How to apply for a dog training internship?

Blog post about increasing your chances when applying for a dog training internship. January 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post

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


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.

Embarrassing dog training application letters

I blush when I think back of the application letters I sent when I was starting out. It was Cesar Millan this and childhood dogs that. The very things I skip over on applications that fly across my desk nowadays.

For internship positions, best stick to honesty and modesty.

So I get it. I’ve been there. Chance is if you’re applying for an internship position, it’s because you want formal experience but you don’t think you have enough formal experience to be considered so you spin it a little. The thing is, more often than not, that backfires. For internship positions, best stick to honesty and modesty.

Want to apply for an internship at a dog training school or a dog shelter? Here are the pitfalls to avoid.

Experience: I have had dogs all my life

Don’t… Please don’t…

To illustrate my experience with dogs, let me adjoin this picture of me when I was 8

“To illustrate my experience with dogs, please find attached a picture with my dog when I was 8 years old”

… only talk of your childhood dogs in your application letter.

It only tells us you’ve lived with a dog before – relevant, but not enough to form the bulk of your application. It’s like basing your job application to a daycare position on the fact that you had a little brother growing up.

Your childhood dogs only tell us that your parents (not you) have experience raising dogs.

We also get applications based solely on the fact that your parents were dog professionals. Whilst, again, it is relevant – it shows us that you are familiar with the workings of the profession, it shouldn’t form the bulk of your application. You are taking credit for your parents’ experience and qualifications, not yours, when you do that. Yes, even if they were vets, trainers, or breeders

Applications that rely solely on childhood dogs can backfire in two ways:

  1. It draws attention to your lack of formal experience; or
  2. It may look like you don’t take formal experience that seriously.

One short line about having had dogs all your life is fine and relevant, but don’t wax lyrical.

Experience: helping with problem dogs

The potential pitfall here is that you are tempted to inflate this and end up inadvertently admitting to unethical professional conduct, admitting to having intervened in a case outside of your competence.

Having cared for a problem dog is hugely relevant – again, provided you were the primary care-giver and it wasn’t your parents’ dog.

‘Project’ dogs have converted many dog trainers to the profession. So by all means, write about how the problem has helped you grow and learn and, most importantly, how it has made you realize how much you still have to learn. But try not to overstate your behaviour rehabilitation competences unless you know your approach is evidence-based and ethical.

When it comes to experience with other people’s problem dogs, I would be even more cautious of over-stating your competences. It may look like you played apprentice sorcerer with a dog’s serious behaviour problems, that you worked on a case falling outside of your competences. One candidate is not another, and some have a solid track record of behaviour therapy interventions. But if you spin it too hard, you’ll come off as quite gung-ho about dogs’ behavioural health and you might be in for a frosty welcome.

Experience: semi-professional experience

Any type experience with dogs is relevant, even if it is only semi-professional. We welcome applications from aspiring dog walkers with a few informal walks a week, for example. But do demonstrate that you understand how much there is to learn, and please don’t come to us like you’re Dog’s gift to dog training because you’ve been walking the neighbourhood dogs. Confidence sells, over-confidence kills.

Self-Education: Watch out for docu-tainment and Google ‘research’

Telling us that you don’t miss a dog behaviour documentary and you do your own research on the internet isn’t terribly relevant. In fact, it raises a few red flags if that’s the bulk of your knowledge and you don’t qualify this with a swift: “I want to learn more, from solid sources”.

All the docu-tainment and google searches tell us is that you’re interested in dog behaviour. As you are offering us your time free of charge so we can stand outside in the cold, getting slobbered on by strangers’ dogs, that was a given.

It could also harm your application:

  1. Presenting fora and documentaries as a valid source of expertise makes us wonder if you realize quite how much there is to learn. You could be reading research papers 24/7 for the rest of your life and not even scratch the surface, never mind watching Discovery once in a while.
  2. Saying you do a lot of ‘research’ on the internet without mentioning specific sources will make us question your critical thinking skills.  99% of the dog-related information out there is romance, marketing, quackery and pseudoscience so by and large, the internet is not a solid source of information.
  3. It will make us focus on the fact that you do not have a formal education on the subject. It’s fine you don’t have that, but all you’re doing by talking of informal research is remind us of that.
  4. It can give the impression that you disregard paper credentials. It’s fine that you haven’t invested on a formal education on the subject but please don’t be the “I-have-a-degree-from-the-University-of-Google” guy. It’s insulting.

