How to Become a Professional Dog Trainer

I named the voice in my car’s GPS system Martin. I thought it was a suitably proper, British name for a voice that sounds remarkably real for being computer generated. At times, Martin provides me with a bit of amusement, such as when he says “At the roundabout, take the first right hand turning,” or “If possible, make a u-turn.”

Oh Martin, you are so polite. If I was the voice in my car I might be tempted to say “You missed the turn! Turn around, go back and follow my instructions.” Luckily, I have far more skill and patience when teaching dogs and their people than when trying to navigate somewhere in my car.

Martin and I have had a generally good relationship. Although, not so much when I am lost and feel he isn’t doing his part to get me on the right track. In the last year or so, I have started to feel that after five years together, Martin and I might be getting on each other’s nerves. As a result, I suspect he occasionally chooses to purposefully provide me with inaccurate directions or at least a route that is far longer than necessary. But, if we were in couples therapy I suspect the counselor would point out that in the end, Martin always gets me where I want to go. Even if it takes a bit longer than I had hoped.

For example, I was recently headed to upstate New York to visit a friend. They had given me directions to their house, but I figured it would be safer for me to let Martin know where we needed to go and let him talk me through it rather than rely on having to look down at a piece of paper while trying to focus on the road. My friend told me the trip would take no more than an hour and a half. Martin sent me on a path that took just over two. Maybe he wanted to see some of the prettier side roads? I arrived at my friend’s house in a huff and announced that I would be calling the dealer to find out if I could replace Martin with a new GPS system. I had visions of Daniel Craig’s voice leading me on the fastest route to wherever I wanted to go.

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My friend pointed out that I was being a wee bit impractical. Not only would a new GPS system probably cost far more than it was worth, but it is highly unlikely that ‘Bond, James Bond’ is looking for side jobs as the voice of a GPS system. She also suggested that I might try to follow my own advice. I was reluctant to offer any gesture that she might interpret as encouragement to elaborate. So, I pointed out how beautiful her house was looking now that all the trees and pretty flowers were blooming. My distraction ploy didn’t work. After a brief pause, she said “Didn’t we just chat about how people need to be willing to slow down and take their time when trying to become a professional dog trainer? Maybe you should do the same when trying to get somewhere?” All the greenery, the birds chirping, and the presence of a good friend had started to put me in a positive, reflective mood. Maybe she was on to something?

Of the many emails my dog training school in NYC receives each week, at least five to ten are from people asking for advice on how to become a professional dog trainer. Some are very specific, such as “I want to be a dog trainer on TV. Can you tell me how to do this?” Others are more general, such as “I have always loved dogs and would love to spend my time with them rather than behind a desk. Can you tell me what my options are?”

Many of these inquiries include a question about possible attendance at a school for trainers. While I am sure there are plenty of people who have benefited greatly from this, I do not generally encourage people to do so if they are expecting to leave the school ready to start their career by offering private lessons, group classes, or board and trains for puppies or adult dogs.

Six to eight weeks of schooling, whether in person or especially if on-line, is, in my humble opinion, not an ideal option to become a professional dog trainer. Just as I wouldn’t expect to acquire the necessary skills and experience to become a piano teacher, high school math teacher, or counselor by attending a course of this type, neither is it likely that a person hoping to help others learn to teach their dogs will acquire the necessary skill in this time frame nor in this manner.

While there are some aspects of training dogs that does not require an enormous amount of experience (for example, teaching a puppy to sit), the reality is that most pet parents expect a trainer to be equipped to assist them with a myriad of issues. Many of which are best resolved by someone who has dealt with the issue previously and successfully and has a full trainer’s toolbox (filled with loads of experience) with which to do so. A 6-8 week training course might be a start for one’s education, but enrollment should probably not be based on a hope to finish the program ready to start a career without much further study and most certainly not without many, many, many hours of hands on experience.

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If you do choose a program such as this as a foundation for the beginning of your education, be sure to carefully research the program prior to enrolling. Make sure the school is devoted to humane methods and look for a program that offers coursework that includes (but, is not limited to the following); Learning Theory (classical and operant conditioning, shaping, desensitization and sensitization, positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment, motivations, generalization, and a history of training; Animal Behavior (development, genetic influences, body language, social and hormonal influences); Teaching Skills (screening, counseling and motivating clients, and designing courses and materials).

Working with dogs and their people has a very long list of upsides. The most obvious being that you get to meet and interact with loads of dogs (I am still thinking about the little Bullmastiff pup named Shelby who recently attended one of our puppy training classes in New York City. So, so cute!. Another wonderful positive about being a professional dog trainer is the feeling you get when you have a student who goes from being frustrated with (and even angry at) their dog to beaming proudly as they show off all the new skills you helped them teach their canine best buddy.

Sometimes all it takes is helping to teach their dog to offer an automatic sit to greet people so that he doesn’t jump on visitors. Sometimes it is more challenging, such as helping someone teach their dog to be able to rest calmly and quietly when left alone so the angry letters from neighbors and the landlord cease, or helping someone with a dog with aggression issues. But, in every case the goal is the same; Helping people help their dogs to live a better quality of life that is filled with much happiness. It’s no surprise we get so many email inquiries from people about how to become a dog trainer. Who wouldn’t want a career helping dogs to be happier?

As wonderful many aspects of the profession are, before you decide to quit your current job it’s important to carefully consider some of the more challenging realities of a career as a professional dog trainer.

