Do You Want To Be A Dog Trainer? Read This First.

If you want to be a dog trainer because you hate people and love animals, stop right now.

Every day I hear of people saying "I hate people, so I want to be an animal trainer". Being a dog trainer is as much about enjoying your work with people as it is working with a variety of dogs. You have to be articulate, compassionate, and understanding. You have to be knowledgeable about science, learning theory, animal husbandry and human emotion. You have to be able to know when to push, and when to relax. You have to know different personalities, in humans and dogs, and be able to adjust your tactics accordingly. You are the bridge between two very different species, and you have to love teaching people as much as you love working with dogs.

There are a lot of scams out there catering to the sudden influx of dog trainers and people who want to work with animals professionally. Some will take your money or abuse your time, and you'll have very little to show for it. Being a dog trainer is a lot of hard work, a lot of hours of not getting paid as you're learning, and a lot of grunt work at the beginning. Anyone who says "you can retire at 55 as a dog trainer" or "you'll make 100K a year" is a liar. If anyone says "you can be a dog trainer in one year" is setting you up to fail. Of course, there are lucky ones like Victoria Stillwell and Patricia McConnell who make a lot more money than most of us will- but one is on TV, runs her own dog training business on the side, and is building a positive reinforcement empire. She's working her tush off. The other is a research scientist, a professor, and a dog trainer who has written many books, talks at conferences and again - works her tush off. It's not easy money if you do "make it", and most of us don't make it. We just make it for the individual people we work with, and by "make it", I mean "make their lives easier by helping compassionately". If you don't find that rewarding, find another path.


"OK - I get it. It's going to be hard, and I'm not going to get rich. I'm still in. Now what?"
 You're still crazy enough to try this? 3-5 years of hard work, working two jobs at times, and studying on weekends? Great! Welcome!

The first thing you do is thank your partner if you have one. They will have to be patient, and understand that they won't see you very often. In our home, my husband works days, and my classes are at night. We see each other on Saturdays, and he's the most supportive partner I could have asked for. He takes care of the animals when I'm gone, eats alone most nights, and deals with Cranky Pants Melissa first thing every morning. He never complains, and he supports me all the way. I hope you are lucky enough to find that, and remind that person OFTEN how much you appreciate them. It goes a long way.


Second: Volunteer at a local shelter or rescue league, and log your hours. For the reputable certifications, you'll need to log your volunteer hours and what you did with your time. If volunteering isn't an option, work as a vet tech, or apprentice with a certified dog trainer. There are also training clubs that will happily take volunteers, and in return for grunt work (setting up and taking down of equipment, clean up duty, etc), you have access to several trainers who might be willing to assist you. You'll also see different training styles, and start to see which ones might work for you.

Ask questions and take notes. Have a question? Ask it. Someone too busy to answer you? Find someone else. Use, but be careful of the Internet - you can find some wacky stuff on there. I know I'm saying this as a blogger, one who uses the Internet as a means of getting information out, but know your source. Look for cited information. Everything they told you in High School applies here to finding reputable sources of information.

Start checking out legitimate training certifications. No, you don't need a training certification to be a dog trainer, but in today's industry where any Joe Schmo can put a sign in a window stating that they are a trainer or a "behavior-alist" (not a word!), it helps to set yourself apart. I got my certification through the Council of Certified Pet Dog Trainers, or CPDT. It's the certification that seems to be the most widely recognized, and assesses you on your knowledge of subject matter appropriately. They are making strides to add other levels to the certification process, but for now, start with basic CPDT-KA exam (KA stands for Knowledge Assessed).

The test is 250 questions, multiple choice, and you have to demonstrate your knowledge of Animal Husbandry, Learning Theory, Instruction Skills, Equipment used in training, Ethology, and Ethics.

