Jill Dextrase, co-owner of Sit Happens!, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, met her mentor when she enrolled her own problem dog in a group class at the local humane society. After apprenticing for several years with the instructor, Jill took over her mentor’s business and now teaches classes and private lessons out of her own facility. Volunteering at an animal shelter is another excellent way to gain hands-on experience with a wide variety of dogs. Many shelters now have training programs in which volunteers are instructed how to train the shelter dogs so that they become more adoptable. This can be as simple as teaching a dog to wait at doorways or as complex as behavior modification for reactive or fearful dogs. If your local shelter doesn’t have a training program, volunteering to establish one, once you’re qualified, is a terrific way to gain client referrals from the shelter staff and other volunteers.
Lesson Three : Get schooled
There are more dog-trainer schools out there than you can shake a stick at — and many of them deserve to have a stick shaken at them! Be diligent when researching schools; many proclaim themselves to be “positive” and “humane” while continuing to promote techniques and equipment that are quite the opposite.
Until recently, there were two biggies in the arena of positive-reinforcement training academies: the Karen Pryor Academy and the Academy for Dog Trainers at the San Francisco SPCA. But in 2009, the SF/SPCA Academy closed its doors.
Jean Donaldson, founder and former director of the SF/SPCA Academy, recently announced the details of her new Academy for Dog Trainers, which will take the form of lectures and training demonstrations on CD, as well as self-assessment tools and virtual classrooms. Students work at their own pace with their own dogs in their own homes. Graduation requirements include an online final written exam and submission of a video of the student training with specific criteria. Jean hopes to establish a mentor program for graduates of her academy (academyfordogtrainers.com).
The Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) also offers the convenience of distance learning, but combines it with four weekend workshops with the instructor and fellow classmates. KPA instructors are extremely well regarded in the industry and are located across the U.S. and internationally; students may choose the instructor they want to work with. The curriculum is entirely online and includes training exercises and interim tests. One unique feature of the KPA curriculum is the requirement to train an animal of a species other than canine. Graduation requirements include an online final exam and inperson teaching and training assessments. Passing all three assessments earns graduates the right to put “KPA CTP” (Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner) after their names. Certification can be revoked at any time if a graduate does not continue to meet the quality standards of the Karen Pryor Academy (karenpryoracademy.com).
When you’re ready to take your skills, as well as your understanding of the science behind how animals learn, to the highest point possible, then you’re ready to take Bob Bailey’s Operant Conditioning and Behavior Analysis Workshops (a.k.a. “Chicken Camps”). Bob teaches four levels of these eminent workshops; unfortunately for those of us in the U.S., he now teaches them only in Borlänge, Sweden (houseof- learning.se).
There is no substitute for learning from Bob, but if Sweden is out of the question for you, you can learn to train chickens (which sharpens mechanical skills like nothing else can) with Terry Ryan at Legacy Canine in Sequim, Wash. (legacycanine.com)
Lesson Four: Get out there
Conferences, seminars and workshops are fantastic sources of knowledge as well as great networking opportunities. From one- or two-hour evening seminars to weeklong conferences, there are enough educational events across the country to keep a trainer learning, meeting and greeting all year long.