I frequently get questions from people asking how to get involved in the field of dog training and behavior. If you’ve ever wondered what it would take to break into dog training as a career, read on. Many of these tips might also apply to other nonveterinary health professions, including grooming, dog walking, and pet sitting.
First, take a lot of dog-training classes and train your own dogs to a high level of fluency. I attended every class and lesson I could with my dogs, even just to observe. You may find out that you don’t enjoy training dogs and that you’d be happier in a different pet profession -– but the only way you’ll find out is to jump into the training pond.
It’s very important to find someone to work directly with while you gain your new skills. After I watched and assisted in classes, I then led them with my mentor alongside me, and we repeated this with private lessons for behavior issues. It took a few years, but there is nothing more valuable than getting consistent feedback on your training and teaching skills while you get hands-on experience with a variety of breeds and issues.
Depending on the type of training you want to do, there are a number of educational options. Generally, those competing in dog sports are educated via the mentoring process, competing with their own dogs, attending classes, seminars, and conferences. If you’re working with family pets, attend courses like the Karen Pryor Academy, Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers, or James O’Heare’s Companion Animal Sciences Institute.If you want to specialize in behavior modification for severe issues, look into formal higher education, including advanced degree programs related specifically to learning, cognition, and applied behavior analysis. Veterinary behaviorists, the Jedis of dog-behavior modification, have veterinary medical degrees and advanced degrees in behavior, and are able to both create training plans and prescribe appropriate pharmacotherapy.
Rounding out your skill set is very important. While many trainers are fantastic dog trainers, many also need to work on their people and business skills. Learning more about how to better serve your human client base (after all, they’re the ones signing your paychecks) through outfits like TAGTeach, and checking out local business support options and organizations, will help you get your business off on the right start.
Networking allows you to learn from and collaborate with many experienced trainers. You can do this via social media, conferences, and seminars. I recommend you join some of the many great professional organizations, like the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. You should also talk with other pet pros in your area. I specialize in behavior modification and training for family pets, so it’s a luxury to be able to refer clients who are interested in competitive sports to talented trainers who offer those services.
You can never stop learning. There are no stupid questions, everyone had to start somewhere, and most experienced trainers are willing to take a few minutes at a conference or in an online group to answer some pressing questions. Learn from trainers who train like you and those who train differently from you. Think critically.
It can take years to build up a client base, and you may want to ease into your training career while maintaining another job with guaranteed income during the process.
This list is certainly not an all-inclusive guide to being a dog trainer. In addtion to the resources I linked to above, also check out DogTec, which is the best online site when it comes to providing business support for dog trainers, and the books How to Run a Dog Business: Putting Your Career Where Your Heart Is by Veronica Boutelle, and So You Want to Be a Dog Trainer by Nicole Wilde.
Have you considered a career in training dogs? What has your experience been like? Let us know in the comments.