I’ve spent a lot of years in the dog world. I’ve managed numerous companies, and I’ve done a LOT of interviewing and hiring for those companies. Any dog trainer who runs an operation requiring hiring other dog trainers to help train the dogs will tell you that it is absolutely one of the most draining parts of this industry. It’s not because there aren’t great dog trainers out there… there are! But those great dog trainers tend to run their own dog training companies, and, unfortunately, so do many of the ones that would really benefit from working with a more experienced dog training team. You see, dog training is an unregulated industry, meaning any dog lover can take an online class and/or attend a weekend training workshop, go home, build a website, and BOOM! They’re officially a “professional dog trainer” looking for new clients. This is a major disservice to dog owners, their dogs, the “dog trainer”, and the dog training industry, but it happens more than you’d think.
When new dog trainers open their own companies and market like they’re experts in their field, unsuspecting dog owners hire them. Since newer trainers don’t have the necessary hands-on experience with a high number of dogs that comes only with years of training, those dog owners are at risk of receiving subpar results… which reflects poorly on dog trainers as a whole and leads to dog owners being skeptical of more experienced trainers who could get them better results with their dog. Dog owners are left thinking their dog can’t be helped, experienced dog trainers can’t staff their facility with the much-needed enthusiastic newcomers to the industry, and many dogs are left with subpar training as a result.
So, what is the correct path to becoming a dog trainer? Here are some of the things that I’ve found most helpful as I’ve navigated this industry over the past 13 years.
Get as much dog handling experience as possible.
Starting out in the dog industry should mean handling as many types of dogs as possible; this means working with dogs of varying ages, sizes, and temperaments. Nothing teaches you more about working with dogs than physically handling them. Most of the high caliber dog trainers I know also have extensive past experience working in boarding and daycare, shelter work, the veterinary field, volunteering with rescues, or otherwise. Working in boarding and daycare taught me how to physically handle large, untrained dogs, how to read body language, and how to interact with clients. The veterinary field helped me learn warning signs of medical issues, vaccine and deworming schedules, and how not to get bit by stressed out dogs. Shelter work and volunteering with rescues taught me all about what leads to dogs ending up in shelters, common behavioral concerns of those dogs, and again… how not to get bit. Training dogs isn’t just training dogs: it’s client interaction, setting realistic expectations, social media marketing, dog photography and videography, being a team player, being physically capable of handling strong dogs, seeing when a dog’s behavior might be related to a medical issue, animal husbandry, being able to read body language quickly, and much, much more. There is no substitute to learning these skills; you have to put in the time.
Take classes from other dog trainers.
This is something that just doesn’t happen enough! An aspiring dog trainer should be taking as many classes as they can with their own dogs, to learn new techniques, watch dog training in action, and to learn tips and tricks from professional dog trainers. When I first started pining for a dog training position at Dog Dynamix, a well-respected dog training company in Denver, I made sure to sign up for classes so I could learn more about the methods used in their training programs. I signed up for every class I could: Rally Obedience, Nosework, Agility, and varying levels of Pet Obedience. I also brought my dogs to various drop-in classes around the Denver metro and attended as many dog training workshops and seminars as possible with dog trainers I admired. Some dog trainers are very secretive about their techniques and won’t allow aspiring or current dog trainers in their classes, but those are dog trainers I would avoid anyway (as we should want to help each other do better whenever possible!). There are countless options available for traveling seminars in all aspects of dog training. All aspiring trainers should be highly motivated to learn and improve their craft by attending available seminars, workshops, and classes.
Consider an internship or training school.
