A couple of years ago, I received a request regarding how to find the knowledge to become a dog trainer or someone specializing in behavior modification. Part of the answer can be found in a post that I wrote last year of some very specific questions that were sent to me.
NOTE: On a side note, the young lady, addressed in the linked blog, came here for a time to observe me working dogs, and also to help with her own dogs fear issues. I am happy to say that she is now helping dogs in rescue using these techniques. She was able to foster and place a rescue this year. I am very proud of her, and she has become a friend.
Training can become a specialty or niche. You could do puppy training, obedience competition training, hunting dog training, agility training, clicker training, e-collar training, and so on. You could even choose sizes, temperaments, or breeds that you will specialize in. Training is about teaching dogs communication between the owner and the dog. So in just training, if you wished, you can limit yourself to tools, methods, and types of dogs. You could do this, and do a very good job of it, assuming you know how to weed out different dog personalities.
Behavior modification is about changing the dogs responses to different stimulus. You could specialize a bit in this by saying that you don't work with aggressive dogs or dogs over a certain size. However, in order to IMHO be successful in behavior modification, you need to be able to and seek to work with a wide variety of dogs. It's very important to know as many individual personalities of dogs, and to be able to read those dogs. You also want to soak up as much information as possible on the different methods and tools out there.
How do you expose yourself to that knowledge? I am actually trying to work on a website (with other canine professionals) that will later be a guide to both dog owners and up and coming trainers to make those resources available. I hope to do that in their geographical region. In the meantime, here is some advice based on my personal experiences and research.
In looking for places or people that may mentor you, please keep in mind the following lessons that I learned the hard way:
- False advertising. There is no regulation in the dog training industry. Just because someone says they are the "finest dog trainer in New England" or "#1 Mass Dog Trainer" does not make it so. I would ask anyone that boasted such a thing to show me the facts, figures, and public articles to justify their boast. Realize that nothing prevents them from making such a boast. It's easy to look impressive to a beginner or a novice trainer (and the trainers sited may have impressive qualities but being number one or the finest in the geographical areas listed isn't one of them). Many times trainers won't disclose that other trainers (other than themselves) have actually helped their students full fill their goals IN ADDITION to their services. They also won't make it known how many YEARS (not weeks or months) their student may have spent with them to make the most minimal progress. Just keep in mind that these type of people are, at best, untrustworthy. Anyone who feels the need to mislead others regarding their skills rather than being objective and honest, is not the best in the area (and probably will not tell you who the others are that may help you). You might still learn from them, but you should take their boasting with a grain of salt.
- Dog World Nepotism-The dog world can sometimes be very reliant on friendships and personal relationships. Dog trainers may recommend each other, even if they are doubtful of another's skills due to business relationships alone. Many times trainers will recommend clients that are far from them to another trainer, and both want to continue that relationship due to the fact that it builds both of their businesses. However, keep in mind, it may have to do with a personal relationship AND HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH steering you in the right direction.
- Paid Apprenticeship Should Not Be Slave Labor-If you are paying thousands of dollars for an education, and you find yourself doing things that seem not related (or needed) for dog training, probably someone has found a way to take advantage of another paying for their apprenticeship training services. I pick up poop everyday for my own business, and if someone was paying me for an apprenticeship, I would not expect them to do things that really did not further their training knowledge. Sometimes you may be able to trade labor for knowledge, and that is different.
- Apprenticeship Should Not Limit Your Ability to Have a Full Education-Individual dog trainers can be a bit draconian at times. This is especially true of those that may not have had a well rounded education themselves. They may have learned from someone who wanted to be THEIR only authority, and this may be how they decide to handle others that are invited to learn from them. Beware that some mentors will not want you to handle your own education. However, you should feel free to read, talk to, and learn about whatever methods you want to add to your tool belt. Just like when you go to college, you can choose your own curriculum and teachers. While you need to learn and listen to that teacher, when class is out your ideas and values are your own.
