Want to be a dog trainer? Just getting your feet wet? Here are 10 tips for new or aspiring dog trainers to help you get started.
1. Expect to work for free… even if you are hired for a paid training gig.
You were hired on as a mentee or a kennel technician at a training facility and you’re feeling on top of the world. Or, maybe you are still looking for a mentor but feel all in. At this point, it’s important to note that you will not learn all you need to know during your work day. Anybody can learn the basics working part time, but if you want to become legitimately skilled and reputable it will take thousands of hours. This is not a career you can get away with minimum knowledge — expect to be attending classes, workshops, seminars, shadowing lessons, and researching on your own time, off the clock, and unpaid. If you are looking for a mentor, know that you may be required to pay a mentorship fee, or work an extended period of time for no pay. If you want to be great, you have to learn from the best. This won’t happen overnight.
2. Keep an open mind.
There is a lot of conflicting information in the dog training world. There are many solutions to the same problems, and there are many different cliques that will tell you certain methods or tools are the only way to train a dog, that branching out is bad. Try to shadow a few different trainers from all sides of dog training and explore what works for you. Don’t condemn a method or a group of people based on hearsay or what one trainer tells you.
3. Don’t get too confident.
Dog training can be an incredibly dangerous job, even when you are not intending to take on aggression cases yet. Reading body language is like learning a second language, and knowing when to approach a dog and when to back off is a skill. One bite can permanently disable you, and mishandling can result in a dog escaping, attacking another person or dog, or even being hit by a car. Go slow, and always have a plan for your next steps.
4. Remember, your mentor is your boss first, your friend second.
Something I love about dog training is all of the amazing connections I have made with mentors and colleagues. It can be easy to forget that our mentor is ultimately our boss as our relationship grows and we bond. Your mentor has invested years of their life and countless sums of money into honing their craft, and they are sharing their information with *you*, knowing that one day you will likely branch out, open your own business, and take clients using their trade secrets. Remember this and appreciate it daily. Watch your tone when talking business, whether it be in person, by email, or by phone. Your mentor obviously cares about you, but don’t think they won’t kick your ungrateful butt to the curb if they find you’ve become unappreciative of all they are doing for you.
5. You’re currently at the bottom of the totem pole. It will get better.
You are new to this. We have all put in our hours of crappy shifts, cleaning duty, and poop messes. We’ve been overworked, often underpaid, and had to do things we really didn’t want to. It helps us grow into strong trainers with great work ethics. You don’t get to dictate your schedule or your tasks at this point — if you aren’t ready to train, you will be stuck doing kennel duty for a while. Hell, even once you are training you should expect to spend some years doing the same tasks. It is a part of the job. One day, you’ll get the hours and clients you hope for… but for now, expect to become frustrated every once in a while. You are still learning and, whether you see it now or not, these hours and tasks are helping you become better.
6. You WILL make mistakes. Own them.
Yep. You chased away that evaluation and they went with another training company. You couldn’t find your words and rambled like an idiot. You messed up your professional jargon, or the pricing, or what was required to bring to class. Oops! It happens. We know when we put you in front of clients that you are going to make mistakes. It is okay, really. It will get easier.
7. It is totally normal to be nervous to teach, even when you’ve been doing it for years.
At some point, you just have to do it. You are never going to feel 100% prepared for the random questions clients will throw at you… and it is totally acceptable to say you will get back to them with an appropriate answer later on. You are going to talk REALLY fast and skip over some information, or repeat things, or forget what lesson you are on. Nerves will do that to you… but a secret? It happens for a LONG TIME. Many of us still get a bit of an adrenaline rush when speaking in front of clients. It is a skill that many people struggle with. Don’t worry — we totally understand!
8. Take as many seminars and workshops as possible.
Again, you are not going to become a skilled trainer overnight. Learn from as many people as possible. Take the information you like, and toss out that you don’t like. Getting outt here and hearing new perspectives is a wonderful way to add new tools and skills to your repertoire.
9. Enroll in various training classes with your own dogs.
Basic obedience, agility, nosework, rally obedience, competitive obedience… take it all! While your goal may not be sport work, learning those skills will make other pet skills easier. Maybe you’ll find a new passion, maybe a new appreciation for that type of training, or maybe you find out you totally hate learning or teaching certain skills. It is about the experience and the practice, not always the titles (although those certainly have advantages!).
10. Fostering and volunteering for shelter/rescue work is amazing experience.
I mentioned before, this is a dangerous gig. Dogs have teeth… a lot of them. Ah! I learned how to not get bit as a veterinary assistant, as well as fostering, volunteering at spay/neuter clinics, working in a daycare/boarding setting, and doing shelter work. Finding a shelter that will let you put hands on lots of new dogs will absolutely help you avoid getting bit by client dogs. Learn proper restraint techniques, how to use a leash to noose a dog, how to control lots of strong dogs, watch body language, and watch how the public approaches and interacts with strange dogs. It will all help you later.
Getting into the training industry has been one of the best things in my life, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I am still learning and growing every day, and I know how hard it can be in the beginning. We all want to get to the sexy stuff, but the rest is important. Work hard, appreciate your mentors, and never, ever underestimate the work involved in becoming a reputable professional.