girl with dog on computer​We don’t need convincing. We’re all in on what an amazing career being a professional dog trainer can be.

The ability to either gain the skills and credentials to join a local training company or work from home, control your own destiny, make your own hours and benefit from high earning potential all while making a positive difference in the lives of dogs and people makes working in the pet industry a no brainer.

And we’ll admit only a little bias when stating that we believe dog training is one of the most rewarding sectors of this $90+ billion (with a B!) industry.

It can be daunting, however, making the leap to working with dogs for a living, and once you have decided to jump in, the path to chart towards a successful dog training career is not always entirely obvious.

One of the easiest hurdles to clear is a philosophical one: what type of dog trainer do you want to become? Even a modest amount of research into the professional dog training world will reveal the need to decide between traditional aversive, compulsion-based dog training founded on outdated theories about pack leadership on the one hand versus progressive, science-based positive dog training on the other. For most, it’s an easy question to answer, although the growing popularity of progressive dog training has threatened the previously stable world of ‘yank em/crank em’ dog trainers to the point that they’re muddying the waters by suggesting so-called ‘balanced’ training (read: mixture of reward-based and pain/fear-based.)

If you’re on this website, chances are you’ve made your decision that you’d like to march with the progressive dog training crowd, and obviously we feel that that’s a great choice. But even within the ‘positive’ dog training world, there are many options when it comes to dog trainer education (and certification).

Some dog training programs that traditionally fall generally within the positive camp are more ‘old school’, meaning they rely on rote repetition and strict adherence to certain protocols for given training situations. The idea here is to build certain skills to a point where they are ingrained in the student so that they can be utilized almost without thinking, but they don’t allow for as much improvisation or ‘outside the box’ problem-solving which is so crucial in real-world dog training environments. Or the graduate isn’t well enough equipped to effectively execute the all-important translation of protocols from trainer to owner.

Other popular approaches rely more on game-playing and an emphasis on ‘fun’ in order to keep dogs engaged in effective learning while actively avoiding more generic dog training drills and methods. While this concept has its merits, its results can often create dog training which works in more common scenarios but can sometimes fall short, especially when attempting to move beyond specific dog sport environments and when dealing with anxiety and fear-based behavior issues. This approach is liable to limit the learner by creating critical gaps in the overall education required to be a truly well-rounded dog trainer and thrive in situations they’ll encounter during real life dog training.

Yet another movement within the positive dog training world is towards the concept of what is sometimes called ‘choice training’ – a philosophy intent on allowing dogs to be dogs and understanding their world experience more fully in order to then help mold behavior into lanes more acceptable within our human existence. This is a growing field that relies on ‘meeting dogs where they are’ and giving them the tools needed to guide them into making the ‘right’ choices rather than imposing our will on them.

As a point of reference, the Victoria Stilwell Academy incorporates certain elements from all of the above concepts in a carefully calibrated holistic approach specifically designed to provide deep dives into skill and knowledge areas including science, ethology, theory, practical skills, mechanics, cognition, emotion, choice, and more while creating opportunities for the learner to also consider the importance of effective human behavior change, communication, business marketing, branding and strong business management. We feel that VSA students should not have to compromise excellence on any of the above components of their dog trainer education, resulting in dog trainers with the skills, knowledge, confidence, problem-solving skills and intuition to tackle real-life issues in real world dogs and owners that they’ll face as professionals.

Beyond the philosophically-driven dog training concepts underpinning most dog training schools, there are more practical concerns such as course duration, graduate benefits, cost, and type of learning model. Some courses are delivered only online with no human touch, others are 100% in-person, and some provide varying degrees of effectiveness using a hybrid approach.

You could argue that with all of the available options, it’s somewhat of a golden era for those shopping for an educational experience to help them become professional dog trainers. At the same time, however, the width and breadth of possibilities can also be overwhelming for someone just beginning their educational journey.

We’ve compiled a list of 20 questions below that you should ask of yourself and any dog training academies that you’re considering:

  1. What is the school’s stated philosophy regarding training methods, especially as they relate to shock collars, fear and intimidation-based training tools and methods, and so-called ‘pack theory’? How committed does the school appear to be about this issue (i.e., do students/graduates sign pledges, do the curriculum and marketing materials hedge in any way about the issue, or are they clear and emphatic about their stance)?
  2. Is the school online-only, in-person only, or a hybrid?
  3. Does the school offer optional add-on learning tracks for you to join during or after your course?
  4. Does the school provide each student with live, personalized, real-time oversight and interaction (either in-person or via videoconference) with its faculty/staff on an individual basis throughout the course?
  5. What is the course duration, and does the school offer flexible timing options to its students?
  6. Is the instructional program learner-centered, and is the course designed with you – the learner – in mind? The most up-to-date adult learning science has shown that in order to achieve maximum efficiency and retention, effective education is provided via specially-designed learning models specifically targeted for the actual learner in his/her/their learning environment.
  7. Is the instructional program performance-based? Does it outline clear objectives that will allow you to perform all of the tasks that will be required of you as a professional dog trainer?
  8. Does the program assess both the learner’s knowledge and skill to ensure that they’ve achieved the desired objectives (outcome/behaviors) or (knowledge/skills) as promised?
  9. Is the e-learning platform for the course up to date, modern, simple to use and easily navigable?
  10. Is 100% of the digital course content delivered via video-based, instructor-led, purpose-built teaching, or does some or all of the content exist only as static slides you have to read?
  11. Is the course content repurposed and used elsewhere, or has it been specifically designed only for your course?
  12. Can you take a sample starter course to test-drive the learning platform before enrolling?
  13. Can you afford tuition, and/or does the school provide internal financing/payment plan options?
  14. What is the refund policy?
  15. What benefits do graduates receive?
  16. Is enrollment open on an ongoing basis, or do you have to wait for the school’s specific marketing windows to open before registering?
  17. Is the school recognized and well respected within the pet industry (i.e., does it have a strong advisory board consisting of industry leaders overseeing its curriculum and programs)?
  18. Do you have to pay extra after graduation to remain on the school’s public database?
  19. Is the school authorized or accredited by its local authorizing entity?
  20. Will the school provide graduates for you to speak with before enrolling, or (at minimum) can you see testimonials from other students?

By asking the above questions and comparing the answers, you’ll have a good feel for what’s important to you as you begin or continue your journey as a professional dog trainer.