How to Become a Licensed Dog Trainer: Licensure and Career Roadmap

Learn about licensing and certification for service dog trainers. Map out the steps you'll need to take and consider whether this is the right career for you.

Should I Become a Dog Trainer?

Behind every guide dog, rescue dog or bomb-sniffing dog, there is a professional dog trainer who developed the dog's abilities. Trainers also work with hunting dogs, race dogs and family pets. Dog trainers may work in pet stores, for professional organizations or run their own business. Care must be taken when working with aggressive or nervous dogs.

Career Requirements

Degree Level High school diploma or equivalent; postsecondary training is often helpful
Licensure and Certification May be required for certain types of dog trainers
Experience Varies; some employers may not require any experience
Key Skills Possess compassion and patience towards dogs and owners, physical stamina, excellent customer-service and oral communication skills, basic computer software competence, and the ability to work in group and independently
Salary (2014) $25,770 (Median salary for all animal trainers)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor of Statistics; Job posting from various employers (August 2015); Guide Dogs of America

Step 1: Work with Dogs

Dog trainers usually begin working with dogs early in their lives. They enjoy being around animals, and dogs respond well to them. In addition to training their own dogs, they may work at kennels and dog racetracks, volunteer in animal shelters or foster puppies in service-dog training programs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that animal trainers, including dog trainers, typically have a high school diploma or equivalent.

Step 2: Learn How to Train Dogs

While dog trainers may teach themselves through books, videos, seminars and hands-on practice, structured training programs are becoming more common. Community colleges and both private and public trade schools offer programs leading to a certificate in dog training. Professional dog-trainer associations also offer classes ranging from basic obedience training to competitive showing. Another option is to become an apprentice to a professional trainer.

Training programs may include instruction on these topics: dog behavior and communication, dealing with behavioral problems, obedience training, general and competition-level, puppy training and socialization and dog biology.

Step 3: Find Work as a Dog Trainer

Organizations and facilities that hire dog trainers may include animal shelters, pet stores, private dog-training businesses, dog breeders, vets and even community organizations, such as 4-H and local recreation departments. Certification typically isn't required for entry-level jobs. However, it is important to gain experience with a variety of dog breeds and training situations.

Success Tip:

  • Find a mentor. For individuals who want to become certified professional dog trainers, it's especially useful to find work with a professional trainer who can also be a mentor.

Step 4: Choose a Specialty

Dog trainers may set up their own business to train a specific type of dog, such as pets, hunting dogs, show dogs, service dogs, police dogs, race dogs or rescue animals. Alternatively, they may work for another dog trainer in one of those areas.

Identifying a niche in dog training steers a trainer toward the types of continuing education and certification that will be most helpful. For example, certification requirements are different for pet training and police-dog training. Some organizations, such as schools for guide dogs or law-enforcement dogs, may require trainers to undergo apprenticeships with certified instructors.

Success Tip:

  • Complete an apprenticeship. Individuals wishing to become a guide dog or law-enforcement trainer should complete an apprenticeship with a certified instructor.
  • Prepare for your certification exam. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers offers exam candidates the opportunity to take a practice exam.

Step 5: Earn Certification or Licensure

State licensure may be mandatory for some dog trainers, but these situations are uncommon. Certification isn't required for all dog trainers, but it is recommended in order to separate oneself from the field. Dog trainers specializing in service dogs, such as seeing-eye dogs, or working animals, such as K-9 officers, are usually required to be certified trainers.

While some schools with dog-training programs offer certificates, certification is obtained through an independent professional association. The certification process requires proof of both knowledge and skill in dog training. For instance, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers requires education, experience and testing to earn the Certified Professional Dog Trainer designation.

Success Tips:

  • Choose a reputable certification organization. Before choosing a certification program, it's a good idea to learn about its reputation in the dog-training world. Programs offered by accredited institutions of higher learning and professional organizations are typically more reputable than those at for-profit schools that certify anyone who completes the program.

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