Dog training is so rewarding - you get to help dogs be the best versions of themselves and assist people who are struggling with their dog's behavior. Seeing a family who was once struggling thrive is incredible. Dog training can also be emotionally taxing, though; you see a lot of sad situations, especially when working with dogs who experience a lot of fear and anxiety or have come from tough situations. If you are considering becoming a dog trainer as a profession - or just for fun - this resource may help you get started.
Note: whether you want to become a trainer for fun or as a profession, we strongly recommend that you stick to force-free, positive reinforcement methods. Check out this article on why positive reinforcement is the safest, most effective option.
Before you pursue becoming a dog trainer, take some time to think about your goals and where you'd like to take training. Identifying your specific interests will help you gain experience that both interests you and benefits your community.
What does it take to be a trainer?
Like most animal-related professions, there's a common misconception that, as a trainer, you just get to play with puppies all day - how fun! But being an effective trainer is so much more than that. You need solid problem solving skills and the ability to think on your feet when you run into new and problematic situations. You need to have compassion and empathy not just for dogs but for the people who are caring for them. An ability to collaborate and work with other professionals in the field - even if they are your 'competition' or you don't fully agree with their methods - is vital to making the most impact on the community. An effective trainer also has a drive to learn, stay up to date on the latest research, and constantly reevaluate their methods to ensure that they are providing the best possible service to their clients.
Who do you want to help?
While most trainers have a wide skillset, almost all trainers have a special area of interest. Maybe you are most interested in helping families with dogs who have a particular behavior struggle - separation anxiety, reactivity, fear. Maybe you want to help brand new dog owners, or help shelters set up programs to help the dogs in their care. While you should certainly work to gain experience in multiple areas, taking some time to focus on what you are most interested in will help you stay motivated.
There are a lot of ways to gain experience in dog training - and no one way is the "right" way. In fact, the most well rounded trainers are those who gain experience through a variety of channels.
Is a dog training school the right fit for you?
There are a couple of programs out there specifically designed to help people become dog trainers. The Academy for Dog Trainers offers a two-year online program for about $7000 and estimates that their pupils spend a minimum of 12-15 hours a week on coursework. The Karen Pryor Academy offers both in-person and online programs, ranging from $250-$5300. These courses may be a good fit for you if you learn well through this kind of academic platform. Many people may find that hands-on, in-the-field experience without a standard program is better suited to them. Again, there's no "right and wrong" here - pick the path that works best for you.
Learning from other trainers
No matter what you do, learning from other trainers is so essential! Everyone has their own style based on their experiences and interests, and seeing how a variety of people train will help you shape your own style. Ask local Certified Professional Dog Trainers if you can shadow a class or session. Some trainers may even have programs specifically for people who are interested in becoming a trainer.
At some point, you will inevitably come across a situation in which you do not agree with a trainer's methods or believe that they could have made a better choice in a particular situation. Consider these occasions learning experiences. In some cases, you may be able to have a constructive conversation with the trainer to find out why they made a certain choice and alternative methods that could have been used. Don't be afraid to ask questions, but do remember that approaching someone with judgement or disapproval will almost always have negative results; keep your mind open and focus on healthy communication.
Of course, as always, we recommend sticking to force-free, positive-reinforcement training methods only. These methods have been proven to be the most effective as well as the safest option for both the dog and the humans involved.
Working with known dogs
While working with your own dogs won't count towards certification hours (more on that below), it will help you shape your skills and allow you to practice new things without the pressure of satisfying someone else's needs. Working with dogs that belong to friends, family, or neighbors does count towards certification hours and is an excellent way to work with a variety of dogs. Ask your friends what skills they would like their dogs to learn and use that as a starting point for learning new things yourself, or look for someone who is interested in whatever you are currently working on.
You almost certainly have a dog shelter or rescue near you who needs volunteers. Getting experience in a variety of environments will help you understand what an average dog's life is like while in a shelter or foster care. In the future, you will likely see a lot of dogs who have spent some amount of time in a shelter or foster care, and your past experience will be helpful in working with those dogs.
Simply handling a variety of dogs in a shelter environment is beneficial; your physical skills will certainly improve, and you'll meet a huge range of personalities. Some shelters may need help with managing certain behaviors (such as reactivity in the kennel) or simply need help teaching dogs basic cues. Others may need help discussing integration or common behavior problems with potential adopters or fosters. Be sure to ask each organization what their specific needs are to make your time valuable for everyone involved.
While dog training is an unregulated industry, there are organizations that offer certification to offer the public a consistent standard of service. If you plan to train professionally, it is likely in your best interest to pursue at least one level of certification. Not only do those letters after your name indicate to potential clients that your skills are up to par, studying for certification will make you a more well-rounded trainer.
Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers
Possibly the most well known certification for dog trainers is the CPDT-KA, or Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed. To obtain this certification, you must log 300 hours of experience and pass a written test. The CPDT-KSA also assesses the trainer's skills through hands-on assessment. The CCPDT also offers the CBCC-KA and CBCC-KSA certifications - Certified Behavior Consultant Canine. This certification is the "advanced certification for dog trainers who offer canine behavior modification." The CCPDT requires trainers to pursue continuing education each year and renew their certification every three years.
International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
The IAABC sets the standard for behavior consultants around the world. They offer certification for a variety of species as well as a shelter-specific accreditation. To obtain this certification, you must pass an application process that includes assessment of your knowledge and submit written case studies.
Study, study, study! Check out these resources for more guidance on becoming a dog trainer.
There are hundreds of books on dog training and behavior out there. We've compiled a list to get you started.
We've also compiled a variety of online resources from dozens of trainers and organizations. Check out videos, articles, and blog posts on topics from basic manners to aggression to research and theory.
There are all kinds of groups out there on dog training and behavior. We love the Canine Information facebook group - find endless information on any topic you'd like, all research-based.