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In 19 Questions to Ask When Hiring a Dog Walker, I told you about the time I broke my ankle, and did all kinds of research into how to find the right dog walker for Janice and Leroy while I was laid up. Ultimately, I found one who would have actually satisfied my admittedly ridiculously high standards but didn’t actually hire him, since my friend Neila offered to take over.
In that post, I also hearkened back to the day, all those years ago, when I took off my headset forever and left my call center job in favor of the uncertainties of freelance writing. So many of my fellow workers suggested that I should find a job working with dogs, but I wasn’t sure I’d be a good fit; I’d worry about becoming far too attached to the dogs I worked with.
If I were the type of person who was able to sort of “step back” a bit from the individual dogs, though, I can’t imagine a more fulfilling job than working as a dog trainer, and whatever the average salary turned out to be would be just fine. I’d be like, “Wow, I get paid to do this?”
I know my weaknesses, though. Besides, I suppose I actually do kind of work with dogs, by virtue of this blog, although it’s not “hands-on” work like walking or training.
A dog trainer’s average salary can vary widely depending on the type of training being done.More on that later, though. Obviously, job satisfaction can depend on many factors other than money. I honestly believe that doing something you love is the most important thing in any job. Feeling appreciated also matters, as does having a job that doesn’t cause a whole lot of stress.
That said, you do want a job that, while it might not make you rich, will at least give you a reasonably decent standard of living. Many people will tell you that this isn’t going to be possible if you’re a dog trainer, but I believe they’re wrong. Some trainers are very well-paid, and keep in mind that if you gain a following as a dog trainer, there are other possibilities open to you, as well; you could operate a pet store as an adjunct to your training classes, you could blog or offer webinars, you could get into breeding, and so many other things as well. You’re not limited simply to training.
Once you’ve made the decision to become a dog trainer, the next step is to decide what sort of training you want to offer. Again, you’re not necessarily limited here. When most people think of a dog trainer, their mind automatically goes to basic obedience, but there are so many other types of training; you could train dogs for performance events, work with dogs that need behavior modification, train dogs for therapy, service work, police or military purposes and more.
Once you believe that you’ve identified your niche, then you can get the education you need. You’ll learn a variety of different skills with any program you choose, but of course, if you want to train military or police dogs, you’re going to need a very different type of education than if you’re more interested in training dogs for agility competitions. So, set your goals, and then find the path you need to achieve those goals.
It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to hire you as a dog trainer if you can’t prove that you are qualified. Sure, I know that Cesar Millan is very successful, despite having no formal training, but he’s definitely the exception to the rule, so I’d very much recommend that you get some form of formal education under your belt before you set yourself up as a dog trainer. There are a few different ways that you can do this.
One way to become qualified is to obtain a degree in Animal Behavior from an accredited college or university. You could also go with an online, non-accredited school, but realistically, this will cause a perception on the part of many people that your training isn’t all that good. The following are some accredited schools that offer four-year Animal Behavior degree programs:
Of course, the reality is that not everyone has the financial resources to invest in a degree program. In that case, you could consider taking a course from a trade school. Just make sure that the program you’re considering is going to deliver the knowledge that you will need in order to work in your field of choice. At the very least, the school should offer basic obedience and introductory behavior modification.
You can actually become certified without going to school, although you will have to prove competence. You can obtain certification from the CCPDT (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) if you have experience in training dogs, and you are able to pass their examination. There is a $400 fee for taking the exam. Once you are certified, you will be expected to maintain your certification by continually upgrading your education, and also by paying a $400 renewal fee at three-year intervals.
You can also find other programs that will provide different types of certification. You can learn more about these certifications and their requirements through the APDT (Association of Professional Dog Trainers).
