Want to be a professional dog trainer? Advice to the newbie

Blog post about making the right career choices in dog training. July 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. Where relevant, references and picture credits are at the end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

So you want to be a dog behaviourist?

I met young V. (twenty years old student) when I was giving her mom a behaviour consult about their three dogs who weren’t getting along. She is finishing a Bachelor’s in law, and asked me what it would take to re-train as a dog behaviour consultant. If you are curious about the advice I gave her, read on.

The finances of dog training

It’s not like full-time dog training/behaviour vacancies come out in droves, so there’s a big chance you’ll have to start your own business.

Before I went full-time, I had a cushy corporate job with a regular income and my laptop, car, phone, pension, and education all paid for. I’d combined dog training with my corporate career for years, so when I started full-time, I figured “How hard can it be?” It turned out it took way more grit than I’d banked for.

The good news is: it’ll scare some business sense into you faster than years of working in Corporate ever could. It’s amazing how struggling to make your mortgage will sharpen your interest into tax law and marketing. The bad news is: it’s like a child. The love, the work, the worry… They – never – end. I (personally) would not have had the broad shoulders for this straight after graduation. I am glad I started off with a corporate career.

Sisyphe

My advice is this: only go pro once you’ve built your business chops in a mainstream company for a while, and once you’ve saved up a VERY big fund for rainy days.

Self-education in dog training

The obvious first step in building some solid knowledge on dog behaviour is to read tons of books.

Like anything else, though, dog training books are a buyer beware market. Too many churn out dangerously pseudoscientific ideas. I am a compulsive dog book reader, so I had to suffer through my fair share of these. To save you the pain, here is a shortcut to what I consider to be the must-read books for any aspiring dog behaviourist.

They will give you a taste for the fundamental aspects of the profession, they are written for the layman, and they are well-researched. If you just have time for one, pick my old time favorite: Benal’s.

  • Dog trainer’s guide (Jolanta Benal): Essentials of dog behaviour problems, causes and interventions
  • Human half of dog training (Ries van Fleet): Essential human coaching aspects of dog training
  • Animal madness (Laurel Braitman): A look into comparative psychology (i.e. what psychiatric disorders have been observed in animals)]
  • Animals make us human (Temple Grandin): A short review of important aspects of animal cognition, with the usual unique Grandin insights.
  • Ethical dog trainer (Jim Barry): Invites you to think hard about the big ethical questions of the dog training profession, written by a university-trained philosopher and professional dog trainer.
  • Bad science (Ben Goldacre): Not written about dogs specifically, but nonetheless an essential tool in detecting pseudoscientific claims. You can also read its little brother, Beware the strawman (Linda Case): it’s another critical thinking book but this one is just about dogs.
  • So you want to be a dog trainer (Nicole Wilde): A book about the daily professional realities of being a dog trainer, with tons of tips and suggestions. How to run a dog business (Veronica Boutelle) is a complete toolkit to starting your dog business. It gets more specific than Wilde’s, so maybe just read this one once you start seriously contemplating starting the business.

Once you’ve read the essential books, it’s a good idea to patch up on the broader topics like neuroscience or behavioural genetics. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to be a good dog behaviourist, but a solid grasp of neuroscience helps. So you might want to patch up your knowledge of these topics through on-line courses and more technical texts. If you look hard enough on Coursera or Udemy, you are bound to find good modules in neuroscience, animal welfare, diagnostics, comparative psychology, and behavioural genetics. Each module will cost you a few hours a week, but it’s a great investment. If you look at my profile, you can find a few good courses examples. And yes, I am more than a little addicted to Coursera.

Academic background for dog training

I am happy that more and more trainers combine experience, passion, AND academic training. The dog behaviour professions are growing from obscure art to transparent science. You can get the critical thinking skills you need to run an evidence-based practice through other means, but I – personally – got there thanks to my academic training.

Don’t get me wrong: many science graduates are asses, and many fine thinkers aren’t science graduates, but a serious scientific degree is a solid brick in the wall of your credentials.

