So You Want to be a Dog Trainer
Why Do You Want to Train Dogs?
I love dogs. Maybe you do too, and that’s why you want to become a trainer. Actually, that’s the reason most people get into this business. Others get involved because they not only like dogs, but also enjoy working with people. There is a lot of “people training” involved in this profession, in the form of conveying information, coaching, and offering support and encouragement. Some of the best trainers enjoy and excel at working with both species. A third incentive for becoming a dog trainer is financial gain. Let’s examine each of these motivations.
“I Love Dogs!”
If you are a dog lover, training can be extremely fulfilling on an emotional level. It is gratifying to see a dog who was formerly kept outdoors living indoors as part of the family because he’s better behaved, thanks to your efforts. I cannot begin to describe the joy I feel when a client says, “We were so close to giving our dog up.Thank you for helping us to keep him. We really love him.” How’s that for job satisfaction? It is a real thrill to get to the root of a dog’s behavior issues, design a program to address them, and see progress being made. Watching a dog who was previously frightened of people accept petting and treats from strangers is heart- warming. Seeing a dog who had been reactive toward other dogs romping and playing with them is amazing. And knowing that you literally helped to save a dog’s life is priceless.
While having a love of and compassion for canines goes a long way toward being a great trainer, it can also make your job difficult at times. You will inevitably visit homes where a dog is kept in less than ideal conditions or is being mistreated. If you deal with aggressive dogs, there will be cases where an owner, possibly with your input, makes the decision to euthanize the dog. Will those cases affect you to the point that you lose sleep, or become depressed or angry? Those reactions would certainly be understandable. But consider carefully, and be honest with yourself. Would that same love of dogs that makes you want to be a trainer cause too much wear and tear on your emotional well-being? There is a lot of responsibility involved in helping to make life and death decisions, and there surely will be cases where, despite your best efforts, the situation is just not salvageable. Would you blame yourself if that happened, or take comfort in knowing that you did your best under the circumstances?
Happily, the majority of training cases do not involve dire circumstances, and if you decide not to take on advanced behavior cases, you can avoid those extremes altogether. Still, will your love of dogs allow you to assess situations objectively and give constructive advice, or will you find yourself blurting out accusations like, “Of course he’s destroying things. He’s stuck in the yard all day and is bored to tears!” Trust me, there are times when we all want to do the latter. Doing the former takes self-control, but it is necessary. You owe it to yourself to consider whether you can realistically deal with the emotional aspects of the profession. For the most part, though, there are vastly more positive outcomes than negative, and much that is emotionally rewarding.
“I’m a People Person”
Some trainers get into the profession because they enjoy working with and helping people. Are you a “people person?” Consider this question very carefully, because at least half of dog training is really about training the owners.This is a customer service business where you will encounter a variety of personalities. Some owners will be an absolute dream to work with, while others will be less compliant or more difficult than you would like. A few will be downright unpleasant. You definitely need to have good “people skills” as well as dog training skills to be an effective trainer. Having a background in psychology or social work can help, but is not necessary; what is necessary is having empathy for people, and treating them with kindness and respect. Dog owners don’t want to hear that they’re doing it all wrong, no matter how badly they’re doing it. You must develop a talent for finding the good in people and praising it, just as you would with dogs. When a client just doesn’t understand what you are trying to explain and fumbles an exercise over and over, what will you do? Will you treat it as a training problem and patiently break the task into smaller, more manageable steps to help your client succeed? Or will you become frazzled and lose your patience? While the latter might be understandable, it is not conducive to helping someone learn, or to building a successful training career.
You will find yourself in homes with screaming, out-of-control children (my toughest personal challenge), and clients who take phone calls or texts or allow other interruptions during your sessions. Some people will argue with everything you say, while others will argue with their spouses or children in front of you. I have found myself in situations where I’d swear I was watching that old television show Family Feud. It was all I could do not to shout out, “Good answer! Good answer!” Take a deep breath and ask yourself whether those types of situations are something you will feel comfortable handling.
You’re probably thinking by this point, Well, this doesn’t sound like much fun! Keep in mind that I am laying out the less appealing scenarios so that you can take everything into consideration. The fact is, most people you will work with will be friendly, and truly want what is best for their dogs. After all, that’s why they called a trainer in the first place. Most will be willing to listen, and will appreciate your assistance. Many will tell you how much your training has helped. It won’t hurt your ego, either, when you get a dog to behave well and the client, amazed, asks when you can move in. Now, that’s positive reinforcement! I have had so many wonderful clients over the years who I never would have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. I have become friends with some and stayed in touch with others, just because they and their dogs were so lovely. If you enjoy interacting with people and can be a patient teacher, this career may just be for you.
Now we come to the part you may be unsure about: finances. Can you really make a decent living as a dog trainer? The answer is yes. Will you make a fortune? Probably not, especially at the beginning. Like any other business, it can be tough when you are just starting out. It takes most businesses an average of a year for word of mouth to start spreading. Dog training is no exception. It also normally takes approximately three years for a small business to begin turning a profit. In dog training, unless you have overhead to pay on a training facility, you can start to make a profit almost immediately, but it will still take time to build your business. You will incur initial expenses such as liability insurance, training equipment, and advertising; but if you market yourself well, do a good job, and people like you, you are well on your way.
A safe way to ease into the profession is to work at a full-time or part-time job while doing some dog training on the side. Once your business has grown, you could switch over to training full-time. Or, as some choose to do, you could train part-time on a permanent basis. Getting to make your own schedule is one of the great things about this career.
The type of training you choose to do will largely determine your income. Group classes have long been considered the bread and butter of the business. It is true that group classes afford a steadier income than the hit-and-miss scheduling of private, one-on-one sessions. Clients normally sign up for an average of eight group lessons in advance, which ensures a guaranteed weekly income over that period. Some trainers do nothing but group classes, love what they do, and earn a good living. In the next chapter we will discuss various types of group classes you could offer.
Some trainers earn a substantial income doing only private, in-home training. Private trainers teach obedience skills, and also address common problems such as jumping on visitors, housebreaking, and inappropriate chewing. Many also take on cases that involve complex behavior issues such as aggression and separation anxiety. Once word of mouth gets around and your business becomes established, you could end up doing anywhere from five to twenty-five in-home appointments a week. The down side of in-home appointments is the potential for less of a steady flow of clients than with group classes, along with possible cancellations.
An option you might not have considered is board-and-train. With this model, you train the client’s dog at your home or kennel, or a boarding kennel with which you have an arrangement, for an agreed-upon length of time. Board-and-train can be quite profitable, and affords you valuable one-on-one time with each dog. Some trainers offer board-and-train as well as boarding alone. If you have the facilities and the proper licensing, either option is an excellent way to increase your training income.
Regardless of which type or types of training you choose to do, there will always be peaks and lulls throughout the year. Many people vacation during the summers when their kids are off school; your business may slow down at those times. Business is likely to be sporadic during and closely following the holiday season, but may well pick up two months later when all those cute holiday gift pups start to display typical puppy behavior problems.
Climate may seem an odd thing to consider, but depending on where you live and what type of training you do, the weather can affect your business. I live in southern California. Thanks to the mild climate, outdoor classes can be held almost year-round. In New York, where I am originally from, not many people want to train in the rain and snow, so mid-winters are a slow time for group classes unless they are held indoors. Consider the geographic area in which you live. Will the weather literally put a damper on your income? If having a steady income year-round is crucial, consider holding on to that part-time job even after your business is established, or taking temporary jobs during slow periods. That way, when business is slow, you will still have a way to pay the bills.
Next, we’ll discuss in more depth the various types of training you might choose to do.