In this day and age, there are many ways to work with animals as a career and one such way is becoming a professional dog trainer! Training dogs is more than just teaching a dog to sit and high five, as you’ll also need to work with the dog and their owners on different skills and behaviors. And yes – working with people is an incredibly important part of being a dog trainer, as the owners are the ones who will be with the dog for an extended period of time and can work on training outside the classroom.
Being a dog trainer also means working with dogs who have behavioral issues, like separation anxiety, reactivity, aggression, barking, and resource guarding. These issues and the many others that dogs may exhibit can be annoying, an inconvenience, and even a safety issue, as someone might get injured if an interaction brings up a trigger for a dog.
Dealing with behavior issues also means coming up with creative solutions because many problems are rarely simple. Many dogs act aggressively because of anxiety so finding the root cause of the issue can help you and the owners address the aggression. In other situations, there might be a medical explanation for the behavior and a trip to the vet would need to happen. Each dog is going to be different and they will need an individual plan for addressing the problem.
How to Start
If you’re interested in dog training and have started researching more, start by training your own dog (if you have one). In addition to plenty of other resources, the American Kennel Club has a Canine Good Citizen test that could be a good goal to aim for with your own dog. If you’ve never had your own dog, doing an obedience program with a trainer can help set a foundation for your relationship with your dog and can give you some insight into the dog training world as a client.
Education and practice are both important parts of becoming a dog trainer and there are many ways you can do either. Organizations like the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and the Karen Pryor Academy offer resources, classes, and certifications while pet retail stores like PetCo and PetSmart have paid dog training apprenticeships. Finding the right classes and apprenticeships will take some research and time, as you should find the right program that works best for you, offers the training you want to learn, and is scientifically sound.
You’ll also want to think about what area you’d like to work in. Do you want to just do general obedience classes in a group or individual setting? Or maybe you’d like to work with puppies to socialize them to new experiences and help turn them into well-rounded adults. There’s also training potential therapy or service dogs, which covers a wide range of skills. Dogs training to be therapy or service dogs will need to know different skills depending on what kind of work they’ll be doing.
Types of Dog Training
There are a few different dog training methods that can be used to work on behavioral issues and training. One of the more basic ways to start training your dog is classic conditioning, which is the way in which dogs and people learn to associate a signal with an event. Pavlov’s famous experiment of dogs learning to associate a ringing bell with getting treats is a great example of this type of training.
Clicker training is used by folks working with all sorts of animals and is based on operant conditioning, which is when an association is made between a certain behavior/action and the consequence for that behavior. In the case of clicker training, a device that makes a quick, sharp noise (like a whistle or clicker) is used to signal when a wanted behavior happens. The goal is to have the animal associate the noise with accomplishing a behavior and a forthcoming reward.
- Karen Pryor Clicker Training – includes articles, tools for purchase, books, videos, and more.
Positive reinforcement is a great way to teach your dog wanted behaviors and commands like leave it, sit, stay, lie down, and heel. This type of training is particularly great for food-motivated dogs, as positive reinforcement involves rewarding the behavior you want to see with things like treats.
There are a few training methods to avoid because while they might be popular, these methods come with unintended problems. One such method is electronic training, which relies on a collar that delivers a shock or spray that dogs don’t like when they’re doing an undesired task (like barking) or simply not doing what you ask. For one, electronic/shock collars rely on punishment for bad behavior so dogs aren’t learning what they should be doing but what not to do. Additionally, studies have shown that these collars can also create a great deal of stress and anxiety for the dogs.
The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers
This organization is dedicated to providing professional standards for the dog training and behavior profession, provide independent testing and certification for professional dog trainers, and provide a way for pet owners to identified possible trainers to work with. In addition to continuing education, the CCPDT offers two separate certifications for professional dog trainers: the Dog Trainer Certification and Behavior Consultant Certification.
The Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) test is a 180 multiple-choice question exam focused on what you know and in order to take it, you need:
- 300+ hours of experience in dog training within the last 3 years
- A signed attestation statement from a CCPDT certificant or a veterinarian
- Sign and file the CCPT Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics and the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) Effective Behavior Intervention
The Certified Profession Dog Trainer – Knowledge and Skills Assessed (CPDT-KSA) is a skills-based certification that focuses on expert training and instruction skills through hands-on exercises. To be eligible, you need:
- A current CPDT-KA credential (see above)
- Complete an online application and upload a video of assigned training exercises
- Confirm compliance with their Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics and their Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) Effective Behavior Intervention
- Pay an examination fee
The Karen Pryor Academy
For those in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the Karen Pryor Academy has some hybrid classes that blend online learning with hands-on instruction in select cities. All the courses offered by the Karen Pryor Academy and their cost include:
- Dog Trainer Professional – $5,300
- Dog Trainer Comprehensive – $999
- Dog Trainer Foundations – $249
- Dog Trainer Foundations Immersion – $599
- Puppy Start Right for Instructors – $479
- Concept Training: Let’s Get Started – $299
- Concept Training: Modifier Cues – $279
- Smart Reinforcement – $495
- Shelter Training and Enrichment – $249
- Dog Sports Essentials – $249
- Canine Freestyle – $329
- Better Veterinary Visits – $139
- Train Your Cat – $199
The Logistics and Behind the Scenes of Dog Training
While you’ll spend plenty of time working with dogs and their people, there is a lot of work that needs to be done behind the scenes to turn dog training into a career. If you decide to start your own business (rather than joining an existing one or work for a retail store like PetCo), you’ll need things like a website, logo, business cards, and a location to actually do the training. Some dog trainers have actual physical locations that dog owners can visit while other trainers rent spaces or travel to a person’s home.
You’ll also need policies on issues like refunds, cancellations, and more. Plus, contracts and liability waivers for you and the owners to sign so you can all be on the same page as far as what services are being provided. Contracts and waivers can also help legally protect you if something were to go wrong and while it might be expensive, try contacting a lawyer to help draft some legal paperwork.
If you decide to start your own dog training business, you probably should set up a business entity and have a trade name. There are a few different business formations you can set up, like a Limited Liability Company or sole proprietorship. Setting up a business entity can be a bit complicated but ultimately, it can also protect you.
Software and Toolkits
Note: Animals of the Pacific Northwest isn’t compensated in any way for this post and is not affiliated with the companies mentioned in this post, including the ones below.
DogBiz is a company that provides advice, articles, products, and services for any professionals that work with dogs. In addition to many resources for starting a dog business, they have business toolkits for dog trainers, walkers/sitters, and boarding/daycare centers. This company is particularly great for those wanting to get into positive reinforcement training and has free resources for those who are curious about starting a dog-related business.
Pawfinity is a pet software company for all sorts of dog-related businesses and pet professionals, including doggie daycare, kennels, and groomers. For dog trainers, you can use Pawfinity to send reminders and invoices, schedule appointments, take payments, and so much more! Clients can even have access to a dashboard that outlines their service history with you and update information like medications so you can get a better understanding of what’s happening in their dog’s life.
Starting a new career (like your own dog training company!) can be a daunting experience but in addition to the organizations and companies mentioned above, there are so many resources to help you start out, grow your business, and learn more about the field. Being well informed about the different aspects of what it takes to care for dogs can only make you a better trainer.
In addition to advocating for responsible dog ownership, the American Kennel Club is dedicated to advancing dog sports and providing information on breed, health, and training information for dogs. Similarly, the blog ‘K9 Of Mine’ has plenty of resources on dogs, including a complete guide to starting your own dog training business. And there are also magazines like Modern Dog and Dogster that have physical magazines and online resources for anyone who loves dogs.
While not directly related to dog training, there are other programs that focus on animal behavior that can give you a better insight into dog behavior from an evolutionarily and scientific viewpoint. The University of Washington has a year-long online Certificate in Applied Animal Behavior that focuses on the science and evolution of animals and their behaviors. This certificate program provides an in-depth understanding of why animals may act the way they do and there are guest speakers that discuss their specialized work.
Note: I actually just finished UW’s Certificate in Applied Animal Behavior program in June 2021 and learned a ton! While I am not planning on being a dog trainer, it was beneficial as someone who has been working as a pet sitter and dog walker. It’s a great program for anyone interested in a career working with animals.
Additionally, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants is a great organization that focuses on the behavior of many species, including dogs, cats, and parrots. In addition to a membership program that anyone in the field can join and additional certification levels, they have mentorships, live events, and instructed courses on animal behavior.
Becoming a dog trainer can be an incredibly rewarding profession, as you’ll be able to work with dogs and their owners to strengthen their bond and help form good behaviors. But going into this field takes an investment of both time and money and it’s something you have to have some dedication to, as there is a lot more that goes into dog training than most might expect. For one, it will involve plenty of work with people and on behavior issues in dogs like aggression or resource guarding. And for some cases, it’ll take time to see any sort of results so patience is also vital.
Have you ever thought about becoming a dog trainer? Let me know in the comments!