If you still have a choice of degree, then invest in a one that is related to behaviour or to animals like ethology, zoology, veterinary medicine, neuroscience, or (bio)psychology. It will give you a massive boost if you do go into dog training, and if you don’t, then you still have a solid degree to fall back on.

book of knowledge

Before you pick a programme, grill the university’s career officer mercilessly about the job prospects:

  • Zoology and ethology, for example, tend to lead to specialized research/academic jobs, which are few and far between.
  • Neuroscience and psychology, particularly if you pick cognition modules (the golden child in behaviour right now), can open a lot more doors in corporate as well as university jobs.
  • Veterinary medicine will pretty much guarantee you an income or at least research prospects. And then, the best route towards becoming a dog behaviour practitioner would be to study to become a board-certified vet behaviourist.

If you already have a Bachelor’s and it is neither animal- nor behaviour-related, you can always study for a part-time postgraduate degree as you work. Having been there, I can tell you, it’s hard going, particularly if you have a family, but it’s definitely worth it.

Professional dog training certifications

Dog training and behaviour advice are not protected professions here (Netherlands), but I find it more ethical to get a solid professional certification before you start out. Real families and real dogs would suffer if you gave overconfident, gung-ho advice. These certifications also get you to network with flesh-and-blood colleagues, and give you fresh perspectives from different people. Self-education might give you insular tendencies if you don’t watch it. The main goals of these professional certifications, though, are to give you the skills you need to start practising, and to put a recognized piece of paper in your hand.

This is the catch: these programmes are often run by non-academics, and tend to have glaring holes in the theory. You’d be wise to ask highly educated alumni what they thought before committing to one. You’d also be well-inspired to ask established professionals how respected the qualification is. Don’t do your research and you might end up with the well-meaning amateurs, the ideologues, or the big empty names. A university-bound applied programme like a postgraduate (e.g. I did a postgraduate in applied companion animal behaviour) reduces the risk that they botch up the theory, but be sure to grill them about how much real-life exposure you’ll be getting with their programme.

As a bare minimum, you should come out of your certification programme(s) with:

  • The learning principles (operant/classical conditioning),
  • Fundamental ethology,
  • Essential research findings in dog ethology and cognition,
  • Practical experience in people coaching,
  • Effective and ethical behaviour modification protocols for common dog behaviour problems,
  • Practical experience in dog training,
  • Tools to critically evaluate statements and research findings

If you can’t find the whole package, consider combining an academic specialization in dog behaviour with a well-recognized professional certificate. It’s hard work, but you can combine it with paid work so you’re not bleeding yourself dry doing it.

Dog trainer: experience required

It took me years of practice before I could shape client relationships in a way that promotes compliance. I had to get a ton of rookie mistakes out of the way before I became effective. I wish I had shadowed more people before starting out.

Luckily, nothing is easier than getting a dog training internship if you approach it with modesty and enthusiasm. This post gives you the run-down on on how to apply for a dog training internship (if you are in Den Haag , why not apply to OhMyDog?). Approach different schools and behaviourists, and be sure to experience different cultures and ideologies.

experience

To make the most out of the experience, take notes of what impresses you, what  you’d do different, what you’ve learnt. Watch you don’t get high and mighty, though. What seems like orthodoxy to you now may take on a different light after a few years of practice. And these people could turn out to be precious networking contacts later in your career, even if you disagree with them. I took the holier-than-though attitude, and I regret it. It’s one thing knowing the best practices and the latest research, but it’s not everything. Building positive relationships with colleagues in the region is also important.

If you are lucky enough to find a school or practice where you feel comfortable, ask if you can join the team in the longer term. You won’t be making a living out of it, but many people are perfectly happy leaving it at that: combining their day job with volunteering at their favorite training school once a week. It’s a great compromise if you want to work with animals, but don’t want to run your own business.

How many credentials for dog behaviour?!

This mix of experience, professional training and academic education might seem excessive, and it probably is. Many great dog behaviour consultants don’t have that background. In this unregulated field, how far you decide to push your professional training is a question of personal choice. I personally felt the self-tuition route alone left me open to partisan thinking, so I followed the academic route.

My advice is this: grow into the best behaviourist you can be with the resources you have. And whatever you do: steer clear of ideology and stick to facts.

Picture credits

  • Sisyphe: Shared by Giorgiomonteforti. Attributed to Hine Lewis Wickes (1874). Downloaded on 26 July 2016 (CC-PD).
  • Book of knowledge: Photo by Dorothy Zeidman. Scuplture by Donald Lipski, 1985; Copyright: Donald Lipski. Downloaded on 26 July 2016 (CC BY 3.0).
  • Experience: Picture by NY Photographic. Downloaded on 26 July 2016 (CC BY-SA 3.0).
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