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An animal trainer is responsible for psychological (and to some extent, physiological) conditioning of animals. The animal is typically a horse, cat, dog or service animal, and is kept for show purposes, disability assistance, or as a pet.
An animal trainer is a person who is employed by the animal’s owner to apply a series of mental conditioning techniques and behavioural improvement methods to train the animal effectively. The reasons are numerous: the animal may be aggressive, nervous, confused or territorial, it may be that the animal has a strong sense of balance but is lacking in discipline or requires “toilet training” or sometimes, the animal may even be taught routines for the purposes of showing (itself the result of “discipline recurrence” training).
The animal trainer will typically have to spend a great deal of time with owners, as often it is the owner’s behaviour that requires adjustment. The trainer may also be involved with developing training aids and products to benefit animal owners, or they may be asked to contribute advice columns or advertorials for magazines and TV shows.
The possible salary range is very large, as the role can span from part-time instruction all the way up to the manager of a successful behavioural centre, with several staff being direct employees of the company. Those candidates who start unskilled and join established training centres as assistants can expect to receive only minimum wage. In the UK, this is currently £5.93 per hour for workers aged 21 and over, £4.92 for those in the 18-20 age category, and £3.64 for young workers aged between 16-17. Salaries for established, well-known behaviour specialists grow exponentially, and can be augmented with seminar speaking, product development and magazine article publishing.
- Fix a timescale which fits round the animal, their owners and the problems
- Isolate symptoms. For example, aggression may be the result of fear, or a territorial, reactive, maternal, frustrated or depressed state of mind
- Ascertain what type of dog is being dealt with, and how best to deal with it. Is it pushy, sensitive, dominant, mentally immature, stubborn or bold?
- 75% of time is allocated to working with owners, rather than the animals
- Administer effective training through technique and communication
At present, there are no academic requirements to prevent anyone calling themselves an animal trainer or behaviourist. However, the PAACT (The Professional Association of Applied Canine Trainers) in conjunction with the CAWC (The Companion Animal Welfare Council) have been holding regular meetings in an attempt to tighten up the laws specific to dog training. Other areas of animal conditioning remain open and prone to unregulated individuals calling themselves experts. It is recommended that all practising trainers join a professional body to demonstrate their level of accredited professionalism within a given area of training.
- Have an empathy towards the greater cause of animals
- A magnetism for the animal species in question can be beneficial, though it is not essential
- Must be a people person, as most of the work is with owners, not the animal
- Must be able to learn from one’s own mistakes and alter teaching methods to suit
- Consistency of approach is vital, as animals become conditioned to better behaviour by use of “classical conditioning” techniques (e.g. repetition)
- In-depth knowledge of the behavioural tendencies for the animal/species being trained
In the case of working with horses and dogs, the possible threat to the candidate’s health should not be underestimated. It is worse for candidates who join as staff for established centres, as they are not able to pick and choose the breeds they are prepared to work with. Both large and aggressive dogs pose risks in terms of personal injury (bites and mauling), and the subsequent threat from the potential spread of diseases after a bite. Horses are particularly dangerous, as a single kick to the face can result in long term hospitalisation and the need for reconstructive surgery. Caution is advised at all times, and training centres employing staff are expected to have an effective health and safety planning and training procedure in place.
First year practitioners often begin on a part-time basis, fitting their training commitments around other work demands. It is a sensible approach which allows the candidate to build up the reputation and range of services of their business as their experience grows.
Those with several years of experience in a given field are recognised as species specialists, and often give seminars in education centres and clubs. They may also contribute published material for magazines and specialist publications. These ancillary roles help to grow the reputation of the candidate and their business, and can generate semi-regular income also.
There is not one particular recognised market leader in the field of “animal training” as such; each of the various sectors of training specialise in a certain animal, breed or subspecies. Most practitioners are self-employed freelancers, and are often retained by clients for this exact reason. Customers like the specialist level of care offered by a local trainer in a specific field of expertise.
Also known as…
- Pet trainer
- Animal behaviourist
- Animal whisperer
- Veterinary surgeon
- Animal groomer
- Vet’s assistant
What’s it really like?
Stan Rawlinson, MTCBPT, MPAACT A.dipCCB, is Chairman of PAACT (The Professional Association of Applied Canine Trainers) and a highly respected trainer of dogs
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
People come into the profession for a variety of reasons: a deep and abiding need to work with dogs from a young age, a critical stage in life, a change in circumstances, or a previous job that offered a move into this line of work (for example, police or military dog handlers). In my case, it was most of these reasons, except for the military dog handling. I was in the forces for ten years, but not as a dog handler.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
I suppose in my practice I tend to treat more aggressive dogs that anything else. I have written lots of articles for magazines and newspapers on aggression. It may surprise people to know that 90% of the aggressive cases I deal with are fear-related.
What do you like most about the job?
I am working with animals that I love and respect. I am also working with people and I am a people person. The sense of achievement is very high in this industry, especially if you are good at your job. I am also an expert on the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, and my intervention, reports, assessments and evidence in court have saved a number of dogs from being put down. Often, I am called in as the last resort if the dog is aggressive or doing something that the owner finds impossible to deal with. When I change the situation so they can live in harmony together, the sense of satisfaction is palpable.
What do you like least about the job?
Some of the people that work in this industry are wannabes or charlatans. Going in after them to put things right is deeply distressing. They are taking money under false pretences. I believe it gives this industry a bad name. So do some of the other “experts” and pundits. In some instances, exposing their dangerous advice has caused me numerous problems. However, I will always put my head above the parapet if I believe dog abuse is taking place. The other thing I least like is telling a client their dog is un-trainable, and that it is a danger to the public. I suppose it is like a doctor having to tell their patient that they have a fatal, inoperable disease.
What are the key responsibilities?
First, “do no harm.” However, I believe we also have a responsibility to our clients, which includes the four-legged as well as the ones on two legs. Also to do the best job we can to alleviate problems they have with their pets. We also have a responsibility to the general public; if a dog is a real danger to the public, then we have to be brutally honest. I would suggest that they must consider dangers to others if their dog were to get out and manage to attack another person. I would put it both verbally and in writing to my clients if I felt that their pet posed a real and present danger to others, and they should consider euthanasia.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
That will depend how you intend to work or progress with your career. The majority of trainers and many behaviourists are part-time, often doing this whilst holding down another job. In my experience, this is not the best way to go about this, but I am aware there are financial reasons for this happening.
I truly believe that this is a full time professional career. I also believe it is best to be your own boss. If not, you are often asked to train or offer behavioural therapy using someone else’s techniques and ideas rather than your own. This can lead to a conflict of interest, especially as you learn and progress past the person you are working for. You can franchise too, although this is not good, for you or for the public. I am deeply concerned that there are organisations out there that are putting people through short courses and then sending them out.
The money you can earn is, to some extent, unlimited; anything from minimum wage to hundreds of thousands, if you are the top of your tree and writing books.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
You will come up against some very serious cases that will tax your abilities and knowledge to the full. Get involved with the rescue side of dogs, and read as much as you can about training and behaviour. Start taking exams; some to consider are CIDBT (The Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour & Training) or The Animal Care College. Both are accredited study centres to get a diploma or even a degree in animal behaviour. Remember, your clients are the owners, so study human psychology as well as dogs.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
You must have a love of dogs. If you are one of those people that dogs just seem to gravitate to, then that helps, but it is not a prerequisite. If you are just looking for the kudos that the title “dog behaviourist” can give, forget it; you will need far more reason than that to make it as a behaviourist. You may be able to fool the clients, but you will never be able to fool the dogs.