Dog training is a fast-growing career field, and for good reason. More than ever, pets are becoming kids for people, and as Earth’s population grows, there are more dogs than ever. In 2012, 36.5% of US households owned a dog totaling 69,920,000 dogs. By 2015, those numbers jumped to 44% and 78,000,000. There is a huge need for good, experienced dog trainers. If you love dogs and people, and you’re interested in becoming a trainer, this blog post is for you!
As much as we’d all love to live on hopes and dreams, you’ve got to be in a financially good position to pursue your passion. If you’re in debt, pay off your debt. If you don’t have money in savings, start saving. I lived off my savings when I went through dog trainer schools and when I first opened my business, I got a couple house cleaning jobs to supplement my income. If you’re not good with money, you’ll never succeed at starting, running or staying in business. If you need help, I highly recommend Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University program. Get your finances in order because whether you go to dog training school first, or whether you work or intern for someone, money might be tight for awhile. If you’re the type of person that likes to spend, spend, spend…that’s going to be a problem. Live within your means. If you work from home and offer primarily in-home lessons and board & trains like I did back in 2014, you can start a dog training business for $1,000 or less.
I’m not talking about experience as a professional dog trainer, I’m talking about experience with dogs! I worked with well over 100 dogs before I ever stepped foot into dog trainer school. Working with your own dog is not enough. To be a dog trainer, you have to love working with all dogs not just your own. Big dogs, small dogs, old dogs, young dogs, fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, hyper dogs and lazy dogs – you need experience with them all.
Start by volunteering at your local shelter. Clean kennels, potty dogs, bathe dogs, hang out with dogs. Those dogs that come flying out of their kennels jumping all over you? That’s exactly how client dogs will be on day one of training. Get used to it and practice your leash handling skills. Don’t try to be a Dog Whisperer and work your voodoo magic on the dogs. Be humble and be learn everything you can from everyone who knows more than you. If you’re going to attempt training, then learn how to do one thing (like Name Game) and try that. If the dog responds, great. If he doesn’t…well, that’s where you start to learn!
If the shelter isn’t an option, try fostering for a local rescue. Keep in mind, there are good rescues and there are bad rescues. Find a good one, get a friendly dog, and get to work.
If you’re really, really lucky you’ll have a third option in the experience category: Shadowing a great trainer. I say great trainer because you want to be very careful who you learn from first. It’s your imprinting stage as a trainer, and you don’t get that time back. Most trainers don’t offer shadow programs due to how time-consuming it is and the liability factors involved.
I offer a six-day Shadow Program that’s open to anyone 18 years of age and older. My program gives students a sneak peek into the world of training and includes academics, hands-on training and observation of lessons and classes. Students learn core training skills, how to use the remote e-collar, business management, marketing and more!
Click here for more information: Shadow Program Spokane.
Get books…all the books! Read, read, read. Learn, grow, apply, take notes. You need to be an A+ student if you want to be a good dog trainer. While experience is about 75% of being a good trainer, knowledge is the other 25% and shouldn’t be ignored. Books I recommend: How Dogs Learn; Cesar’s Way; Social, Civil and Savvy; Team Dog, The Intelligence of Dogs, Inside of a Dog, Your Dog is Your Mirror, What the Dog Knows, How to Speak Dog, Canine Nutrigenomics, War Dogs, Trident K9 Warriors. I’ve read countless dog books, and most them I’ve read two and sometimes three times. In addition to reading books, look up videos online. Search YouTube and take notes. Some great trainers I recommend are Michael Ellis, Ivan Balabanov and Forrest Micke. Keep an open mind, but take what they say with a grain of salt. You’re building your own philosophy and shouldn’t 100% copy anything anyone does. What works for them may not work for you. Dog training is about knowing who you are and what you believe and creating a philosophy and methods that work for you.
Who you are as a person will affect how you train dogs. I grew up in a large family and a Christian home. From an early age, we were taught right from wrong, to respect our elders, to speak when spoken to, to work hard, to help out and to always keep an open mind. Our parents loved us enough to give us boundaries, rules and limitations. We weren’t rich and we weren’t poor. We appreciated everything and took nothing for granted.