Study With Others: If you don't know what Extinction Burst, Negative punishment, or Occams Razor are, you need a study buddy. Studying Learning Theory sucks on your own. It sucks, period, but solo is much harder. I would find a group either online (there is a CPDT Prep Yahoo Group that I found quite helpful). If you're having flashbacks to your college Psychology class, then you paid attention in class. Seriously, the biggest hurdle most people have with the test is the learning theory section - and for me, it was all refresher work from when my psych instructors beat learning theory into my head.
I remember thinking, frequently:
"When will I ever need to use this stuff?"
Well, now....and every day. (Thank you, Dr. Yachanin & Dr. Eisenberg!)

You have to have 300 hours logged training hours, 75% of which is as lead trainer of a class.

Read. A Lot.  A list that I particularly like is the APDT list of books. Yes, that is a LOT of books. Yes, you need to read a lot of books, but if you can only afford to grab a couple, I really liked Terry Ryan's book, Coaching People to Train Their Dogs. It's an expensive book, but perhaps gave me the most information in a text-book fashion for studying. The other book I recommend is Patricia McConnell's The Other End Of The Leash.  I try to read this once every couple of years to remind me why I do what I do. It's compassionate, it's thoughtful, and it's very human. You won't learn anything about learning theory, but you will learn a lot about humans and animals in general.

Go to conferences. Many of them are quite expensive, especially when you factor in flights and hotels. If you get your training certification, you'll need to keep up your training certification, and the easiest way to do that is through conferences. If conferences aren't an option, you can do "book reports" and submit them to the CPDT. You can also take online classes or listen to online seminars through Raising Canine . They have classes for people who want to be dog trainers, as well as CEU's (Continuing Education Credits) for those of us who already have our certifications. The costs vary, and many find it a MUCH more affordable way to get the CEU's necessary to maintain certification. If you can swing it, the two conferences that I highly recommend: APDT and IAABC. If you're in New England, IAABC is smaller than APDT, and is in Rhode Island each April. It's also cheaper, and you can get face time with many of the speakers. I drove from Boston to Warwick every day. It was a long day, but I got to sleep in my own bed, which was invaluable. APDT is overwhelming, but you walk away with so much information, and I think everyone should take at least 3 days at APDT at least once in their training career.

Network. Get to know the boutique that sells high end dog food. Know all the local vets. Meet with dog walkers, day care providers and other people in the pet industry in your area. Make relationships and get to know the ins-and-outs of every part of doggy life in your community.

Also, don't burn bridges - if you get three people in a room discussing dog behavior, you'll get 3 answers for the same issue. Unless the dog is getting injured or the human/animal relationship is challenged, it's best to let sleeping dogs lie (as the phrase goes).

Practice Teaching. Some people are natural teachers. Some are not. If you fall into the latter category, practice teaching basic skills to anyone who will listen. Talk your partner through making a bowl of cereal. If he/she follows your instructions to a "T", you'll be amazed at how many mistakes will be made. You might forget to tell them to take off the milk lid, or open the box. Start thinking as a teacher, and practice that skill. It's not easy, but with practice, becomes second nature.

And lastly, realize you are in this for the long haul. You'll make great friends, and maybe not-so-great friends in this industry. But keep in mind that the time and effort that you put into this business pays off emotionally. For a lucky few, it pays off financially. If you can manage to stay afloat financially and be happy going to work everyday, then as far as I'm concerned, you made it. Work hard, and never stop learning.

I've been certified since 2008, and worked for 3 years before that, dog training at night while working other 9-5 jobs to make ends meet. Every week I still learn something new, or am proven wrong in some fascinating way. If you don't like being proven wrong, or are too fixed in your way of thinking to imagine other possibilities, then this isn't the job for you. If you have a flexible imagination, can take hits to your pride, you love people & dogs, you can manage working a day job while doing grunt work at night, studying on the weekends, and cleaning a lot of pee (my god there is a lot of pee in this business), then you're on the right track and I wish you luck :)

I hope this helps.

 ~Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA
 Member APDT #77459
co-Training Director of New England Dog Training Club (NEDTC.org)