Many trainers grew up with dogs and learned how to work with them at an early age. Others, like me, came later to training (and to being a dog’s person). No matter how long you’ve been around dogs, however, there is a lot to learn to become an effective trainer.
A good trainer will have a solid grounding in learning theory, with a thorough understanding of how both classical and operant conditioning work. Without this knowledge, we can make mistakes in training, like reinforcing a behavior we didn’t intend to or pushing a dog too fast to feel better about her triggers. Being comfortable with the tenets of learning theory can also help trainers develop their mechanical skills—knowing how reinforcement works, for example, can mean a trainer is more likely to mark and reinforce a behavior in a way that is clear to the dog. These skills are like any other learned behavior—you have to practice to be adept at using a clicker or marker word, handling a leash, and getting treats smoothly out of your treat bag.
Reading dog body language is another crucial skill for trainers. In addition to observing bigger signals like a full body wiggle, a crouched posture, or an air snap, we need to catch small details like a quick tongue flick or a slight head turn to understand how the dog we’re working with may be feeling. Without this detailed attention to the subtleties of dog body language, we may send a dog over threshold in a training session, which could set the dog’s progress back and cause her to distrust training in general. We may also miss hints that there is something like pain adding to a dog's stress and that we should encourage our client to consult their vet.
Body language is one part of a dog's overall behavior, which is the focus of ethology. Most training programs include at least one course in ethology so that trainers get a bigger sense of how dogs learn and how to meet their needs based on their genetics. This knowledge allows us to devise more effective training plans that include enrichment opportunities that let dogs be dogs. Because we work with dogs of all kinds, it’s important to know how breed influences behavior and even how a breed's characteristics may affect a training session.
As I mentioned last week, being a dog trainer really involves teaching people. So we need to adapt our teaching to different learning styles, providing visual, aural, and written information for our clients. Topics like managing group classes, dealing with grief and other emotions, and having hard conversations come up in coursework for trainers learning to coach people.
There are many options for learning to become a trainer and in this month’s resources post I’ll include links to different programs.