Many people express their desire to work in a profession that is all about dogs because they don’t like people all that much. But, when a dog walks into a group class or a private lesson, there is usually a person or two at the other end of the leash. At a bare minimum, 50% of a dog trainer’s interactions are going to be with people. Actually, more likely 80-90% of their time is spent teaching people. So, if you are interested in a career as a dog trainer in part as a way of avoiding people, I would suggest you instead consider a position as a night watch person or a lighthouse keeper. To be a dog trainer you have to enjoy interacting with people on a pretty consistent basis. You are essentially coaching people to guide their dogs towards better behavior.

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Also keep in mind that people often contact dog trainers when they are already at their wits end in regards to their dog’s behavior. So, they are frustrated, sometimes angry, and often requesting immediate behavior changes. As such, when asked “What’s the most difficult type of animal you have worked with?” the answer is usually something like this: “Out of all the many different types of dogs, cats and other animals I have worked with, the most difficult is by far…the human animal!”

But, if you enjoy working with people and all the challenges that working with them to accomplish their goals may entail, then read on.

Another reality of becoming a dog trainer is the typical range of monetary compensation that you can expect. Most dog trainers, even the best, don’t live in fancy apartments or houses and many have a full-time job outside of their animal-related career. Dog training is something they make time for during evenings and weekends. This allows them to maintain a stable income and in some cases health benefits. Of course, this means they work many hours a week, juggling two professions. Most aspire for training to eventually be their sole, full-time career. But, for most, it takes many years to build a reputation and dog training practice that can sustain them. I spent two years apprenticing without pay and another two after that building my own practice while working numerous other jobs.

Some of the people who have written to me over the years have become part of my dog training team at my dog training school in New York City. For them and myself, the path of building our professional dog training careers has been a long one that includes years spent apprenticing and attending seminars and workshops. The goal being for our professional life to be all dogs and their people, all the time. To follow are some of the steps we took to get here:

Join as many group classes as you can afford with as many experienced, professional dog training instructors as possible. This way you get a sense of various teaching styles. Most importantly, it provides an opportunity to develop great hands on skills with your own dog.

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Get your hands on as many books about training and animal behavior as you can. I have read countless dog behavior and training books and written numerous myself, including Dog-Friendly Dog Training, Barron’s Dog Training Bible, Train Your Dog the Lazy Way, and the Little Book of Dog Tricks.

Attend Seminars and Workshops: There are loads of one day, weekend, and week long seminars offered throughout the year.  Some of my best memories from the beginning of my career are the times spent at these sorts of events. In particular, I remember a wonderful week long workshop in California where we split into groups to solve problems and puzzles and to teach the dog assigned to our group specific tasks relted to service dog work. I suspect we would have learned a lot is we had been given the same challenges to do on our own. But, we learned a lot more than I had expected about group dynamics (great for people interested in teaching group classes) and how our behavior affects others.

Volunteering at a local shelter or rescue group is a great way to be around dogs of a variety of sizes, ages, and temperaments. But, a word of caution: Do not apply to volunteer with the sole intent of adding to your experience. This is an endeavor that requires a serious commitment of time and energy for the main purpose of helping these groups care for the animals. Some, or much, of what you may be asked to do may be removed from being hands on with the animals (such as cleaning, envelope stuffing, assisting at adoption events, and answering phones). Regardless, it is a good thing to do all around.

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Foster: If you have the time, space and adequate dog experience, consider working with a local shelter or rescue group as a foster parent. You will be helping them to save the lives of more animals, and at the same time learning from each dog you care for.

Apprentice: When I got my first dog as an adult I signed up for a puppy class before I brought him home. I can’t remember what made me do something so wise, but it was one of the best decisions I have made. It resulted in me having a wonderful relationship with a mannerly, well-socialized dog, who became the love of my life. It also brought me an invitation to apprentice at the school. I suspect my obsessive completion of the weekly homework they handed out and my wide-eyed attention to every word they said in class might have given them the impression that I was very committed to learning about their profession. I apprenticed at the school for almost two years before they permitted me to teach private lessons and small group classes. Finding a school where you can apprentice means you will most probably spend many months watching as many classes as possible before you actually assist the instructor. From there, our apprentices may move on to teaching one exercise in a class, and then co-teaching with an experienced trainer. This sets a supportive foundation for gradual progression towards the ultimate goal of teaching classes on their own. Apprentices may also shadow a trainer on private lessons and progress in the same manner.

Continuing Education: I am lucky to be friends with some of the most experienced and talented trainers around. Even they continue their education by learning from each dog and client they encounter, attending seminars and workshops and reading voraciously. So, plan on devoting time, energy and money to your ongoing education for years to come.

When I first started out as a dog trainer it was far from fashionable to have a career with animals. My response to the question “What do you do?” almost always resulted in something along the lines of an uncomfortable pause and then “Oh, a dog walker. That must be a good way to stay fit.” Now, when people find out what I do, a more typical response is “Wow! That sounds like such a great job. I would love to do what you do!” The path to becoming a dog trainer can be a long one, but I think Martin is right to sometimes take the slower, potentially more scenic route. I know for me it has brought me to a wonderful destination. My friend was right; If it takes a bit longer than expected to get where you want to go, just remember that as long as you end up where you want and have great experiences along they way it will be worth the trip.