How I was raised plays a major role in how I train dogs and run my businesses. Dog training demands that you have a moral compass and character traits that you can’t learn out of a book. You either are or aren’t an honest, humble, hard-working person. You either are or aren’t respectful and compassionate. You either are or aren’t firm but fair. A good dog trainer stands up for what’s right, advocates for their clients (humans and dogs), does what’s right when no one’s looking.
Remember, the world doesn’t owe you a favor. If you want something, and if your dreams are big enough, you’re going to have to work for it. No excuses. Just hard work – blood, sweat and tears.
Certification is not a requirement for being a dog trainer. Anyone can go print business cards right now and become a dog trainer. There is zero federal regulation or certification organization.
Having said that, I do feel that dog training is a trade and requires several months of education and training to become good at it. Don’t just work with three or four dogs and then start taking clients.
I do recommend attending dog trainer school if you have the financial means and ability to do it; however, there are not a lot of great school options out there. If you want to get certified, there are a number of schools that will gladly take your 10-20k and give you a piece of paper in return. I was extremely fortunate in that I didn’t pay for my schooling: I used my Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit from my military service to pay for dog trainer school. I attended Starmark Academy Apr-June 2013 and Vohne Liche Kennels Sep-Dec 2013. I did not have a good experience at Starmark. I loved Vohne Liche (but they only accept military/police students). Unfortunately, so many people think: “I want to be a dog trainer!” and they waste their money on schools. Did you know only about 5 of the 30 students I graduated Starmark with are actually dog trainers?
I train my own trainers for a reason: It’s because I know they’re getting the very best education possible. My course is over 400 hours (or about 12 weeks) and includes the following: academics on a variety of topics such as raw feeding, sport sports and adult education; observation of private lessons, group classes and board & trains; hands-on training with over 50 different dogs; working with clients in a private and group setting; business, marketing and more. I hand-select my trainees and graduation is not guaranteed. If I’m not extremely impressed with your abilities and who you are as a person, you will not pass my course. All of the trainers on my staff have gone through the Valor K9 Academy Trainer Course course; it is a requirement to work for my company
If you’re looking for a dog trainer school, I recommend:
The Michael Ellis School for Dog Trainers (CA) – they focus primarily on sport work and working with high drive dogs, but you will get a great education. Michael Ellis is my favorite trainer. I took his two week Obedience Intensive course in person at his facility in California a few years back.
I’ve heard mixed reviews on the following schools:
Tarheel Canine (NC)
Starmark Academy (TX)
National K-9 Learning Center (OH)
The Tom Rose School (MO)
If anyone has a good school to add to this list, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I plan to update this post every couple of months.
BE THE BEST TRAINER YOU CAN BE
When you step into the world of dog training as a student, take it all in. Eat, sleep and breathe dog training. Learn everything you possibly can. Don’t waste time. Be the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. I graduated at the top of my class at Starmark and was the first person to ever go directly from Vohne Liche’s handler course into their trainer course. I worked hard to prove myself both as a dog trainer and a person. In fact, at the end of my time at Vohne Liche they offered me a job! I politely declined because it wasn’t the direction I wanted to head in my career, but being offered a job was truly an honor. This brings me to my next point, which I wish I didn’t have to mention but I do…
BE CAREFUL WHO YOU HANG OUT WITH
Regardless of which school you attend, you’re going to see after the first week or two which students are serious and which students aren’t. It’s very obvious. Half of my class at Starmark squandered their tuition money and goofed off. They drank, they partied, they slept around, they neglected their dogs. Some students left their dogs in kennels all weekend long while they partied. Behind-the-scenes, I was taking care of their dogs; they never did find out, and apparently they didn’t care. These students would show up late to class, sometimes hungover, and almost never prepared. Come test time, since they hadn’t worked with their dogs, they put ridiculous amounts of pressure on the dogs to get caught up to pass the tests. Funny thing is, dogs don’t lie. You’ve either put in the work or you haven’t, and it shows. For written exams, they cheated off each other’s tests. What shocks me is that a few of those students are now “professional dog trainers.” Let’s hope their moral compasses have pointed them in a new direction. If you’re truly passionate about dog training, you’ll use every single minute of every single day to better yourself as a trainer. Dog training school is an opportunity to learn and grow. Don’t waste a single second!
