I am often asked by people how they can become a dog behaviourist. So, I thought it might be useful to put together an article on what being a behaviourist entails. It sounds like the dream job. In fact, it really can be. But it can also be devastating, frustrating, dirty, smelly, frightening and dangerous and emotionally draining. If you want to go into this job for the love of dogs, forget it. You need to go into this job with a love of dogs AND people. If you just love dogs, you will be deeply disappointed! It will not make you happy, get yourself a dog instead.
I fell into this career the hard way. We got a puppy aged six weeks old. At just 12 weeks old we took her out to Milton Abbas tea rooms. When the waitress came to collect the empties we were shocked that Amy shot out from under the table snarling at the waitress. At first we thought this was sweet. She was protecting us. If only we had considered what this behaviour would look like in an adult dog!
We attended a local dog training club. We were told our dog was dominant and that we should correct her behaviour. We were told to use a choke chain to control her walking. We were instructed to teach “leave” by placing a biscuit on the floor and yanking her head away from it using the choke chain any time she tried to get it. Then, when she stopped trying to get it we told her she could have it (How confusing must this have been for her). If she misbehaved in class, they threw a bean bag at her. I was told to take up her food bowl to prevent her growling when we approached her food. OH DEAR ME! This actually made her far worse (any time I approached her she thought I was going to take her food. If a waiter tried to take my food off me, I dare say I would also show aggression... with my fork!). So, I was told to smack her for growling. Eventually the inevitable happened. She started biting without warning. Why? Because I gave her no choice! I punished her every time she warned me by growling, so she stopped bothering to growl and just bit instead. She feared me and used aggression to keep me away. Our dog trainers had helped us to make her behaviour much worse and led her to the point of biting. I will regret what I did to the end of my days.
It was at this point that I decided we needed to do something about this. There were no behaviourists at that time and our vet was unable to help us. So, I started to read books. Eventually, to cut a long story short, I stumbled across a course run by C.O.A.P.E. (Centre of Applied Pet Ethology).There began my journey of enlightenment. I learned my dog was not dominant and I learned to change my ways. I learned new techniques under the guidance of C.O.A.P.E and we saw a huge positive change in Amy.
I then started to volunteer as a dog walker at the RSPCA and then volunteered for Waggy Tails (I still do this today.) I learned a lot about dogs through working with rescue dogs. I helped friends with problem pooches and eventually I started to run my own dog training classes.
I get lots of calls from people who would like to sit in on a class to watch so that they can learn to be a dog trainer. Some think observing just one class will do the trick, some think that a whole course would be needed. At this point I say something that I am sure annoys a lot of people. “You don’t know what you don’t know until you DO know it”. Throughout my 16-year career I sometimes hit a point where I think to myself “This doesn’t make sense”. This is because my understanding was not complete and it has taken me a long time to hit the anomaly that told me I got it wrong. This still happens to me now very occasionally. But trust me, it is less frequent if you have an excellent academic grounding.This is despite having worked with well over 12,000 dogs in regular classes over 16 years and in excess of 2,000 aggressive dogs over the last 10 years (it took me four years to feel confident to work aggression cases). Why? Because there is still a lot we don't know about dogs. This is a burgeoning area of research with new exciting knowledge coming out regularly. Without a degree in animal behaviour you will not know how to resolve many dog behaviour problems. Please don't follow this career if you are unable to get the right education for it.
It is a sad fact that most people think being a dog trainer is easy and unskilled. It’s a sad fact that people think they know more about dogs than the dog trainer because they have owned 8 in their life and never had a problem dog, therefore, they must know more than the dog trainer.
Yes, there are people who set up as dog trainers who have no qualifications or experience. They have watched a few episodes of dog trainers on T.V. or watched a few You Tube videos and now think they know everything about dog training. They charge good money to unwitting people who do not realise that actually, dog trainers and behaviourists are meant to be following a voluntary code and hold qualifications and be members of overseeing organisations.
So, if you still want to be a dog trainer or behaviourist after reading this, then you are at least forewarned of the down sides. It is not a glamorous job, it's not a high profile job and it's not seen as a skilled job (despite the fact that it is) and the income is very poor compared to the cost of education and the time put in to working with clients. At the time of writing, I have spent over £46,000.00 on my education and continuing professional development.
The upsides are obvious! You get to spend time with amazing dog owners that you help to resolve their problems with their dogs. They do this themselves and feel so proud after they have managed to resolve these problems with skills that you gave them. You watch them grow in confidence and skill sets. They know so much more about their dog and can work with their dog into the future having learned good skills. I love to hear from clients years after I saw them and hear how happy they are with their dog despite having some challenges in the past. Or to have clients come to our classes with a new puppy, years after we worked with them before. In fact, some of our clients have been to us with three or four dogs over the years. This makes me proud! In fact, several of my clients got bitten by the bug and have entered the world of dog training. They started from the bottom and spent years training their dogs, started to attend educational courses and are now training. Two of my former clients now work in Paws in Hand and have their own dog training businesses.
