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.


* Answers:


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.


  1. Lovely. Learning to train dogs is lifelong and a gift.
    It takes most people ten years to learn how to train/handle a sheepdog although the learning curve is about half for skilled horsemen/women. If one is previously committed to treat training, the curve is longer - one has to relearn "seeing" a dog.

    Even then, one is not qualified to teach much more than the fundamentals. It's a catch 22: until one has trained hundreds of different sheepdogs one is not qualified to teach advanced or problem dogs yet . . .

    As Heather notes, mentoring is the usual route whether monogomous or serial.

    Donald McCaig

  2. Excellent. A very good read.

    But I fear you have not really given the folks who write what they **really** want to hear. So here's that in five easy steps:

    1. Speak in a foreign accent like Tamar Geller, Victoria Stillwell, Cesar Millan, Ian Dunbar or Barbara Woodhouse. It's important that you be exotic, as Americans do not believe an American can teach them dog training.

    2. Develop a persona. You need to be a character. For example you could be the school marm, or the dominatrix, the sexy Mosad agent, or the soccer coach.

    3. Develop a few signature lines. Repeat these a lot in the hopes that your "tag" will work its way into the popular lexicon.

    4. Write a book and put a picture of your sexy self on the cover. The book needs to suggest you have a secret system learned in an exotic location, perhaps taught to you my Moroccan circus perfomers, or by wolves in the Sinai, or by a cabal of scientists working in the most deeply cloaked part of Area 51. Be a little vague, but be very clear that you alone posses the Seal of Solomon.

    5. Train dogs to a very low level (sit, stay, come, heel) and do it the same way they have always been trained. Almost any system will do for 95% of all dog so long as its foundation is love and consistency.


  3. Good post. I always got the impression from my local Petsmart that they hire dog trainers with a leetle less experience than what you've detailed here. Don't know if it's the same in all Petsmarts.

  4. Shirley, PetsMart has an explicit policy against hiring experienced trainers.

    They want blank slates for their indoctrination to "accredited" status. Just follow the booklet, Tiffany, and this week, sell these cookies.

    I know a few people who slipped in under the radar, and for a short time actually trained in the aisles there. They are getting better at spotting such interlopers.

    PetCo is slightly different, as I understand it.

  5. Excellent post. I have been training my own dogs for more decades than I care to acknowledge. I was baffled when I started volunteering at my local SPCA and they started introducing me to people as their "dog trainer". I didn't consider myself a dog trainer, just someone who gives dogs life skills. Maybe I'll write a book so I can be professional and live on something more than social security when I retire.


  6. Who's the pretty saddleback on the far left in the picture?

    jan (NESR)

  7. That's Mary O's Rip -- Quinn's brother? Nephew? Cousin? -- I bet you know without looking it up.

  8. Wonderful post, and oh so true. I know a few people taking correspondence courses to become dog trainers, not a one of them can train worth a lick. Sigh.


  9. Very well-written post, especially this part:

    "An education should be, among other things, an inoculation against the credulous acceptance of nonsense, fads, and superstition."

    I do have one question that I've been wondering about, and reading it here has only made me wonder mow.

    What is the difference between a trainer who does practical obedience-training vs the formality of competition and titles? I know a trainer who USED to do a lot of quality protection work with dogs, but has never taken any of his to trial due to what he sees as lowered standards. Yet most clients he's worked with (including my family) have a very very high success rate with obedience training. I don't know many families who immediately want to do actual competition obedience with dumbbells and gloves and jumps...most people I talk to just want their dog to behave (and I know the competition can come later, once they realize the bond they can have with their dog through basic training anyway). For those who really don't want to go that route, is it "wrong" per se to work with them as their dog's trainer if one has a high success rate in practical, realistic general obedience up to off-leash reliability (aka the CGC/TDI trainer)?

    I'm sure you can see the personal bent of the question, and I have confidence that I'll achieve the "I've actually titled dogs" tier one of these days, but until then? I've just been bothered about this for a while.

  10. A friend of mine started an ISP back when hardly anybody knew what that was. As it became apparent that being an ISP meant directly competing with the likes of AT&T and GTE (later Verizon), he started focusing more on Cisco router and networking gear consulting and sales. Because the jobs were starting to get to be too big for him to handle all by himself, he picked up a Cisco Certified Network Engineer who had previously worked with the electronics distributor Ingram Micro.

    Now, a CNE is a pretty highfalutin' cert; you should know your way around the entire product line, top to bottom, which meant at the time that you had a very broad knowledge of not only Cisco gear but telco offerings as well. Unfortunately, when it came time to start doing design work, this new hire came up blank, and kept bugging my friend with questions about this, that, and the other thing -- i.e. being a nuisance.

    Well. After some digging, my friend found out that

    a) Ingram wanted to get into the then-hot, hot, hot business of Cisco network design, but
    b) suffered from a paucity of CNEs needed to get the job done.

    It turned out that all it took to rectify this situation was for Ingram to say the right magic words (that started with a dollar sign and had six significant figures behind it), and voilĂ ! Instant expertise.

    (Of course, this was back in the days when Cisco sales reps could afford to blow you off when you called them. I literally recall one time when someone I knew called the rep, who had given him a cell number for just this purpose, got him at the gym. The rep hung up on him without even letting it roll to voicemail. Good times.)

    You will notice that the CNE has disappeared from the face of the earth. Too easy to get.

  11. Very good post. Wanted to note that by changing a few words, this could very easily be extrapolated to horse trainers too!

