Originally posted in October 2010
About once a month, someone from outside of the training school calls me up asking how to become a professional dog trainer. About twice a year, these folks are nice animal lovers who don’t own dogs! In the spirit of helpfulness, I would like to talk about how to become a professional dog trainer. It really isn’t any harder to become a professional dog trainer than it is to become a professional anything else. You need a solid education in the field along with some experience, and where necessary, you need to write qualifying exams. For example, if a doctor got the sort of call I get from a very nice person who wanted to become a doctor that I get, I imagine that the conversation might go something like this:
“Hello, this is Dr. Mike.”
“Hello Dr. Mike, this is Sally and I would like to be a doctor. What can you suggest that I do to achieve this goal?”
“Well, let’s start with volunteer experience. Have you volunteered at a hospital or in a doctor’s office?”
“No, I want to be a doctor now. I don’t want to volunteer.” Or alternatively, “Oh, I would love to volunteer in your office, doing examinations and surgery!”
This is the sort of conversation I have with people who want to be professional dog trainers. They want to start where I finished up! I have to admit that I started out as a dog training instructor the wrong way round, but back in the day, when I started teaching, there were few options other than the way that I started. I started out by purchasing a dog and spending two years learning how to train her. After that, I borrowed two dogs from a room mate and took them to classes. I showed all three dogs in matches and trials. A few years later, I got a second dog and trained him. Then when my boyfriend at the time had a dog who was aggressive, I worked with that dog and started a little training club for me and my friends. After a year of volunteer coordinating, I charged a small fee to join our classes. I taught this way for the next seven or eight years and then I opened Dogs in the Park as a school. By that time, I had read thousands of articles, participated on a wide variety of internet chats and BBS’s, and had read hundreds of books on the subject, as well as attending workshops and seminars to learn more of my craft. Once the school was opened, I went back to university and took some upper year behaviour courses. Then I wrote and passed the Certified Pet Dog Trainer exam (now the Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed exam, through the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog Training-www.ccpdt.org) and was grandfathered into the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants as a clinical member. This is not how I would recommend that you go about it now!
The first thing I would suggest that you do if you want to become a dog trainer is get a good feel for what the job is. There are two basic types of dog trainers-those of us who take dogs in to board, known widely as pro-trainers, and those of us who are actually teaching people as training instructors. Figure out which job interests you. There are spaces available for each type of professional, but what you want to do is going to dictate how you go about developing your craft. Pro-trainers tend to have a specialization such as working with gun dogs, or protection or detection dogs. Instructors tend to have a solid base of pet owners to work with and then a few clients in the upper levels of a particular discipline. A very small number of people train medical service dogs-the demand for these dogs is very high, and thus they are very, very expensive to purchase, but the overhead for the trainers is also very high and you will find that if you want to go into this field, you need to have a very extensive knowledge of disabilities and disability related issues on top of your training and teaching experience. Explore the field carefully before you decide what you want to do, because if you do end up in this field, you will work long hours and many days without days off to make it work.
Next, train a dog through to a minimum standard. I don’t mean teach a dog to sit after you have asked him three times, or after you have waved a steak under his nose or when you have physically forced him to do it. Train a dog through a title, where a third party has looked at your dog, and has determined that your dog knows all the things he must know to pass a test. If herding is your sport this means training a dog to the upper levels in that sport and passing at least a Herding Intermediate test, not passing the Herding Instinct Certificate. The same is true of obedience (you should be able to train a dog through Companion Excellent at least!), retrieving (Master Hunter) and Agility (Agility Excellent). If competitive sports just isn’t your thing, then train a Service Dog from puppyhood to placement, train a Search and Rescue Dog and work that dog. If you haven’t done work with a dog to the extent that you have taught him to do tasks and done them with him, then you aren’t a dog trainer, plain and simple. You should try and get out to three to five events per year where you can strut your stuff with your dog, and if you can get out once a month, so much the better.
At some point, you will need to start to get experience with a variety of dogs and in front of groups of classes. If you are someone who describes yourself as someone who prefers the company of animals to that of people, you may want to rethink working as a professional in the field of dog training. If you are intimidated by job interviews, then working as a pro-trainer for individual dog owners is not for you-because every dog you train comes with an owner who should and often will grill you about your credentials, the dogs you have trained and the titles those dogs have earned. If you don’t love people to the core of your being and if you aren’t willing to bend and flex and change how you do things on a day to day basis, then training service dogs probably isn’t for you either-your clients in this case will need your very best efforts at understanding how they learn, and figuring out how to make things work for them. Service dog training is the ultimate in customer service, and the stakes are high-do your job wrong or poorly and instead of contributing to someone’s quality of life, you will decrease it. If standing in front of a group and explaining concepts and activities and making abstract ideas into the concrete doesn’t thrill you, then reconsider being a training instructor. So with all those caveats, where can you start to get some experience?
