Monday, May 17, 2010
How Do I Become a Dog Trainer?
This is one of the most common questions I get in private emails from strangers out of the blue.
And though I'm pressed for time, I'm generally happy to tell them.
Typically -- not always, but most of the time -- I get a reply that makes it clear that I did not answer the question they meant to ask when I answered the question that they actually wrote down.
The questions that inquirers meant to ask are:
Should I enroll in this dog-training school?
How do I get my own teevee show and be a celebrity dog trainer?
What kind of instant credentials can I buy, since I already know everything about dogs due to loving them all my life?*
The question that I stubbornly answer is the title of this post -- and here is my answer, for those who are really interested.
First, accept that your timeline for professionalization is not days, weeks, months. It's not a year from now. It will take years of hands-on and book learning for you to earn the right to charge people money for your services, or for that matter, affect an air of expertise when slinging free advice.
There is no shortcut. I'm going to repeat that. There is no shortcut.** What we old farts still quaintly call a correspondence school will not make you a dog trainer.† A two week, six week, or six month training course will not make you a dog trainer. Dog training is a profession, a science, an athletic discipline, and an ancient art. You do not master any of the above via a crash course. (And if you think you can make up for a long process of assimilation, processing, drilling and cogitation on experience with fourteen-hour-day "intensity" -- ask me to translate some ancient Greek text for you without my grammar on one knee and a Liddell lexicon on the other.)
You must also accept that the fact that you want to be a dog trainer does not guarantee that you will have the aptitude to succeed at it. Even hard work does not get everyone there. Some people are born with physical gifts and qualities of perception that allow them to be effective with animals with little or no formal training. Most of us have more modest natural talents that we develop through study and practice. Some people are just not cut out for it. This is not a moral failing. The most common limiting factors are inadequate communication skills (with people) and physical limitations, including poor timing that does not improve acceptably with practice. (Many physical "disabilities" have workarounds, BTW.) On the plus side, fewer sincere efforts fail than in, say, professional sports, medical school, or rock 'n' roll bands.
If you are a young person, in high school or recently out, my most important advice is that you enroll in the best college that you can get into/afford, and pursue an expansive liberal arts course of study. Study the biological sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and anything else that piques your interest. Take hard classes from professors who will criticize you, and learn to accept that criticism and improve from it. Because you are not there to acquire a trade or inflate your self-esteem -- you are there to initiate a life's journey as a thinking adult who can grow and learn as a citizen, a professional, and a human being for the next sixty years. An education should be, among other things, an inoculation against the credulous acceptance of nonsense, fads, and superstition. If the college is any damned good and you aren't irredeemably stubborn, your unexamined prejudices won't make it out alive.
You are likely to come out of college with a different career goal than the one you entered with, too. That's fine. It's how it's supposed to work. I'm not here to evangelize to seventeen-year-olds, and you are not required to choose your life's work one bare decade after reaching the age of reason.
If you are a career-changing adult, well, we all need to fall back on what we have learned, both formally and in the course of life. You might consider some community college classes in any knowledge areas where you may have lacuna; that could be biology, ethology or something more skills-oriented such as public speaking. You are going to be fitting in your professional development around your other commitments. Don't quit the day job yet.
So, in no particular order, here are the elements of the education of a trainer, which you can fashion into a three-to-ten-year plan for yourself depending on your individual circumstances and goals:
Read widely, read aggressively, read critically. Just because it's in print doesn't mean the author ever had a clue. Read new and old books; do not commit the error of believing that "new" supersedes "old," or that "popular" equates to "sound." (Conversely, "old" is not always "classic.") Read up on canine evolution, ethology, training, health, reproduction, development, grooming. Read books about breeds, because you should know dog breeds cold. Read about hunting, police work, search and rescue, service work, guide work, detection work, therapy. Read about behavior problems and pathologies. Read books written for professionals with doctorates and books written for schoolchildren. Read bad training books that are popular right now, because you need to know what's floating out there in the ether that your clients are going to inhale. Read about training other species. Read about counseling, pedagogy, personal safety, zen, marketing. Read scientific papers. Take notes. Buy the books you find most important and useful. You will continue reading aggressively forever
Train Your Own Dog(s)
I do not mean "Teach your puggle a parlor trick at home." (Though parlor tricks are a great skill for a trainer's personal dog.) You need to enroll in classes with the best local instructors, and achieve something with your own dog or dogs. Best student in your basic class graduation does not qualify you for anything other than enrollment in the next level of class.
