’s signature causes), or just show up and dance with your dog for free. If you miss the anniversary party, all is not lost; you and your well-behaved pup are always welcome at the café’s outdoor tables.

White Dog Café
3420 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, Pa.

Culture: Reviews
Shaggy Muses
Ballantine Books, 288 pp, 2007; $24.95

When Maureen Adams experienced a bout of depression after moving her family from Kansas City, Mo., to Sonoma, Calif., her dog Cody adjusted his role from family pet and children’s playmate to calm, supportive presence for the distraught Adams. In fact, the basic tenet of her book stems from this relationship, with Cody—and hence all dogs—serving as attachment figure, witness, source of limbic resonance, bringer of the silly and playful, and guide between the (symbolic or literal) living and dead. Through “mini-biographies” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, Adams illustrates that dogs are sympathetic beings capable of diminishing the suffering of the people who love them.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was chronically ill and for years, barely ventured outside her bedroom. Her dog Flush, a gift from a close friend, was her constant companion. She wrote early on, “He and I are inseparable companions, and I have vowed him my perpetual society in exchange for his devotion.” Adams argues that rescuing Flush on three separate occasions from a notorious band of dognappers is what caused Browning to overcome her anxieties so that she could ultimately escape from the control of her domineering father and elope with Robert Browning.

Emily Brontë’s dog, Keeper, a large Mastiff mix, was a constant and devoted companion, but a power struggle existed between the two. Though there is much in this chapter that one would prefer to look away from, the relationship between Brontë and Keeper was deep and abiding. Adams writes that, upon Brontë’s death, “According to Mrs. Gaskell: ‘Keeper walked first among the mourners to her funeral; he slept moaning for nights at the door of her empty room, and never, so to speak, rejoiced, dog fashion after her death.’ Charlotte [Brontë] often spoke about how Keeper, ‘to the day of its death, slept at her room door, snuffing under it, and whining every morning.’”

The sweet descriptions of Emily Dickinson with her dog Carlo, a Newfoundland, will delight. Carlo gave Dickinson security, as well as a way to express herself to others. As Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf would also do with their dogs, Dickinson often spoke “through” Carlo to express difficult feelings, as in this note to Samuel Bowles, a married man with whom some biographers speculate that Dickinson was in love: “I tell you, Mr. Bowles, it is a Suffering, to have a sea—no care how Blue—between your Soul, and you … and the puzzled look—deepens in Carlo’s forehead, as the Days go by, and you never come.” Dickinson wrote almost nothing in the year following Carlo’s death. She never had another dog, but believed, as she wrote in a note to a friend, that “the first to come and greet me when I go to heaven will be this dear, faithful, old friend Carlo.”

The habit Edith Wharton developed early on and would keep throughout her life was to write first thing every morning, in bed with her dogs. Dogs were one of the few shared interests in her unhappy marriage, and they helped her, as they helped the other women in this book, connect with others. Wharton’s mini-biography also offers an interesting glimpse into the phenomenon of the lapdog as it grew out of the industrial revolution; she seemed always to have novel-at-the-time breeds, including Chihuahuas, Papillons and Pekingese.

Dogs, particularly one special dog named Pinka, helped Virginia Woolf through her bouts with mental illness. Woolf wrote that “Half the horrors of illness cease when one has a book or a dog or a cup of one’s own at hand.” Dogs served an important role in Woolf’s creative process, as she liked to compose out loud while she walked with Pinka, as well as in her romantic process, serving as a vehicle for the erotic feelings Woolf expressed in letters to her lover, Vita Sackville-West. Dogs represented, as Woolf saw it, the private, “play side” of life.

With this book, Adams has created a niche that will thrill those who love literature, biography and dogs. She combines bodies of knowledge from her first career as a professor of literature and her second as a psychologist to explain the importance of canines in the lives of these five inspired and inspiring women. Presented through her psychological and literary lens, the biographies of these celebrated literary figures open up facets of these women’s lives with dogs never before fully explored, and open up to us dog lovers an occasion to see how dogs helped shape the writings and lives that have in turn shaped and inspired us.