    ~Miare Connolly

  12. Thanks! I actually do want to become a dog trainer and work with shelter dogs, and I have 9 years until I can retire and do it full time. I'm working part-time so I can spend one whole day a week at a very good local shelter. I'm a huge reader and a pretty good critical thinker, but it took me a couple of months just to develop the handling skills to get pretty much any dog from kennel to exercise yard consistently without incident or trauma. Quite humbling, that.

    Based on my experience so far, I can see that it will take several years of actual, physical experience before I can really feel confident of both my knowledge and skills. So thanks for validating my sense of what it will take, and giving me an answer to that nasty internal voice that says, "You've been at this six months, why haven't you mastered it yet?"


  13. "What is the difference between a trainer who does practical obedience-training vs the formality of competition and titles?"

    Alright, I'll bite. Keep in mind that while I am a dog trainer, I much more qualified to discuss how to avoid becoming a Dog Trainer than how to become one.

    In my rarely humble opinion, the issue with the practical obedience trainer and the competition trainer is not one of difference, it's one of topsy-turvy perceptions and priorities.

    I have had many discussions with actual Dog Trainers who feel that pet dog obedience is fine if the dog doesn't hold an exact position on a stay versus a location or if he just gets pretty near you rather than hitting a straight front on a recall.

    I disagree. I think those "details" make a huge difference in the dog's perception of your leadership and, quite frankly, as a means to use up canine brain cells that would otherwise be still focused on the much more interesting distraction.

    It is hard to think about a distraction if you've got a job with precise details that you need to get right.

    On the other hand, some "competition" trainers perceive the obedience exercises as parlor tricks to be executed in the relatively controlled environment of the show ring and let their dogs behave outrageously outside that environment.

    The purpose of the obedience exerises is to demonstrate the usefulness of the trained dog. All of my dogs are trained through at least Novice, proofed and used in the real world, even if I never intend to take them in the ring. If I call them from a pile of deer poop 3 acres away, they need to come immediately, at a run, and hit front.

    It's a matter of perspective and philosophy and principles.

  14. Great post Heather!

    I only refer to myself as a "trainer" in reference to my work with my own dogs. I refer to myself as an obedience "instructor" at the obedience club. I have a great passion for learning about all methods and facets of dog training, and believe that if someone wants to be a trainer they should be aware of and skilled in the application of techniques from all four quadrants.

    It's great to see that picture! It reminds me of that wonderful day spent with people who have accumulated so much knowledge of dog training and behavior, and have the experience to back it up!

    Mary O

  15. Hey Mary --

    Yes, I should have captioned that photo. It's from 2004. All the dogs belong to professional trainers, and range in age from five months to, I dunno, pretty damned old -- I think the pointer was about fourteen. (Mel is about ten in the photo, and starting to develop the back problem that eventually killed her -- it is sadly obvious in the photo.) At least a couple of them are rescues, and one was formerly "feral." I think all of them are demo dogs.

  16. Eleanor, thank you for biting (er--um, yeah) :P

    I think I understand what you mean and where you're coming from.

    I think what has jaded me is the "competition" trainers, not the real ones. Anytime I've ever worked with a dog, I demand the same precision and energy in every situation, so I definitely hear you on that calling-off-deer-poop situation. I've never done any ring stuff, but looking at what's required, I can say with confidence that I work dogs through Novice and demand that type of performance out of them, which is what I meant when I said "practical" and "realistic"--not pie in the sky "If I envision bunnies and unicorn farts and wave a liver treat, my dog will not bite the mailman" types of things.

    Still a LONG way from pro, though. Actually, I'm probably going to do NK9 as a start and continue on with apprenticing and trying to learn as much as possible before I really make a business out of it.

  17. Viatecio, you'll do well. I admire your willingness to make the investment and commitment.

  18. Heather that was soooo well written. Wondering if you knew of anything similar (or if you'd ever pen something yourself) about "How Do I Find A Dog Trainer?"

    THAT seems to be the real question, because it's still too easy for people to call themselves a sertifyed goggie traynr and pawn unwitting puppy owners for a few hundred bucks, only to have to come to me to fix them.

    I'm not a dog trainer. Never claimed to be a dog trainer. But I've been training dogs for about 12 years, and will happily offer my help if I think it's a task I'm up to.

    In 12 years I have reared puppies, rehabbed and placed a completely feral adult dog, rehabbed and placed a half dozen dogs deemed "aggressive" by trainers, and helped hundreds of families with problem behaviours from separation anxiety to how to walk on a loose lead.

    But I have not yet charged a penny, and I have never referred to myself ever as a Dog Trainer.

    Which only serves to make me infinitely more irate when some local yahoo decides to set up shop and claim expertise over all things canine.

  19. I get both questions, "How do I become a dog groomer" and "How do I become a dog trainer" and pretty much answer both with "start with your own dog" - meaning, buy a show quality breed that needs grooming, like a poodle, bichon, aghan hound, terrier, etc, and start going to dog shows where you will see and learn not only how to groom your own dog for competition, but what other breeds are supposed to look like, basic dog anatomy, the reasons for the various trims and what is empathized in each breed, etc. Trainers? Train a dog through the basic obedience classes (Rally, CD, CDX, UD), and some agility too. Once you've spent the time and energy to build your own credentials, with your own dogs, you won't need anyone else to answer the question for you. Sadly both professions are being ill-served by "on-line" learning. And both get calls from the on-line "schools" asking us to finish (start?) their job for them by taking in their "graduates" as interns. Asking us to do for free what they can't do, at all.


I've enabled the comments for all users; if you are posting as "anonymous" you MUST sign your comment. Anonymous unsigned comments will be deleted. Trolls, spammers, and litigants will be shot.