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.
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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.
Jean Donaldson, founder and former director of the SF/SPCA Academy, created Academy for Dog Trainers, which will take the form of lectures and training demonstrations, 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.
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.
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 and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference. 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.
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. 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.
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.