- Shelters Tend Toward P+ Only-Every trainer uses positive reinforcement (P+) training in order to be successful. However, there are other ways to make dog training successful as well. With the push for one movement of trainers, veterinarians, and behaviorists came what I consider a marketing scheme to successfully own the brunt of the dog training industry. The only problem was, that not all dogs (while perhaps a larger portion of dogs do) don't fit the "cookie cutter" mold of training OR behavior modification. Many dog professionals not aware of what was going on, have fallen for this marketing plan. Also it's important to realize that shelters really don't, usually, have the resources to acquire a dog trainer on staff. Also the liability for a behaviorally challenged dog that could be set loose on an unknowing and unprepared public creates quite a liability. So while you will become familiar with dog personalities and handling many different dogs, that will only be a small part of your full dog training education. It can be a very rewarding and informative part of an education however. Also, there is nothing wrong with picking up luring, food/toy motivation, and those sort of methods anywhere. To do it well, you may be well advised to find a trainer that specializes AND IS successful training dogs to a standard.
- Dog Training Schools-There are A FEW well known dog training schools that IMHO can give a good base knowledge. The cons? They are expensive, they are far away if you don't live in the geographical area, and some of their living accommodations have been reported to be gross (however, you could stay in a hotel or apartment while there). Triple Crown and National K9 are very highly talked of. Remember though, this also won't be all of your dog training education. Generally schools like this not only allow you to work and train your own dog, but also provide different dogs for you to work with! Online schools like ABC, CAS Institute, and Karen Pryor Academy are of one particular mindset of dog training. Therefore the information that you get online will not corrections, tools that are generally used, and methods beyond what that sect of dog training has approved. Whether you choose to use all tools in dog training or not, IMHO, you should learn about everything so that you can intelligently and knowledgably communicate your methods to your students.
- Professional Organizations and How They Can Help-Professional organizations are a wondeful because they put you in contact with other professionals via online groups. There you will see a wealth of information on tools, methods, health issues, and the political issues in the dog world (or at least the ones that are not moderated and involved in blocking comments that they do not like. My professional organization is the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP). I love this organization because it is largely trainer populated, but they have many other professionals in there. Therefore there is an exchange of ideas between dog walkers, groomers, veterinarians, et al. In my opinion this is the finest or one of the finest professional canine organizations. You can become an endorsed member of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (NADOI) once you have at least five years experience in dog obedience training (2 years as an instructor). Both of these organizations have tests that include written and demonstrated proficiency in your craft. I have lost all respect for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). They also test their certified instructors on a strictly multiple choice test. For the same reasons that I don't care for some well known behaviorists and trainers, the organization speaks out of both sides of it's mouth instead of marrying the convictions that it obviously already has. If they would just genuinely decide on a side, I would rejoin. Profits are too much of a drive for this organization instead of the service to it's members.
- Behaviorists-I know of a few well known behaviorists, and I don't think much of them. That being said, this does not mean that there are not talented and knowledgeable behaviorists out there. Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Ian Dunbar have peppered the industry with some of the more damaging marketing gimics and information that I know of. Dr Dodman made Prozac the miracle drug to behaviorally challenged dogs everywhere, and completely ignored that irresponsible dog owners or lack of training can make dogs crazy. Ian Dunbar should have kept to his theories about puppy school and socialization, but instead he has completely ignored the personalities of dogs that come from far different circumstances or pretends they don't exist. He created quite a rift within the Association of Dog Training Professionals with his influence. Interestingly enough, both were not born in the USA, but in countries where there are very extreme opinions on dog training and care. If you can find a behaviorist that has proven and verifiable skill in training dogs as well, I believe you would find someone worthy to study with or under.