While you’re in school, if you haven’t already, start planning for your future. While I was at Starmark Academy, I realized how much I enjoyed high drive dogs and decided to continue my education at Vohne Liche Kennels working with military and police dogs. I also knew that after graduating, I would be starting my own business so that was in the back of my mind in regards to asking questions in class and gathering information. It was during this time also that I was brainstorming ideas for a business name, logo, business cards, website design, program handouts and more.
You’ll most likely be working with shelter or rescue dogs at dog trainer school, in addition to any personal dogs you bring, and it’s going to be very tempting to adopt whichever dogs you’re working with. After all, you love dogs, so adoption seems like the natural next step, right? Careful, that guilt-driven mindset is how dog trainers end up with 7, 8 or even 9 personal dogs. I’m not saying having multiple dogs is a bad thing, but every single dog is an added responsibility. You’re in a transitional period of your life, and the last thing you need to be doing is adding more to your plate. There was a big push at Starmark to adopt the rescue dog(s) you were working with; about half of my class adopted at least one dog while in school. Some of the dogs even had behavior issues. Most students trained 2 or 3 dogs in total – I trained 5 – and I was tempted to adopt every single one of them. As hard as it was to say no, I’m glad I did. Unless you have this unbelievable connection with the dog, and you can’t imagine your life without him/her, and you know the dog would be a tremendous asset to your career as a trainer…don’t do it. I had Zoey at the time; she was all I needed.
TRAIN YOUR DOG
As a dog trainer, your dog(s) represent you, your company and everything you stand for as a dog trainer. No excuses. Your dogs should be incredibly well-behaved and obedient and a shining example of who you are as a trainer. If you can’t train your own dog, you should never take someone’s money to train theirs.
PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE
I started working with my first clients when I was still in school at Vohne Liche. Again, to keep from using my savings, I posted on Craigslist as a dog trainer and got my first private lesson and board & train clients. My prices were appropriate to my level of experience (low/little). My goal was to start growing as a trainer. I knew I was going to make mistakes – and I did – and I learned from every single mistake. When I first started, I was enthusiastic, motivated and confident. (Confidence is key in dog training!) The clients I worked with in Indiana were incredible, and their dogs’ training was a big success; we still keep in touch to this day.
Keep in mind, right after graduation might be a transitional phase for you. Having first-hand experience working with clients and their dogs will be a tremendous asset to you when looking for a job. Your certificate isn’t enough. Having worked with three or four dogs isn’t enough. Employers are looking for someone with hands-on experience. And this is why I recommend volunteering at the shelter before you ever go to dog training school. Another plus: Experienced working with people and/or teaching. I had several years’ teaching experience under my belt before I started training dogs. I took several Secondary Ed courses in college, I was a volunteer ESOL (English as a Second Language) teacher in North Carolina, and I spent a year teaching English and economics at a university in Ecuador. Those experiences have paid off ten-fold as a dog trainer. Public speaking is another bonus. If you’re going to be teaching classes, you need to get comfortable speaking to groups of people!
DOUBLE CHECK YOUR RESUME
As an employer, I will tell you that there’s nothing more off-putting than receiving a resume full of typos. Your resume is your first impression. Get it right!
I hope this information is helpful to you. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. I offer online coaching on a case-by-case basis for anyone interested in becoming a dog trainer and for dog trainers looking for help with clients, training questions, business management and more. You can reach me by email at email@example.com.
NEVER STOP LEARNING
My final piece of advice to dog trainer hopefuls and current dog trainers is to never stop learning. Dog training is a skill that has a shelf-life of about seven years. That means if in seven years you haven’t sought to expand upon and improve your methods, you’re now outdated. I try to attend two seminars and conferences each year to continue my education and expand my horizons. Take what you like and leave the rest. Some of my most widely-used techniques have come from those training opportunities. Stay humble and never stop learning.
-Amy Pishner (Owner, Head Trainer Valor K9 Academy)