So, now let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What do you need to become a dog trainer? This is not a complete list, it would take too long.
• Excellent coaching skills. You need to be able to motivate your client through the tough times as well as the easy times.
• You need empathy, kindness and compassion. You absolutely need to put yourself in the client’s shoes.
• Excellent communication. You need to be able to communicate to a variety of different clients in a way that the client understands. You cannot just communicate in a way that suits you.
• An understanding of human psychology. What motivates people? How do people learn? What biases might they have. What underlying emotions are there? What does this dog mean to them? You need different techniques you can use to train people who learn differently or have limited physical abilities. You simply can’t use the same toolkit with every client and every dog.
• Oodles of patience both with the client and the dog.
Dog training and behaviour skills
• You need to understand motivational theories in dogs.
• You need to understand how their memory works (e.g. understand generalisation). Not all dogs learn the same way or within the same timeframes. Animals, as well as humans, have cognitive biases that need to be understood
• You need to understand learning theory. E.G the difference between the four quadrants of operant conditioning. You need to understand and be able to use a range of different reinforcers depending on what a dog finds reinforcing.
•You need to understand classical conditioning and how this can change associations.
•You need an understanding of how health and medical conditions can affect a dog's behaviour and how to work with serious medical conditions and still change behaviour.
• You need an exquisite knowledge of dog body language. I can tell you this has taken me 16 years to learn and I am still learning.
• You need to be able to recognise personality traits in dogs and how this affects their response when in different emotional states.
•You need to understand all the mechanisms of behaviour
• You need to learn how dogs communicate with other dogs and with humans
• Actually, this list is difficult as there is so much. But we will leave it here.
• You need an understanding of different laws (Dangerous Dogs Act (1991, 1997), The Dogs Act (1871, 1906, 1953), The Animals Act (1971) and The Animal Welfare Act (2006) and The Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, (2014).You will also need to understand other normal legal stuff such as data protection and client confidentiality. If you do not understand the law, it is very likely that you will act outside of it. E.G. If working with an aggressive dog, you are the legal keeper of the dog. If the dog shows aggression whilst under your guidance you will have committed a criminal act. Some techniques would be in breach of the Animal Welfare Act (2006).
I have spent a great deal of time and money on my education so that I can learn about dogs and understand them so that I can help to train them and help to modify their behaviour to the best of my ability. This is a complex and sophisticated process. It’s not simple. It doesn’t happen in days usually. If others say it does, then it is likely that strong measures are being used to inhibit behaviours and this can lead to serious problems later when such strong measures are no longer in place, or when the dog matures and decides they are not going to accept this any more. Dogs can die if trainers or behaviourists get it wrong!
As of now I have I undertaken a great deal of education including a B.Sc (Hons) in Applied Animal Behaviour and a Masters degree in Research Science in dog condition and forensic psychology. I started out doing an advanced diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour and Training with COAPE. We shouldn't forget to include accommodation and travel costs that have to be incurred by attending courses for my own education. Most of the courses I attend are up North. This also doesn’t include classes that I attend with my own dog. This is just on courses that are considered qualifications or CPD (Continuing Professional Development). It has taken me all of this education as well as 16 years and working with many thousands of dogs to be at the standard I am now. I am still not perfect by a long shot but I try my hardest.
Hopefully, this now explains why when someone asks me if they can attend a class or a course so they can learn to be a dog trainer or behaviourist, this is something I sometimes find a little frustrating. It takes years if you are going to do this properly. Please don’t take short cuts it will catch up with you later.
If someone is serious about becoming a dog trainer or behaviourist, they should start with some academic grounding first. Then the practical side becomes easier. Like learning to drive; we are tested on theory before the practical. This makes us safer and the same applies for dog training.
Dog training is not an easy profession. It can be dangerous. If you do not understand dog body language to a sophisticated level, you really shouldn’t work with dogs. This is how you can get bitten, or killed.
If you are still determined to become a dog trainer/behaviourist, go and check out a range of really good courses that are available. Do make sure they are independently accredited. You will need academic and practical experience. Once you have the academic qualifications it's a good idea to volunteer to assist a dog trainer for quite some time to gain practical experience. The best place to start is the Animal Behaviour and Trainer's Council (www.abtcouncil.org.uk) as this is the regulatory body for dog trainers and behaviourists. Shortly, this industry is very likely to be regulated, it is best to invest in education that will help you reach your goals and is accepted by the ABTC.