- Trainers-There are the good, the bad, and the ugly out there. Actually, there are the excellent out there. They are not on television shows. Most often they are old and curmugeonly:) Not very marketable in a world that likes to see physically fit and attractive people talking about any kind of skill. There are the Julia Childs of the dog training industry out there. I don't know them all. In fact I had the devil of a time finding the ones that were worth it, and I went through some of the ugly. Ones that I have found of note are (and I have not met them all, some of these are on reputation alone) Margot Woods, Vivian Bregman, Martin Deeley, George Hobson, Behesha Doan, Carolyn Scott, Joann Lawson, and Janice Gunn. It is not easy to find the trainers who really excel at their craft, but here is a place to start. Combine that with the right professional organizations, and you will start to find yourself pointed in the right directions. ***Please note most if not all of these trainers are quite experienced in behavior modification techniques.
What things should you cover in your training/behavior modification education?
- As much information as you can possibly learn about off leash training a regular old easy to train dog to a veifiable standard (AKC competition or some kind of measurable standard that is dependent upon an outside parties judgement). I am not talking about Rally or CGC but Novice, Open, and Utility training. At the minimum, you should be able to get a Companion Dog Title on a few dogs.
- Learn about as many methods of training as you can, and that will also begin to give you a clue as to how to modify and change behavior in a dog that is not displaying acceptable behavior.
- Dealing with behavioral issues sometimes goes outside the scope of traditional training. It's not often that you need to train a dog to accept brushing, or collar changes, or being petted from the front. Researching and learning from people that may have needed to step outside of the box, will give you ideas for the future. They may not have all the answers, but it will give you a sense of how to step outside the box for yourself in ways that make sense.
- Behaviors that are natural to a dog and acceptable in the dog world. This does not mean that we need to live with or accept them, but it gives you as a trainer an understanding of what is truly unusual and what is not.
- Body language and facial expressions in dogs. (you don't want to major in the minors with this, but you do want to be aware)
- Breed charateristics and differences. (you don't want to major in the minors with this, but you do want to be aware)
- Medical and physical issues that affect the tolerance or patience levels of dogs.
- What questions to ask to get an accurate case history on a dog.
- Things to consider and think about before taking on a case (including contracts et that need to be drafted).
- Ways to measure progress, and determine if you are going in the right direction.
- How the different ages in dogs and puppies affects them physically and mentally.
- And anything else I didn't think of LOL. There is a lot. Basically, be sure that you touch on anything related to dogs and the dog business.
What are the best ways to go about designing your educational experience?
- Identify ways to get the most hands on experience possible (safely).
- Shelters and rescues (transport, socializing, training program if they have one)
- Compete with your own dogs (if you don't have your own dog, consider that this is the best way to know day to day what it's like to live with a dog)
- Have neighbor dogs that need training?
- Advertsie that you are a beginning dog trainer that needs beginning clients. Charge accordingly and be sure to not take on anything too difficult.
- Apprenticeship or mentorship situation with experienced trainer or qualified behaviorist (see my notes on behaviorists).
- What can you afford in time, travel, and expense? There is a lot of knowledge out there, but if you go broke before you have even begun, it will do you no good in the long run. On the other hand, if you can afford time, travel, and expense there is a wealth of opportunity open to you that will jump start your experience. Research schools and opportunities well and thoroughly before writing out a check or spending time on the investment. There are some opportuntities that are well worth it (Triple Crown so I hear, some paid apprenticeships, and opportunties to go to in depth camps or informal schools).
- For those that do not have unlimited time and money, there are seminars that are very reasonably priced (ie pretty cheap considering what you get). You can do a day, a weekend or a week. If you live in the North East, I suggest that you don't wait for those seminars to come here. You may need to travel, but it may just be four or five hours to NJ or MD. Rarely do we get any seminars of any real worth IMO. I travelled to Missouri once to see a trainer that I wanted to see (Martin Deeley and George Hobson). I am hoping for a fall travel to Maryland this year to see Margot Woods again.
- Network and gather any available information from all professionals related with dogs (veterinarians, groomers, dog walkers, rescue organizations, individuals that rescue, animal control, vet technicians, professional organizations related to canine care, and your average dog owner).
- Read and watch. Books and DVDs, no matter how good, won't give you the whole story, but they will give you a lot. Professional organizations, like the IACP and APDT (couldn't find it anymore, or I would have shared the link), often have reading lists.