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.