In addition to classes, workshops, and seminars, you can consider a dog training internship or apprenticeship, or attending a dog training school. Available programs can vary in cost, time commitment and expectations, so doing your research into options is important so you find the right fit. Some apprenticeships come with a price tag, an option to work off the cost via work hours, and some might even be paid… but you should go into an apprenticeship understanding that they are a huge time and energy commitment for the dog trainer and the training facility staff, so there will be a high expectation of timeliness, attendance, and commitment. Dog training is a 365 industry with long hours, physical work, and high stress and you’ll need to show you are committed to absorbing the information and getting your hands dirty! Dog training schools and certifications are also great options, but you have to do your research carefully. As mentioned before, dog training is an unregulated industry. This means that organizations are also able to “certify” dog trainers without actually testing their training skills or knowledge. Certifications and graduations are only impressive to more experienced professional dog trainers if they come from reputable organizations who have consistently turned-out knowledgeable dog trainers who know their stuff. While a certification may look good on paper to the average dog owner, most industry professionals know many aren’t worth much in terms of proving proficiency.
Compete in dog sports.
I’ve heard from some dog-hobbyists that dog trainers don’t “need” to have well-trained dogs themselves in order to be considered a reputable dog trainer. Personally, I think the “cobbler has no shoes” analogy is total rubbish in the dog training industry. A dog trainer should be passionate enough about behavior and dog training that they make time to train their own dogs. Nothing improves a dog trainer’s skills like taking their personal dogs training to the next level via competition. A dog trainer who understands the little details in dog training (marker training, reward placement, rate of reinforcement, precise luring mechanics, how to properly hold food, achieving stability, training behaviors around competing motivators, the list goes on and on…) is going to be better prepared to train a pet dog than someone who does not have good understanding of those concepts. Additionally, competition requires taking your dog to a (generally) new location, without rewards or corrections, often without a leash, to perform advanced obedience skills that are being judged to a set criterion by a non-biased third party (the judge). This really puts the dog trainer’s skills to the test! Most dog sports involve training in a club atmosphere, meaning you get to network with other dog sport competitors, help each other learn and grow, and support each other. Whether you compete in Rally Obedience, Competition Obedience, Nosework, or Mondioring, getting out there and proving your training is going to make you a better dog trainer, period.
Find a mentor whose training style you admire.
This is truly the most important suggestion in the list. Nothing will help a new dog trainer learn like having a mentor who wants to help them grow as a trainer and pushes them to do better. Having someone to call on when you’re struggling to make progress with a dog, or when you’re faced with a difficult client, or when you aren’t sure how to approach a particular issue can really help with problem solving and get you better results for your clients. A mentor should be able to advise and guide you through unique challenges, which can help boost your confidence when taking on complex cases or more challenging clients. Your mentor will want to see you succeed, which means they will take on being the person that tells you things you don’t necessarily want to hear (but need to!) so that you can increase your professional skillsets in a way that is positive for you, your clients, and the dogs you train. It might take some time to find the right fit; just because you’ve worked for a few dog training companies does not mean you’ve found a mentor that has developed you into a talented dog trainer. You’ll know when you find that person that helps you build a spark and helps you take your training to the next level.
Work for an established company as you build your experience.
It cannot be stressed enough: if you are a new or aspiring dog trainer, you need to work for an established dog training company before branching out on your own. Dog training can be one of the most rewarding career paths out there, but if done incorrectly it can cause extreme stress for dog owners, their dogs, and dog trainers. Dog training is physical and can be dangerous if you do not know what you are doing. Dog trainers are in charge of helping pet owners navigate life with a predator in their homes. Incompetent training can do a lot of harm, quickly. If you do nothing else, find a dog training team that has talented trainers on staff and learn all you possibly can while building experience with dogs and their owners. There is no appropriate accelerated path to becoming a dog training business owner; you need to put in the work and the time. While it may be true that social media dog influencers have made their way into the industry and have managed to make a name for themselves, it does not mean they are having a positive impact on dogs or our industry.
I hope this guide helps spark some ideas for anyone looking to get into this field. This industry can be tough to get a leg in the door, but it is achievable if you work hard and do things right. If you want to become a talented, respected dog trainer, please, do it right. The dogs, their owners, and your fellow colleagues deserve it.