Apr 10

Becoming a Professional Dog Trainer

For me, the journey began when I was in the sixth grade, with a German Shepherd mix named Princess. I did not come become an "expert" by taking my dog to obedience classes, but I was introduced to formal obedience work during that class. The most important thing I learned from Princess was something that a collar and leash did not teach me. Princess taught me how to have an incredibly close relationship with a dog... but that's the subject of a different post, not this one.

Nikki, my first Siberian Husky, whom I started training when I was 20 years old, was the reason I began training dogs "in earnest". Nikki was a bit of a brat. If we got out of the car and he wanted to go down the street in a different direction than the vet's office, then that's where we went... at least until I could finally plant my feet and put on the brakes. Fortunately, Nikki's problems were not something that dog training couldn't fix. So we asked around, and ended up in a training class taught by Bill Lee, who was with the Greenville-Spartanburg Obedience Club at that time.

Even though their class was highly recommended, I did not really want to go, as I was a bit leery of dog training classes. First of all, I didn't like the techniques of the day. Secondly, I had been thoroughly intimidated by the military type style instructor that Princess and I had endured for eight weeks of class. Even though it was years earlier, I had not forgotten the experience.

But Bill Lee surprised me. He took our concerns with Nikki seriously. He was probably thinking "what in the world is this novice doing with a Siberian Husky?" but thankfully, he never voiced the thought. He, and his assistants at class, helped me find a collar that gave me more control. They patiently taught me basic handling skills. Most importantly, to me, was the fact that they invited me to club meetings, and welcomed me into the world of dogs. They listened to my questions, and when they didn't know the answer, they sent me to someone who did know the answer. When I became interested in conformation handling, they told me about fun matches and conformation classes, even though these activities were not offered through their club.  Now, 34 years later, I still remember Bill Lee, even though I have forgotten the names of the other club members. We moved out of state within a year of joining their club. But I met Bill Lee again a couple of decades later, at a boarding kennel association conference.  I was glad to have the chance to tell him how he influenced both my interest in showing dogs, and my eventual career path.  Bill and his wife are still in dogs. They are the owners of Top Dog, a very successful boarding, grooming and training facility near Greenville, SC.

So how can you become a professional dog trainer? Here are a few  tips, based not only on my own experience, but on the paths I have watched other trainers take through the years.

1. Don't be afraid to ask questions. This is  key to learning....asking questions and finding people who will share knowledgeable answers. If you go into the field pretending like you already know everything, then you aren't going to learn anything new, because the old-timers will dismiss you as a know-it-all, instead of taking the time to mentor you and teach you.

2. Read, read and read some more. Back when I got started in the 70s, there was no internet, so I spent a lot of money every year buying books and subscribing to magazines. These days you can do research on the internet, and even watch video clips of trainers working dogs.  But you have to realize that what you are watching or reading may not be anything of great value, since anyone can post anything on the internet. See number 3!

3. Research and find the very best in your field of interest. Are you interested in showing dogs? Then go to dog shows and watch the people who are experts at presenting dogs in the ring. Find out which professional handlers give seminars or take on apprentices. Stay all day at the show, and watch the top handlers in the group and Best in Show rings. Interested in training companion dogs? Ask your vet who is the very best pet dog trainer they have ever come across. Seek them out and see if they will give you private lessons. Interested in solving behavioral problems? Write to the head of animal behavioral clinics at top universities, and ask who is doing the most research on aggression and other issues. Research and read their articles and attend any workshops or seminars they offer. Join associations and meet people who are successful doing what you wish to do (could be agility, could be gun dog training, companion dog training, showing in conformation, whatever your interest, the way to meet the top people is to become involved in their field).

4. Find good mentors - as per number 3, find the experts, get to know people who have trained under these experts and find someone willing to help you. The "expert" may not have time to help you, but people who have trained under this person should be more accessible. Finding the right mentor may take some time, don't get discouraged.  If you want a career in dogs (versus a hobby), then your mentor is probably not going to be someone from your local area. Most people do not like to train people to become their competition, so look a bit outside of your area. For example, when I decided I wanted to learn remote collar training, I worked with Diane Gallagher of Dog Train, who was four hours away from me, and with Martin Deeley, who lived several states away .Both agreed to travel to my area, for a reasonable fee, to work with me personally.  When you find someone who is very talented, and is also able to teach other people their skills, you have found a treasure. If you want to make dog training your career, you are going to have to invest in your education. If you just want to train dogs as a hobby (versus professionally) you may be able to find someone in a local dog training club who will take you under their wing, as a friendship type of mentor. But if you want to make dog training a career, you will find yourself traveling to workshops, seminars, and perhaps even for one-on-one training to learn from the best.

5. As you learn new things-- practice, practice, practice. Not just on your own dogs. Volunteer to foster for rescue groups, or to work with dogs at a local shelter, so you can always have "green" dogs on which to practice. If your heart cannot stand working with shelter dogs, then volunteer to train the dogs of your friends and neighbors. Dog trainers who have only trained their own dog, and then go out and teach classes for a local club are rarely good trainers  You need to be working with all different types of dogs in order to gain understanding of what works and what doesn't. Training just your own dog is not enough, since you need to be working with dogs of all types and temperaments.

6. Don't become "married to a method". The trainers I have met who are the least successful are those who will use only a handful of techniques and tools. Those that are the most successful have huge toolboxes and a mind open to using whatever works. Since every dog is unique, you must learn varying techniques in order to be able to train many different types of dogs.

7. Never stop learning. If you live to be 120, you will still never be able to learn everything there is to learn about dogs!

8. Once you have your clients, deliver more than expected. Listen, truly listen, to their concerns. Recommend things that are workable for them, be realistic in your expectations of what each client can handle. They will judge you not on what you can make their dog do, but on what you can teach that makes their dog work for them. Tailor your advice not only to the dog's temperament, but to that of the owner as well.

9. Follow up. Clients appreciate the email or phone call that lets them know that you are thinking of them. Offering them another tip that might help, or even just asking how their dog is doing, can help cement your relationship with your client. The way to build your business is to develop satisfied clients, who will in turn recommend you to their friends, relatives and co-workers.

10. Be grateful! Take the time to send thank you notes once you start receiving referrals. And never forget to be grateful to the clients who are paying you. No matter how much patience it requires to work with them, they are still very valuable....without them, you could not do what you love!

(c)2010, Melanie Schlaginhaufen, all rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any fashion without permission from the author.  For reprint permission, you can reach Melanie at the Contact Us link.

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