Although you’re not required to become certified in order to work as a dog trainer, let me stress again that if you can’t provide some sort of proof that you know what you’re doing, your career prospects are probably going to be somewhat limited. Now, if you genuinely are another Cesar Millan, a highly charismatic person with the ability to make dogs do whatever you want them to do, and a way of bringing people onside as well, then more power to you; you probably don’t need to worry about certification. For most of us, though, we’re going to have to prove that we know our stuff.
Running a dog training business, boarding kennel or doggy daycare can be a very demanding business, and depending on the “ebb and flow” of demands on the owner’s time, sometimes, a little help can be very welcome. So, another way in which you can learn a lot about dog training is to become an apprentice.
The catch here, of course, is that the chances of you getting paid for your efforts are pretty much slim to none. The benefit, however, is that you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll gain valuable experience that you won’t get in school. Along the way, you’ll be able to become certified, and you might end up in a paid position, or even a partnership, if your skills bring in additional business.
So, there are a few different ways that you can get the experience you need in order to become a successful dog trainer. Choose the one that works best for you, and get started.
Yes, I know, I keep skirting around that, but I do realize that in the final analysis, whatever line of work you’re in, you’re going to need a roof over your head and enough to eat. Will you have that if you work as a dog trainer?
The first thing to keep in mind is that dog training is considered to be a “service” industry, so what you’ll make will depend in large part on what the market will bear in the area where you live. In 2015, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the mean annual wage for animal trainers as $33,600. Of course, this can vary significantly. If you live in a poor part of the country, you’ll probably have to take less for your services than if you lived in, say, Palm Beach or Beverly Hills.
So, find out what dog training services are going for in your area. Then, decide how much money you want to make. If you’re charging, say, $50 per lesson, and you want to make $50,000 a year, this is really simple math. You’ll have to deliver 1,000 lessons over the year, or about 20 per week. The formula, of course, is always the same. Identify your target income. Then divide it by your anticipated hourly rate to get the number of lessons you’ll need to give over the year. Then, divide again by 52 to break it down further into the number of lessons you’ll have to give in each week.
Now, decide if you have set your sights unrealistically high, or a bit too low. What needs to be adjusted? Your desired income? Your hourly rate? Or the number of dogs you can reasonably handle?
A dog trainer’s average salary will also depend on whether that trainer is working independently, or for someone else. Of course, I’d imagine you’re thinking that it would be best to just set up on your own; after all, in some areas, dog trainers can make a hundred bucks an hour!
That sounds really good until you factor in the costs. First of all, you’re going to need a reliable vehicle to get to your clients. You’ll need to register it, pay the insurance on it, keep it in good repair, and buy gas. You’ll also probably want to advertise your dog training business. You’ll need liability insurance, as well. And, of course, you’re going to have to worry about how you’ll keep your head above water if you lose clients, or if you can’t find them in the first place.
When you consider these things, working for someone else for $16-20 per hour probably doesn’t seem so bad.
I don’t want to sound like the voice of doom, here, though; many independent trainers can be highly successful. You need to have a plan, though, so set realistic goals. For instance, if the average hourly rate for dog trainers in your area is, say $60 per hour, you should try to stay pretty close to that figure. If you go substantially higher, say $80, you probably won’t get a lot of business. If you drop down to $40, you’ll have to work that much harder than others in the field to make the same overall income, and you’ll also be delivering the impression that maybe $40 per hour is really all you’re worth.
Also, don’t overestimate the time you can devote to your business, and don’t be overly optimistic about your energy level. You might think you can handle, say, five dogs a day, only to discover that you simply don’t have the stamina. You’re better off to start slow (say, a couple of dogs) and then as you become more confident in your strength, agility, and skill, add a dog or two.
If training dogs is what you want to do with your life, I think that’s wonderful! With the right knowledge and certification, you can get started on a highly rewarding career. And with a good plan, and a realistic picture of what your local market will bear what you’re likely to be able to achieve, and how hard you’re going to have to work to get there, you should have no trouble coming in around the national dog trainer’s average salary.
Congratulations on your decision, and best of luck to you!