“I know a lot about animal behaviour. I watch National Geographic without fail”

Saying you are a life-long fan of a dog TV show, or an author or an internet site can be made to work for you if you use it to demonstrate:

  1. That dogs are a long-standing passion for you, not a temporary whim.
  2. That you can tell a reputable sources (e.g. ‘Eotvos University family dog project‘ or ‘Quick and dirty tips do to happy, well-behaved pet‘) from the internet as a whole.
  3. That getting information from lay sources has raised questions for you, and that you want to validate this knowledge.

But whatever you do, do not present your informal interest as formal education. We know it’s not, and we hope you do too.

Values: Read up on the dog school’s culture

Make sure you understand the school’s values before you send your application, so you don’t accidentally bring up a hot button topic. You don’t have to agree with the school on these points, but it’s best to bring up controversy waaaaay later in the internship, when you’ve already developed a rapport. Differences can be hugely enriching, but it’s best to bring it up once you’ve established a rapport, once you’re way into the internship.

The easiest way to get a feel for a training school’s culture is to enroll with your own dog. You can also write to them and ask if you can come take a look one evening. But as a minimum, take the time to read through the values they profess on their website. OhMyDog!’s core values, for example, are evidence-based and welfare-conscious. Basing your application for your life-long admiration for Cesar Millan or mind-reading might then be a *slight* mismatch.

Reading: Do your homework for brownie points

If the school recommends reading material on their website, try to read some of the books before the interview, and jot down any remarks you might have. We will see you as committed and as a critical thinker. Getting familiar with some of the literature recommended by a school is also a great way to get a feel for the school’s culture.

Stick to the school's reading list, or make your sources VERY technical and objective

‘I am not familiar with the books you recommend, but I have all the copies of Pluck and Luck!’

If you have already read a lot on dog behaviour before the interview, mention the most technical books you’ve read (handbooks, textbooks and research-based papers tend to be the most reliable). By all means, mention the less formal books you might have read, but use this to demonstrate your critical thinking skills, show us you can tell the wheat from the chaff in what these informal texts have to say.

When you talk about what you’ve read, beware of name-dropping famous trainers or talking about the latest en-vogue methods. It could betray a lack of experience or worse, you could be treading on the schools’ toes if they happen to have sworn allegiance to an ‘opposing’ trainer or method.

As an evidence-based school, we stay clear of politics, but if you quote famous trainers, we’ll be wondering whether you conflate fame with validity. If you can offer an intelligent critique of the methods, it’s a different kettle of fish, but again, you could be treading stormy political waters. Best steer clear of big names until you have been at a school for a while.

I have no formal experience or education with dogs: what do I write?

We expect you to not have a ton of formal training experience or education. That’s why you’re applying for an internship. We’ve had all sorts of interns, from PhD’s in dog cognition to aspiring dog sitters. The more you have, the more likely it is will be to be taken on if the school is popular with interns, but watch you don’t oversell. All we want from an intern is an attitude: ready to learn, to get their hands dirty, to get familiar with the team, and to offer intelligent critique.

Want to be an attractive intern? Work this into your application:

  • You’ve been passionate about dog behaviour for a long time (What we hear: it’s not a temporary fad).
  • You are avidly and but know limits of self-education. You want to take it to the next level (What we hear: you’re not a diletante. You are open and modest).
  • You’ll be a fly on the wall, and you’ll help out (What we hear: You will make our lives easier, not harder),
  • You’re thankful for the opportunity (What we hear: they know coaching interns takes time and energy, and it’s good to be appreciated).

Dog training internship: don’t worry about it

Forget about what I’ve said if you’ve already applied and fell for these pitfalls. 99% of the applications we get make these mistakes – including the ones I sent myself back in the days.

If the training school is not too insecure about their values, they’ll likely welcome people from all walks of life as long as the interns don’t jeopardize the quality of the students’ experience. So not all interns have to be the perfect fit, on the contrary. Diversity is enriching.

One thing is for sure though: if I get two applications on my desk and have to make a choice, I know which one would get my heart racing faster and wonder if that could be my next head trainer.

Want to give it a go? Do you live in The Hague? See if you can’t put my advice into practice and apply for an internship position with us.

Illutration credits

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