How to Become a Dog Trainer

It's a frequent call to the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Department. "I love dogs. I am at a point where I want to change careers and I would like to become a dog trainer."

The person may have been trained as a computer programmer, or insurance salesperson, or is returning from the military. Most often, the dog training "experience" consists of, "We always had dogs. Since I was seven years old, I've helped my family and friends with their dogs." Then they say, "So, I would like to be a dog trainer and teach other people...where do I start?"

It may sound overly simple, but I believe the first two steps are:

  1. Get a dog.
  2. Train it.

"Train it," means "train it to a recognized standard having been taught by a qualified professional." Start with training your own dog to pass the CGC test. Then choose another more advanced goal such as teaching the skills for beginning rally, obedience, agility, etc.

Personally, I believe when someone wants to become a dog trainer, earning titles is a good way to go. "My dog doesn't need a title to show he is smart," and, "I don't need the feather in my cap of a title," are comments we sometimes hear. The benefit of earning titles if you want to become a professional trainer -- a trainer who is going to teach other people to train their dogs -- is that titles serve as YOUR bonafides. For example, tell me you have trained a dog that has earned the CDX in obedience and I know you have successfully trained a dog to work off-leash in the presence of three different judges in three different settings. Behaviorally, we say you have demonstrated the ability to teach off-leash skills that have generalized to settings other than the dog’s own back yard.

"Well, I can't have a dog right now." If you want to become a piano virtuoso, there's no way around it. You need a piano. If you want to become a good dog trainer, and you want to dispense training advice to others, you need to have quality experience actually training dogs. (Giving advice to family members when you were seven years old does not count). If you aren't in a position to get a dog, consider volunteering for a shelter dog training program.

Knowledge = things you know.

There are some other things you can do to develop dog trainer skills including join an AKC training club, join a dog trainer's organization, go to seminars, and start reading about training. And while they may be a very important part of your professional development, these activities alone are not enough. They will only add to your knowledge about training.

Dog training is very much a motor skill. Motor skills = things you do involving movements and muscles -- how you walk, how you hold a leash, how you hold your body when you call the dog to come. The only way to develop motor skills is by DOING the activity, and being shaped on by an instructor with skills, not reading about it. Dog training is a motor skill just like tennis and golf. Imagine how well you’d play tennis if all you had done was read about it and go to seminars. Knowledge = things you know.

So, when I get the question from someone who wants to start teaching others to train their dogs, I try to be kind and patient. I try to educate the person and make a difference. I say a lot, but if I had to summarize it, I'd say, "Get a dog. Train it."

Find a dog trainer near your location and take the Canine Good Citizen test for your dog.