Degree certificate and mortarboardAre you pondering how to turn your fascination with dogs and your drive to help people and their pets into a profession?

You already know that some animal careers like veterinary medicine take years of higher education, but what about others, like dog training? 

Great news! Today we’re examining what you need to learn to become an expert dog trainer, and exactly how you can get started on your professional education.

Do I need a degree to be a dog trainer?

The short answer is no, but the full answer is much more nuanced and important for those considering a dog training career. Currently, the dog training industry is relatively unregulated (although our team at the Victoria Stilwell Academy is involved in helping to shift this.) A specific degree or certification is not currently required to start accepting customers as a dog trainer. However, this can give people considering the industry the wrong idea.

Careful, the facts are misleading…

Truly successful dog trainers have a lot of specialized knowledge and expertise, especially those who run their own businesses. A serious devotion to learning all you can about dog behavior and even geeking out over new advances in dog training are traits that will help you as you work with dogs and their families. (Find out what other traits great dog trainers have in common here.) It will also help you attract and retain new customers, because potential clients will want to know that the trainer they ultimately choose to help them is an expert in their field.

Dog training is science-based

Many dog trainers get interested in the field out of an intense love of dogs and desire to help them. That said, dog training is a profession that’s strongly based in science. More and more studies are being published that explore the most successful methods to raise and train dogs. So, while you may not be required to have a university degree to practice dog training, an education guided by experts is imperative to your development as a knowledgeable dog trainer who will guide your clients’ success.

What do I need to learn to be a dog trainer?

You may be surprised to learn that professional dog training is way more than “speaking dog.” Training dogs really means teaching their owners to train them, so it is incredibly important to listen, watch, and assist both the human and canine participants in your training sessions. Here are some communication skills you’ll need to learn and practice:

  • Be knowledgeable about the science of dogs. You’ll need to be savvy about dog training techniques, dog cognition, and canine behavioral science. You’ll need a quick eye and an understanding of their body language. Teaching basic skills to a dog may seem straightforward, but resolving unwanted behaviors with a positive solution requires a deep understanding of how dogs learn, think and feel.
  • Be a great listener and communicator. Are you hearing what your client is really saying? Do you understand their needs, concerns, and desired outcome? Some people will be at their wit’s end over a behavioral problem, and some people will just want to bond with their dog and have fun. You’ll also need to be comfortable leading classes and consulting with people one-on-one, in-person, on the phone, and online. 
  • Include everyone in the home. Good dog trainers know behavior happens in context. You’ll need to think beyond your classroom to set up family routines and habits that will help everyone work toward a peaceful, happy home.

You will also need a solid grasp of the business side of the profession, whether you work for another dog training company or are a business owner yourself. Understanding the nuts and bolts of marketing and management can increase your overall income as a dog trainer.

  • You’ll be valued more as an employee if you have a good understanding of your employer’s priorities. Business savvy will help you create a strong, positive reputation for the dog training company you work for and help your career move forward.
  • As the owner of your own dog training enterprise, you will need to have a solid grounding in business management, including branding and marketing. As your business becomes larger and more successful, you will need delegation and people-management skills so you can hire outside help or bring on employees of your own.
  • You will also need skills specifically targeted toward the specialized business of instruction. Classes don’t just happen spontaneously. You’ll need to understand effective lesson planning so you can create engaging in-person and online classes that truly benefit your customers.

How can I begin my education as a dog trainer?

There are several common starting points for aspiring dog trainers. Have you already started down one (or more) of these paths?

1. Dog Trainer School. A time-tested, science-based dog trainer education like what we offer here in our Victoria Stilwell Academy Dog Trainer Course is structured to cover all of the topics you will need to begin or expand your career. It provides you with expert instruction from mentors in dog training, communication skills, business management, and more. A great dog trainer academy will have multiple teachers with proven success in their field, and will also provide options for personalized instruction. You’ll also be learning with other students so you will benefit from the questions they ask, and you’re sure to make some strong friendships along the way. When you conclude the Victoria Stilwell Academy Dog Trainer Course, you’ll leave with the skills, knowledge and confidence you need as well as a strong professional network of fellow trainers to consult throughout your career.

You’ll be glad to learn that professional dog trainer courses are usually quite affordable, especially when compared to a college degree program. Courses with an online element will also give you exceptional flexibility. You may even be able to get started on your future career with plenty of time still available for your current job, your family, or other full-time responsibilities.

2. Apprenticeship. Do you really like face-to-face instruction and have found an opportunity to study under the guidance of an experienced local dog trainer? As an apprentice, you will have access to your mentor’s training classes, private sessions, and years of experience.