Borrow dogs. There are loads of dogs in your life who would benefit from training and at this stage you don’t need to take them to classes. Keep training notes and get commitment from the owners to allow you to work for a specified period of time. At this point in the process, there is little to be gained from fixing behaviour problems. Learn to teach skills before tackling behaviour modification, which is a whole field unto itself. If you are so inclined, work with shelter dogs-but beware that you will be limited in what you can teach them due to time constraints and the limitations that shelters put on volunteers who are learning to train. You cannot learn to teach a dog to come from two hundred metres if you are not allowed to take the dog off leash, or to leave the facility. Some rescues may allow you to do this, but they are not all that common. The time to work with dogs in rescue and shelters is when you know enough to be effective quickly. It is important to respect the dogs in rescue and not use them as guinea pigs for your learning. When I hear about people using shelter dogs to practice basic training skills when they don’t have any background, I think that we are chipping coins into a pot of disrespect and disposal-this dog is a throw away item, and can be assigned to whatever person who comes along. Go and spend time with these dogs by all means-but don’t learn your trade on the backs of the disadvantaged.
If you have come this far with your own education, it is time to invest (yes, that means spending money!) on some more formal education. All the way along, you need to participate in on line discussion groups, read blogs like this one, and borrow or buy books, but at this point you need to get serious. You need to spend the money to go to seminars, to get books and training equipment and sometimes to take university or college courses. The investment in time and effort and money will only pay dividends, even if you walk away from the seminar thinking “well, there is something I won’t do”. When attending seminars, I strongly urge students to NOT take their dogs at least at first. Go to the seminars, listen, take notes, record if you are allowed to do so, but leave Fido at home. Why you might ask? Simply because Fido is not there to learn; you are, and he is not likely trained to spend eight hours in a day hanging out at a seminar. From the standpoint of a dog, these activities are BORING! If you really want to give it a shot, book a private session (yes, more investment!) with the speaker after the event. Clicker Expo is on my list of must see events for all trainers at least once, and preferably twice. Beyond twice, I don’t think there is much to be gained. Suzanne Clothier seminars are good too, and so is her book. Ian Dunbar is entertaining and worth the price of admission at least once. Beyond these three, there is such an incredible amount of information out there that it is worth researching other speakers and considering them. You should plan on attending three to five weekend seminars a year for the first five years of your career. Minimum. If you can get to one a month, that is even better.
If you are starting to think that this sounds like about as much work as a university degree, you are right. It is about the same amount of time, effort and money to do a three year degree program as it is to learn to be a professional dog trainer. And at this point in the process I am describing you haven’t made a nickel to show for your efforts! You should however have a broad network of professionals who have helped you, who are willing to continue to help you and who can give you suggestions about where you might like to end up. This is the time to use that network to find a placement for your “co-op” so to speak. You need to find someone who is willing to mentor you through assisting in classes or assisting in protraining dogs in a given discipline. THIS is the part that I missed, and it is really the most important thing you can do. When my students had problems that I didn’t know how to solve, I didn’t have a mentor to turn to (I do now, by the way!). You may be fortunate enough to have two or more mentors or a school you have attended to help you get even more exposure and experience. By this time you should probably also be looking at your second dog; and you should be very picky about what you are looking for in that dog. That dog should be your business card and your thesis paper all rolled up in one. That particular dog should help you to move from the point of being a student to the point of being a professional. Look for characteristics that will help you, not challenge you; because you want to be able to train that dog to the extent that you can bring him to a job interview and count on him to show off what you can do. (tip; keep notes and video of everything you do in choosing, training and developing this dog! You never know when you may be asked if this is REALLY your work!)
You should plan on being an assistant for one to three years depending upon how much time you have to do this, on how good you are, on how much education you have and on the mentor you have. Your goal should be to be doing elements of the end job as you gain competency. Some people will get to that point quickly and some people will take longer. You need a mentor who is willing to coach you and give you challenging things to do and teach and you need to devote the time to making that worth your mentor’s time. If retrieving is your discipline, that means volunteering to chuck ducks in the cold and mud for hours at a time, in odd hours and in your spare time. If you are hoping to become a training instructor, expect to sweep the training hall, hold leashes and check off enrolment forms. If you are hoping to become a service dog trainer, expect to spend a lot of your time cleaning kennels, walking dogs and helping set up training scenarios. This phase involves a lot of grunt work and some of it unpleasant but in my opinion it is an important phase of development. I learned more about horses from the time I spent cleaning stables than I ever did during my riding lessons, and the same is true of dogs and the dog industry.
Around about this time, you need to start considering what sort of certification is going to be most helpful to you as a trainer. The Certificate of Professional Dog Training (www.ccpdt.org) is a really good bet; it has the advantage of being administered like a board examination, and there is no single course or career path to take to get there. The path described above will help you a lot, with the caveat that you will need to get actual teaching time on the ground under your belt if you want to take that. Different disciplines may have other opportunities too. Because you will be attending the University of You-you get to figure out what is going to benefit you the most. Follow this path, and in three to five years, you too can become a professional dog trainer.