Note from Con Slobodchikoff: This post is by Karen London, PhD, CAAB, CPDT, who regularly contributes posts to this blog and is also a frequent contributor to Bark Magazine as well as author or co-author of a number of books on dog behavior.
One of the questions I receive most often is how to become a
canine behaviorist or trainer. Neither is a career with a typical path made up
of a standard educational program followed by an exam or an approved
internship. All of us in the field have carved our own way, which is why there
are so many variations on the story we each tell about how we came to do what
we do. While there are many paths to a career in this field, some basic advice
applies to all of them.
The most important advice I like to give to anyone with an
interest in this type of work is that there are two equally important aspects
of preparing for such careers. I feel strongly that the best trainers and
behaviorists have pursued both avenues as part of their education.
One is acquiring the knowledge you’ll need in this field,
and that involves learning a lot about a variety of areas: canine ethology,
learning theory, coaching skills, proper equipment, and business. To educate
yourself in these areas requires a lot of reading of books and blogs,
supplemented by seminars, online or in-person courses, webinars, and workshops.
The second, and equally important area is practical
experience and hands-on work with animals. All the book learning in the world
will not take you very far as a behaviorist and trainer if you don’t have the
skills to actually work with a dog. The best ways to acquire these practical
skills are with a combination of workshops, training your own and friends’ dogs,
and volunteering at a place with a lot of animals, such as a shelter or humane
organization, a rescue group, a veterinary clinic, or a dog-training business.
In my experience, most people are stronger in one area or
the other. Either they are really on top of the knowledge and information side
of things but a bit weak on dog handling skills or they are highly skilled with
dogs but could benefit from having more information at their disposal. The
people who really excel as dog trainers and behaviorists are balanced—very
knowledgeable and highly skilled.
When I started doing this kind of work full time, I was far
more advanced in my book learning than my dog handling skills. I had completed
my Ph.D. in zoology with an emphasis in ethology, and I was in good shape in
terms of what I knew. (To clarify, I think it’s critical not ever to be done
learning, so I follow my own advice and continue to learn, especially with a
lot of reading and also with webinars and conferences when I can). Though I had
good practical skills for working with large colonies of stinging wasps, as was
required for my dissertation work, I lacked enough experience with dogs, and
that’s what I set out to correct.
I worked as a dog groomer for a year just to get to know my
new species of choice, while I worked as an assistant trainer and then as a
trainer. I remember after that year when I began my internship with behaviorist
Patricia McConnell, she once said to me, “I’m as proud of my dog training
skills as I am of my Ph. D. They were equally hard to acquire.” That comment
has always stayed with me, reminding me of the importance of excelling in both
knowledge and practical skills. These skills must be practiced regularly to be
If you haven’t yet worked a lot with dogs, you may wonder what
sorts of skills I’m talking about. The things that people who work with dogs
need to be able to do is practice with dogs of every temperament, size, and
learning style. They include:
Getting them in and out of kennels and crates
Using your own expressions and postures to set even fearful
dogs at ease
Having excellent timing with reinforcement, such as treats
and clickers or other markers
Using your voice and modulating its tone and volume
Managing the leash when working with exuberant or even
Attaching and fitting all sorts of head collars, harness,
Moving in space with dogs for turns, stops, accelerations
If you are interested in a career as a behaviorist or
trainer, know that you will be working with people as much as with dogs. If you
want to work with animals because you love them and aren’t so fond of people,
this is not the right field for you. People and dogs are two of my very
favorite species, which is lucky since I spend so much time with members of
both of them.
Best of luck to all of you who want to be in this field. I
love my work and I would recommend it to anyone who loves dogs as much as I do!