However, when working with just one person, you will be limited by the techniques, experience, teaching ability and caseload of the trainer you are shadowing. This can leave unintended gaps in your education. Supplementing apprenticeship with coursework at a dog trainer school and attending conferences and workshops will strengthen your knowledge base and widen your professional network. If you really value face-to-face instruction, the Victoria Stilwell Academy even has an In-Person Track add-on for our Dog Trainer Course that pairs you with a local mentor (among other benefits), so you can have the best of all options.

3. Learning on your own. Some dog lovers were bitten by the dog-training bug when they took a training class with their own dog, and then fell into helping family, friends or even their local animal shelter with their dogs. If this sounds like you, you may have already cracked open books, webinars and videos to research the nuts and bolts of a dog training career all on your own. As a self-starter, you have the freedom and flexibility to research topics that interest you or that come up as your work with each new client. You can grow your business as you learn.

Keep in mind that when you learn-as-you-go, every case will present new and unfamiliar challenges that you will have to research on your own. It can be hard to sift through books and online research to find the quality information you need, especially when you need it quickly. As you look ahead, consider supplementing your learn-as-you-go education with an established dog trainer program like the Victoria Stilwell Academy to take your career to the next level. Sign up for our mailing list to keep us on your radar.

Remember, you aren’t limited to a single path. There’s no reason why your education can’t include all three!

Is dog trainer certification like a degree?

The term “certificate” can be a bit confusing in animal studies. Veterinarians or others with a PhD are required by governing agencies to obtain a specialty certificate in animal behavior and other medical sciences before they can offer those animal treatment options to the public. In dog training, a certificate is non-degree recognition you receive for completing a specific educational program of study. When you graduate from a certification program, you have proven that you have met all of the knowledge requirements set forth by the organization that provided your training. However, what those requirements are varies widely from group to group, so it’s important to understand the certifying organization’s process and offering. What’s more, some schools focus just on evaluating knowledge while others like VSA also include skills and competency. (Learn more about becoming a certified dog trainer.)

While a certificate is not currently required for you to offer dog training services to the public, there are huge benefits to enrolling in a certification program from an organization that can help you develop a deep understanding of dog behavior, human communication skills and the business of dog training.

  • First, a comprehensive education from a well-known and trusted school for dog trainers offering a certification program will fast-track your start as a dog trainer. You’ll get all of the information you need within a structured program. Learning on your own or from a single mentor can take far longer.
  • Second, you will be more confident knowing that you’ve received a full, solid grounding in your chosen profession. You will really enjoy creating friendships with other students and learning from mentors who love sharing their expertise. You’ll have a jumpstart on creating a network of professionals who will help support you throughout the rest of your career.
  • Finally, most of your future clients will expect verification of your expertise as a dog trainer before they place their dog’s wellbeing in your care. If you have a certificate from a school for dog trainers that people can verify and trust, they are more likely to choose you over an unproven trainer.

At the Victoria Stilwell Academy we use industry-leading, learner-centered, performance-based assessments that exceed the requirements of internationally recognized certifying bodies for both skills and knowledge, and we also harness the power of one of the best-known voices in the field of dog behavior: Victoria Stilwell. While many businesses and organizations offer dog training education programs, the value of your certificate absolutely depends on the guiding principles and reputation of the organization that grants it. It’s important to choose a program that both you and the public can trust.

Do you have more questions? We have more answers for you in our article, What Is Dog Trainer Certification.

Is continuing education required to be a dog trainer?

One thing is certain: as a professional dog trainer, you will always be learning —  and it’s exciting stuff! New insights into how dogs think and learn and how we can make their lives more fulfilling is published every year. It’s mind-boggling so see how much we’ve progressed in just a few decades.

The dog training program you enroll in may or may not specifically require that you take regular classes as continuing education units (CEUs). However, it’s still crucial for you to stay current with the philosophies, trends, and methods that are proven to provide the best results for dogs under the ‘positive training’ umbrella. At the Victoria Stilwell Academy we absolutely encourage our students and graduates to embrace continued learning. It will keep you on top of the changes in your profession, give you a leg up over your competition, keep you excited and confident about being a dog trainer, and ensure that your clients and their dogs are benefiting from your very best guidance.

You don’t need to look far for continuing education opportunities. The Victoria Stilwell Academy holds Dog Behavior Conferences to keep dog trainers both inspired and educated so that you remain at the top of their field. We hope you’ll join us every year.

Are you ready to start your education as a dog trainer? 

Put aside the college catalogs and arduous Google searches. Check out all of the Victoria Stilwell Academy courses and then jump right into our Dog Trainer Course, either fully online, or with our in-person option! You may still have questions, so visit our FAQ and feel free to contact us. We’d be glad to provide you with more guidance to get you started on your journey.