Saturday, January 30, 2010 : 12:39:21 PM Updated Thursday, August 18, 2011 : 11:25:37 AM
The opportunity to embark upon a new career as a professional dog trainer would be any canine enthusiast’s dream. As an Administrative Assistant of Animal Behavior College (ABC), I have witnessed all types of animal lovers pursuing or transitioning into this field – entrepreneurs, business professionals, independent contractors, retirees, recent high-school graduates, college students, home makers, groomers, breeders, veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Despite the diversity of their backgrounds, the majority of these aspiring trainers are avid animal lovers who have come to the realization that they would find immense joy in working with dogs. Inevitably, they realize that it’s about more than just an unwavering devotion to canines.
“It is important that dog trainers see themselves as professionals and not just ‘people who like dogs,’” says Jamie Bozzi of SmartDog Training in San Diego, California. “Being a professional brings with it an enormous amount of responsibility to both clients and dogs.” As a professional trainer, you’re given the unique opportunity to help dogs and their owners by opening the doors of communication for two parties who, despite their mutual adoration, have little comprehension of one another. Although this can be undeniably rewarding, it may also carry a bit of a burden. Your clients will rely on you for accurate, cohesive advice. Your role as an expert will weigh heavily on the well-being of their dogs. Pet owners will approach you at the supermarket or the gas station with dog-related problems and will expect answers. Are you ready to handle the responsibility? Can you confidently quell their concerns, no matter how unusual or unexpected? Here, I will examine common mistakes made by the new professional trainer, and offer solutions to aid in a smooth transition into a new, exciting career.
When building the foundation for a career in training, it is essential to keep in mind that there is a definitive difference between being a dog trainer and an obedience instructor. “I see a lot of novice trainers who confuse obedience with behavior modification and problem solving. Obedience is sit, come, down – basic skills. Fear, aggression and anxiety are not obedience problems,” clarifies Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs in London, Ontario. For instance, although many novice trainers may compile a vast general knowledge of solving problems such as puppy nipping and barking, handling aggressive dogs takes much more advanced training. Although the main focus of group classes may be on obedience, you will certainly be confronted by clients who have questions about eliminating their dog’s problem behaviors. Some of these behaviors will be severe or life-threatening; aggression is a serious problem and frequently results in injury, relinquishment, or euthanization of the pet.
Instinct will convince you that these dogs may someday bite someone and meet an ill fate in a shelter if you are unable to help them. However, feigning experience and tackling a problem you aren’t prepared for can be potentially dangerous. “Taking on a problem that you do not have the experience to help with can sometimes cause the owner (and the dog!) much more anguish,” agrees Megan Armstrong of Dogma Training in Calgary, Alberta. Clients will look to you as an authority; they’ll expect you to be truthful and will trust any advice you give them. It’s your responsibility to know what you’re talking about, to provide a myriad of solutions, and to stand behind your abilities.
Being a professional in any field sometimes requires admitting that you don’t know everything, and that you may have to look elsewhere for answers. Spending some time to research instead of throwing out an unprepared resolution will create a much more successful outcome. “Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to working with a dog you are too inexperienced to handle, i.e. too aggressive for your level of expertise. Never be ashamed to say you don’t have a resolution to a problem right at that moment but that you will research it and get back to them,” says Mary Ann Spencer of Thunderpaws Enterprises in Indianapolis, Indiana. In the end, honesty and humility will benefit you, the client, and especially the dog. Solving a problem effectively often involves finding answers from somebody who has knowledge beyond your own level of experience. “Be honest with your skill and experience level. There is nothing wrong with letting your clients know when you need to consult other trainers or reference materials before answering their questions,” agrees Elizabeth Williams of AK Dog Sports in Anchorage, Alaska. “Remember that the goal should be to help your clients to communicate with their dogs; it is not about proving to the client what you know.” Your clients will understand that a permanent solution is far superior to an instant, impulsive decision.
ABC’s students are provided with several methods for marketing themselves upon graduation. Many of these new trainers purposely enrolled in the program to make a living off of training and are eager to get started with their businesses. We assist them by listing their contact information on our designated “Online ABC Certified Dog Trainer Directory,” we help them build a website, they are able to order brochures, and they’re given the opportunity to receive benefits as an ABC Alumni member. With these tools in-hand, many of our alumni immediately open training businesses and begin charging clients for their time. They feel confident and overly enthusiastic because they’ve just received comprehensive training and have gained a plethora of new knowledge. However, some future situations will require experience over book-learned knowledge.
“I see a lot of trainers who are very eager and willing, but do not yet possess the knowledge or experience to help every client,” says Bozzi. As formerly mentioned, every professional trainer will encounter unusual, unexpected problems. Novice trainers will not have had a vast lifetime of experience to draw their advice from; they will simply have basic knowledge and a short history in training. They often must accept that if they can’t provide every client with several different solutions for each issue, they may need to get more practice before they begin charging for their services.
Experienced trainers recommend holding off on the business aspect of your training career until you’ve sharpened your skills. “You should get as much experience as possible with a variety of dogs and handlers before marketing yourself as a trainer. Spending the extra time to build confidence will make all the difference when you are ready to start in the business,” advises Williams. Getting your hands dirty by practicing on as many dogs as you can and by observing the methods of more experienced trainers will increase your skills, your confidence, and your ability to solve major issues. You still won’t have answers to every problem that comes your way, but you’ll have a better-equipped toolbox. “Get out and start handling as many dogs as possible. Volunteer at a local rescue group, work with your friends’ and family’s dogs. Visit other trainer’s classes,” recommends Armstrong. In addition to broadening your horizons, you may also make some strong connections with other dog-related businesses in your community. This will prove to be invaluable to your new business.
Building and preserving a solid, positive reputation as a professional trainer is dependent on honesty, perseverance, and dedication to furthering your knowledge of dogs and training. “You cannot ‘fix’ everything, but you can make a difference some of the time,” says Van Veen. Every novice starts off with a clean slate. Make contacts and friends. Use every training experience as an educational opportunity. Talk to other trainers to obtain perspective; don’t get stuck in your ways early on. Most of all, remember that the main purpose of training is to improve the lives of dogs and their owners everywhere, and it’s a huge responsibility. “Stay up-to-date on the latest training methods, whether you agree with them or not. Go to dog shows, especially working events, and watch dog behavior. Most of all have fun!” says Spencer.
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