One of the questions I receive most often is how to become a canine behaviorist or trainer. Neither is a career with a typical path made up of a standard educational program followed by an exam or an approved internship. All of us in the field have carved our own way, which is why there are so many variations on the story we each tell about how we came to do what we do. While there are many paths to a career in this field, some basic advice applies to all of them.
The most important advice I like to give to anyone with an interest in this type of work is that there are two equally important aspects of preparing for such careers. I feel strongly that the best trainers and behaviorists have pursued both avenues as part of their education.
One is acquiring the knowledge you’ll need in this field, and that involves learning a lot about a variety of areas: canine ethology, learning theory, coaching skills, proper equipment, and business. To educate yourself in these areas requires a lot of reading of books and blogs, supplemented by seminars, online or in-person courses, webinars, and workshops.
The second, and equally important area is practical experience and hands-on work with animals. All the book learning in the world will not take you very far as a behaviorist and trainer if you don’t have the skills to actually work with a dog. The best ways to acquire these practical skills are with a combination of workshops, training your own and friends’ dogs, and volunteering at a place with a lot of animals, such as a shelter or humane organization, a rescue group, a veterinary clinic, or a dog-training business.
In my experience, most people are stronger in one area or the other. Either they are really on top of the knowledge and information side of things but a bit weak on dog handling skills or they highly skilled with dogs but could benefit from having more information at their disposal. The people who really excel as dog trainers and behaviorists are balanced—very knowledgeable and highly skilled.
When I started doing this kind of work full time, I was far more advanced in my book learning than my dog handling skills. I had completed my Ph.D. in zoology with an emphasis in ethology, and I was in good shape in terms of what I knew. (To clarify, I think it’s critical not ever to be done learning, so I follow my own advice and continue to learn, especially with a lot of reading and also with webinars and conferences when I can). Though I had good practical skills for working with large colonies of stinging wasps, as was required for my dissertation work, I lacked enough experience with dogs, and that’s what I set out to correct.
I worked as a dog groomer for a year just to get to know my new species of choice, while I worked as an assistant trainer and then as a trainer. I remember after that year when I began my internship with behaviorist Patricia McConnell, she once said to me, “I’m as proud of my dog training skills as I am of my Ph. D. They were equally hard to acquire.” That comment has always stayed with me, reminding me of the importance of excelling in both knowledge and practical skills. These skills must be practiced regularly to be maintained.
If you haven’t yet worked a lot with dogs, you may wonder what sorts of skills I’m talking about. The things that people who work with dogs need to be able to do take practice to be able to do with dogs of every temperament, size, and learning style. They include:
- Getting them in and out of kennels and crates
- Using your own expressions and postures to set even fearful dogs at ease
- Having excellent timing with reinforcement, such as treats and clickers or other markers
- Using your voice and modulating its tone and volume
- Managing the leash when working with exuberant or even aggressive dogs.
- Attaching and fitting all sorts of head collars, harness, and leashes
- Body blocking
- Moving in space with dogs for turns, stops, accelerations
If you are interested in a career as a behaviorist or trainer, know that you will be working with people as much as with dogs. If you want to work with animals because you love them and aren’t so fond of people, this is not the right field for you. People and dogs are two of my very favorite species, which is lucky since I spend so much time with members of both of them.
Best of luck to all of you who want to be in this field. I love my work and I would recommend it to anyone who loves dogs (and people!) as much as I do!