Train your dog(s) to a high level of obedience. Compete and win titles, and/or qualify them and engage in real work. Your own dogs are your most credible credential. If the instructor's demo dog can't hold a down-stay during class, what chance do the students have with their animals? If the pro trainer hasn't been vetted through competition with hobbyists or an objective working-dog evaluation (not a CGC or the equivalent "therapy dog" test) then where does he get off taking people's money.
This is no place for jokes about the shoemaker's children. The trainer's dog is his advertising, his credibility, and his training partner. No excuses.
Explore different training venues as you train your own dogs -- local training businesses, obedience clubs, schutzhund clubs, etc. (Not big-box retail stores.) Observe the different instructors, their methods, their teaching styles, and think about their various strengths and weaknesses. Be a good student, be willing to give an honest try to each instructor's homework.
(If you are a young person, in college or your parents' home, or otherwise in a life situation where you cannot or should not own a dog for a while, then seriously, borrow a dog to train in group classes. You may be able to do this with a dog from a shelter or rescue who needs training to become adoptable or more easily adoptable. This is a great incentive to do your homework and pay attention in class; the dog is depending on you to get him a home.)
The apprenticeship is the cornerstone of a trainer's professional development. This could be quite formal, with one demanding mentor putting you through a progressive multi-year program, or informal, as you learn from a number of different experienced teachers. It is up to you to ensure that you and your mentor see the relationship and any mutual or reciprocal obligations the same way. It is up to you to find a mentor who can (and is willing to) share the skill and insight that you need to become a professional.
A mentor will help you with your reading list, introduce you to professional networks, and support your development with both encouragement and criticism. A mentor, or several of them, is your best resource for improving your hands-on dog skills.
Expect to put in a lot of grunt work for your mentor(s); however, if you are still scooping kennels (and doing nothing else) after six months of "apprenticeship," you are being exploited as unpaid labor, not educated. If you find yourself teaching your mentor's group classes for no pay, and he is not supervising and critiquing you and your students' progress systematically, then you are being exploited and the paying students are getting ripped off.
Seminars, conferences and workshops can also contribute to your education as a trainer and expose you to different ideas, tools, and techniques. Choose your con-ed investments of time and money with some care, as not all presenters are worth what it costs. Beware of becoming a seminar-junkie; wannabe trainers who hop from workshop to workshop, latching onto the Latest Thing like cultists until the next Latest Thing at the next seminar. (See above re: a good education as bullshit vaccine.)
Find a local 501(c)3 shelter, rescue group, service dog training organization, SAR unit -- all of the above.
Volunteer to do what is needed -- walk shelter dogs, home-check potential adopters, foster animals in your home, socialize pups, hide for search dogs. Don't expect to waltz in, proclaim your intention of becoming a trainer, and find yourself in charge of training. They've heard it before. If you prove yourself to be reliable and professional as a volunteer, you'll find opportunities to help train and finally be responsible for training.
You can learn a great deal by working with a wide variety of shelter dogs. They will be different ages, temperaments, breeds -- but almost all of them will be utterly untrained. Exploit the opportunities they provide for you, and keep ever-mindful that each dog will require slightly (or drastically) different techniques and test your skills in different ways.
Pro bono work is part of being a professional. Expect to volunteer in some capacity for your entire career. Research your options and choose well-run, focused, accountable animal charities that are fiscally responsible and as drama-free as you can find.
Develop respectful, collegial relationships with other trainers and dog professionals such as veterinarians, groomers, ethical breeders, shelter workers. Join the appropriate professional organizations and training clubs, using the same criteria as you should for charities. Exchange information, insight, contacts.
You will notice that I don't have a subheading for credentialing or certification. That's because credentials are something you earn through your work as a professional; they are external validation of what you already are. They aren't magic charms that turn you into a professional. The "popular" ones are popular because they can be bought or easily gained, and tend to have the effect of convincing their bearers that they have more skill and knowledge than they do. I have chosen NADOI membership and endorsement, which is difficult, and encourage others who have met the requirements to do so.
Ask the Leather Queen. (I also suggest affecting an accent of some sort. Try Jamaican -- that hasn't been done yet. Miss Cleo doesn't count.)
Pay APDT a hundred bucks and stop bothering me. They will take your money -- I guaranfreakintee it -- and you didn't offer me any, did you?
** If I knew the shortcut, I would not tell you. But there is no shortcut.
† Anyone remember the comedian who had the bit about correspondence schools in which he did an impression of a terrorized dog living in the house where someone was taking the "vet tech" course by mail? Yeah, it's like that.