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How to Become a Dog Trainer in Seattle (and elsewhere)

I get contacted a lot by people who have fallen in love with dog training and want to learn how to become a professional dog trainer. I decided to write this blog post so that I can quickly give a helpful answer.

Most people don’t become dog trainers as their first career. I started out as a theoretical mathematician and a tenure-track instructor, but became a dog trainer and business owner, instead. I’m so incredibly happy that I made the decision to become a dog trainer, but it’s not for everyone. First of all, you’re not just training dogs: you are a people trainer, first and foremost, because they’re likely to be the ones doing all of the homework, and it’s your job to teach and motivate them. Luckily, that part came easy for me with my background in education. The business side of dog training has almost made me quit on multiple occasions. Sometimes, it’s better to just have a hobby, instead of turning dog training into a career. But sometimes, as in my case, it works out even better than you could hope! I now have a book and several DVDs on puppy training and dog aggression and get to travel around the world teaching seminars about dog training.

I started Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle in 2003 after taking several classes with my own dogs, volunteering at the Humane Society for Seattle/King County, reading up a storm, watching videos, and attending workshops. I taught private lessons first, then started teaching my own classes and gradually added more classes, more trainers, and more classrooms.

Definitely keep in mind that there are different approaches to dog training. One way to classify is to lump dog training into two buckets: training that emphasizes positive reinforcement (setting the dog up for success and building behaviors) and correction-based training (setting the dogs up to make mistakes and correcting them using aversives, like prong collars). I would put myself in the first category. Click for more info on my dog training philosophy.

When you apprentice or volunteer for another dog trainer, or take a course on dog training, look for keywords to avoid, like “pack mentality,” “dominance,” “alpha,” “correction,” “obedience” (except in terms of the sport), “balanced training” or classifying the dog as “stubborn.” Look in the photos and see if any of the dogs are wearing choke chains, prong collars, or electronic shock collars. Even just not having a philosophy page is a slight red flag for me. Terms that are a good sign: “positive reinforcement,” “force-free,” (though that has been taken over by some shock collar trainers), “clicker training,” “reward,” “reinforce,” “humane,” and “science-based.” I believe almost all trainers believe that they are using the minimum amount of force needed to train a dog, because to do more would make them abusers. But we all draw the line in different places, and fortunately, many “crossover trainers” who used to use force-based punishments are now using truly dog-friendly methods. I have huge respect for crossover trainers, but if you are just getting started with training, you should start out positive from the start. Learn from all sorts of trainers, but it’s easier to get a solid foundation with humane training and then go back and learn what else is out there.

Attending seminars is a great way to get started. We host 1-2 seminars on dog training and behavior in Seattle each year.  Even after you become a dog trainer, you’ll want to continue your education by attending at least one workshop or  seminar on training per year.

If you want an actual set program to learn how to become a dog trainer and you live in Seattle, I recommend the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior. The school for dog trainers is about six months long – part online with four in-person weekends as well – and the content is created and taught by world-renowned animal trainers. There are locations all over the globe, but two in the Seattle area, at least right now.

One is with Steve White in Woodinville (North of Seattle) and another is with Terry Ryan in Sequim (West of Seattle, on the peninsula). In 2007, after over 4 years in business as a dog trainer, I did the KPA program with Terry Ryan and still found it interesting, especially the part where we trained another species, instead of just studying canines. The KPA is a relatively new program, but it is already well-known and respected. Just don’t go into it for the marketing opportunities for yourself, unless you’re a new trainer.

Other great options:

There are many routes to everything, and becoming a dog trainer is no different. There’s no one certification body, school, or course of studies to be a canine guru. There’s not even a set title! You can be a dog trainer, a canine psychologist, a behaviorist, anything you want to call yourself works in Seattle, as long as you’re not a vet, since “Veterinary Behaviorist” is an official title that requires extra studies for veterinarians. The most recognized certification for professional dog trainers is the from the Certification Council of Pet Dog Trainers. To become a CPDT-KA (knowledge assessed), you need 300 hours of experience training others, referrals from a client, a colleague, and a veterinarian and you have to pass a written test on dog training. They have also recently developed a certification for canine behavior consultations (aggression, etc.) and a skill assessment for CPDTs.

Join the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. The APDT has a very informative annual convention for dog trainers (including non-members), a Yahoo group for discussing your troubles, a monthly magazine, a trainer directory, and a monthly journal, the Chronicle. Another new group that should have helpful info is the international group, the Pet Professionals Guild.

There are lots of other ways to become a dog trainer. I think that that whatever route you take to become a professional dog trainer, you need to know that dog trainers work mostly on nights and weekends, and need to teach humans as well as they teach dogs. Plan on driving all over Seattle for a while. It’s also a best if you know how to run a business, as most dog trainers have their own companies. If you’re getting a college degree, finish your studies before embarking on a dog training career. Add some business classes, while you’re at it!

Do all those nights and weekends as a dog trainer pay off?  Emotionally, yes.  Financially? Maybe. Don’t expect to earn a gigantic salary as a dog trainer, unless you end up on your own TV show! How much money can you expect to make as a dog trainer?  Click to see a wage comparison for animal trainers (another). Many dog trainers in Seattle (and elsewhere) work part time, so that data is a little skewed.

Some good books and videos on how to become a dog trainer (not just for Seattle):

Other tips:

  • Respect your fellow dog trainers. There are plenty of dogs in Seattle (and if you’re living elsewhere, there are probably enough dogs to go around there, too). Everyone has something to contribute and if you learn about social psychology, you’ll know why it’s so hard for people to change. No one will see things exactly as you do.
  • Learn how to say no to requests, whether it’s to something you don’t really want to do or something that you’re not yet able to do. Never stop learning. 🙂
  • Set boundaries; make time for yourself and your own dogs.
  • Get a business license.
  • Get an accountant as soon as you can afford one.
  • Outsource anything that you dislike doing, if possible.
  • Take classes on things you aren’t familiar with, like yoga, horseback riding, tennis, rock climbing, dance, or basket weaving, to get experience as a student.
  • Attend seminars on public speaking or teaching people.
  • Go to the Small Business Association and learn about structuring a business.
  • Be careful so that you can hire awesome trainers and support staff, if you get to that stage (and soul search as to whether you want to before doing so). Hire kind, considerate people who complement your strengths and weaknesses, and try to hire people smarter than you are. I did, and I absolutely love my staff.
  • Learn everything you can about dog and wolf ethology, animal behavior, human communications, social psychology, the brain, even read about things you may disagree with (just read critically), like the Dog Whisperer, info on ‘proper’ shock collar usage, and even the Koehler method. The list goes on…
  • You don’t have to do all of these things before you hang out your shingle, but definitely keep learning and growing. If you think you know everything there is to know about dogs, you might as well retire.

As you are learning to become a dog trainer, question everything, do no harm, and above all, follow this Buddhist advice:

Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings – that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.

If you’re already a dog trainer and are reading this, I’d love to have more quick tips here, so please post comments. Humans often think that what works for them is the right way to do things. Definitely leave a comment if your experience in becoming a dog trainer differed from mine.