So you want to be a dog trainer? It’s common for dog lovers looking for a career change to consider dog training as an option. Being a dog trainer can be an incredibly rewarding job. You spend your days surrounded by dogs, plus you get to help people and their pets live together happily and harmoniously.
However, people often call a dog trainer only when they have a problem on their hands. This might mean working with reactive dogs or those with separation anxiety or other issues. It can be stressful and challenging trying to help owners work through such issues, and happy endings are never guaranteed. So, if you desire to be a dog trainer but your only credentials are owning or training your own dog, be aware that you have work to do.
Train Your Own Dog
The first step in your journey should be training your own dog. If you don’t currently own a dog, find one you can spend a lot of time with so you can build a regular training routine. Don’t just teach the basics like “sit” or “down.” Teach advanced skills too, such as staying put with the added challenge of distance and distractions. The AKC Canine Good Citizen test is an excellent goal to work towards. Also consider taking up a dog sport with your dog so you can really dig into the technical aspects of training like timing, rate of reinforcement, and reward placement. Finally, modify any problem behaviors as you encounter them.
In the end, your dog doesn’t have to be perfect. But your potential future clients will need help with all kinds of behaviors, so you need hands-on experience with whatever you might be required to teach. All that experience will help to hone your abilities. Training is a mechanical skill, so before you can demonstrate it to students, you need to develop a high level of proficiency by practicing on your own dog.
Apprentice With Other Dogs
Training your own dog is valuable but remember, your dog loves you and will forgive your mistakes. Fumbling with treats or accidentally rewarding the wrong behavior won’t bother your canine companion. However, your clients might not be so patient. Plus, a good dog trainer knows more than one method to train a behavior. For example, the lure-and-reward method might have easily helped your dog learn to sit, but another dog could need a completely different approach.
The best way to polish your skills and practice other approaches is by working with dogs who aren’t your own. You can ask friends and family if you can teach their dogs. Or, you can talk to local shelters or rescue organizations about working with their dogs. An even better idea is to apprentice with a successful dog trainer. That will not only give you access to more dogs, but you will also have somebody monitoring your technique and guiding your development. Check with local dog trainers in your area to see if anybody is willing to take you on as an apprentice or assistant.
Train People to Train Their Dogs
A secret about dog training is that most dog trainers don’t train dogs. They train people. Your main job as a trainer will be to teach your clients how to do the training for themselves. That means dog trainers need people skills. Even if you prefer pets to people, you need the ability to motivate your clients, shape their abilities, and reinforce their successes.
Therefore, no matter how many dogs you’ve trained, until you’ve worked with human clients, you only have part of the necessary package. Again, you can work with friends and family and guide them to train their own dogs. Or you can apprentice with a professional trainer and gain experience with their clients.
There are a lot of myths about dogs and their motivations, but modern dog training is based on the science of animal behavior and learning. Therefore, part of becoming a dog trainer is educating yourself in those areas. For example, it’s important to understand the four quadrants of operant conditioning or how classical conditioning works. You won’t be able to problem-solve for your clients or adapt your techniques to a given situation if you don’t understand the principles behind your techniques.
There are plenty of excellent resources regarding dog training that can help build your knowledge. For instance, training schools, like the Karen Pryor Academy, offer a variety of dog training courses and webinars, both in-person and online. Just be sure to look at the credentials of whoever is offering the course to be sure their teachings are scientifically sound. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers maintains a list of resources that can help you start your search.
Becoming A Certified Dog Trainer
Now that you’ve worked with dogs and people, and taken the courses, you’re ready to jump into dog training. First, join a professional organization like the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Membership in organizations like this will show your clients you are serious about your new profession. Plus, your membership will provide you access to information and courses that will keep you up to date on all the latest training advancements. An extra bonus is being included in the organization’s trainer locator database, allowing potential clients to find you more easily.
Next, look into certification. You don’t need any formal education or certification to call yourself a dog trainer. However, if you’ve done all the hard work, why not prove it to your clients. For example, to earn the title of Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed with the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, you need to complete a minimum of 300 hours of experience training dogs in the last three years as well as pass a 180-question multiple-choice exam. With standards like that, certification will ensure potential clients have faith in your skills and choose you over other dog trainers.
Lastly, never stop learning! The field of dog training is ever-evolving, so it’s important to stay on top of the latest research and techniques to ensure you become the best dog trainer you can possibly be.