So, you’ve decided you want to be a dog trainer. There is much to learn, but if I had to give anyone some advice about how to set yourself up for success at the art and science of training, here are five down and dirty quick tips:
1. Get a quality education. There’s no substitute for knowing the science upon which animal training is based. That means a college or community college level Psychology 101 course, or an online course in animal learning is a good start. One of the best is given by Dr. Susan Friedman, and is called Living and Learning With Animals. Trainers need to thoroughly understand what drives behavior, and how to use those principles to modify it. They cannot rely on pop psychology, intuition, energy, or quackery. Some of my picks for schools that offer quality education are: The Academy for Dog Trainers, Dognostics Career College, Karen Pryor Academy, and Peaceable Paws.
2. Get all breed animal handling experience. You must pay your dues. Volunteer for an animal shelter, or apprentice with someone in the profession. Work at a dog day care or kennel. You aren’t a trainer yet, even if you earn a diploma or credential, if you’ve only trained your own dogs, even if they did well in sports, work, or competition. All dogs learn by association and by consequences, and while breed differences don’t mean that you have to use methods that aren’t in line with your ethical standards, there are some breed tendencies that it’s helpful to know about.
3. Join a professional association that is aligned with your ethical core values as a trainer. The organization can be a great source of continuing education, insurance coverage, trade discounts, camaraderie with and support from like-minded trainers, an an advocacy ally and marketing partner. As an example, my professional affiliation is with The Pet Professional Guild.
4. Always strive for technical excellence. World class animal trainer, Bob Bailey, is credited with saying that training is simple, but not easy. So, if an animal fails a task, a good trainer ALWAYS looks to their own competency, or lack thereof, before blaming the dog or searching in the proverbial desert for some potion, diet, or new and improved pop science protocol. When things go awry, try to assess whether your own fundamentals are sound. Did you motivate the dog with something the dog views as a worthy reinforcement? Did you set criteria well, and not overface the learner? Do you have a written training plan and are you documenting progress? Was your rate of reinforcement high enough? Did you set the dog up for success? Is training FUN???
5. Always err on the side of professionalism. It’s poor form to give veterinary, nutrition, or grooming advice unless you have a credential. If someone calls to ask about puppy class, much as you want to, don’t contradict a vet’s advice about waiting, Instead, you could simply say that your training center follows AVSAB guidelines and provide the client with information they can ask their vet about without undermining the advice they were given. Overstepping professional bounds is dangerous. Integrity can earn you referrals from vets who learn they can trust you, but your business can suffer if vets feel you are not respecting their professional boundaries. Read the rest of this entry