Education and Certification for Dog Trainers

We’ve had a number of requests lately regarding our opinion of various online schools for dog trainers.  Embedded in these requests are questions about where to get the “academic knowledge” an aspiring dog trainer needs, and which certification program would be viewed favorably by people “like yourselves (like Dan and me) and your colleagues” (we’re assuming other certified applied animal behaviorists).

Responding to these requests really brings up a couple larger, thornier issues we thought worth addressing in this article.  Let’s tackle the question of certification first. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be one certification program for dog trainers which seems to be generally accepted as THE BEST ONE across a variety of stakeholder categories.  Many veterinarians and pet owners don’t know what most of the alphabet soup of “certification” credentials stand for, whether it be CPDT-KA, KPA, ABCT, CDBC, and others too numerous to mention.  In our opinion, most have their strengths and weaknesses.

In general, a “certification” that is the result of an applicant meeting criteria set by a for-profit program is going to have less credibility than one involving independent testing criteria.  When the same program sets the scope of what one should know and then tests on that same scope of study it’s an insular process with no outside validity.  Such programs vary on the quality of their training and their testing procedures.  More about that in a minute.  While those with independent testing criteria have more credibility, the rigor of the test is dependent on the quality of the questions and that of the certification dependent on the rest of the criteria.

While the certification programs for veterinary behaviorists and applied animal behaviorists require post-graduate degrees (a DVM and a residency for the former, and a Master’s (M.S. or M.A.) or Ph.D. for the latter, depending on the level) no certification program for dog trainers requires a minimum education requirement beyond a high school diploma.  Frankly, we think that’s a shame, and we wish a certification program was developed that required a bachelor’s degree in a behavior or biological science field as one criteria.  But, alas – if we ruled the world —–!

What does all this mean for those considering an online educational program?  The first consideration is what are you trying to accomplish?  Do you want your completion of any such program to add to your professional credibility?  If yes, then a bit of common sense should tell you to ask yourself how often you see the owner/founder of such a school speaking at conferences you respect, writing papers and interacting with other people in the field you admire and deem credible.  Ask the same questions about the instructors, and also see if they have experience with dog behavior and training AND academic credentials as well.

Do you want to use your completion of a program as a marketing tool?  Chances are, few people you are marketing your services to know much about any of these online schools.  Whether or not you attract referrals depends not only on your credentials, but also on demonstrating your skills and conducting yourself in a professional manner.  We’ll be coming out with a digital product to help you with that in the very near future so keep your eyes and ears peeled and stay tuned to our emails and blogs.

The other big issue embedded in the questions we’ve received about our opinion of online dog training schools, is how does a dog trainer or an aspiring one acquire the knowledge needed?  That’s a thorny question for which is there is no single or easy answer, so we’ll give you several options.

First, you can never, ever go wrong taking college level courses in learning or animal behavior (ethology).  Enroll as a special student, non-degree student, or audit the course; whatever your nearby institution allows.  Some have put their courses online.  These courses may be housed in psychology, biology, animal science, or zoology so you might need to do some digging to find them.  Don’t ask about courses in “dog behavior” – the college level courses we’re referring to are about fundamentals and principles, not species.

Second, because the field of dog behavior and training is totally unregulated, you need to set your own professional ethics and limits.  Do an honest self-evaluation of the skills and knowledge you have today.  We know this is difficult to do – and in the next couple months, we’ll be coming out with a tool that will help you. But in the meantime, take a stab at it. 

Third, decide what you think you are equipped to do now.  Maybe you are ready to teach “basic” behaviors – (sit, down, come, etc.), and educate owners about housetraining, normal destructive behaviors, etc. – but you aren’t yet ready to work with difficult behavior problems like fear and aggression.  Offer the services you are equipped to teach, and make a career development plan to acquire the skills and knowledge you need to do more. 

Fourth, consider working with a mentor.  Do not expect a mentor to work with you without charging a fee.  Good mentoring programs are hard to find.  From time to time we hear about trainers with their own businesses (or working with organizations) offering their own “academies”.  Ask yourself the same question about these individuals – are they speaking at national conferences?  Writing articles or research papers? Are they recognized as leaders in the field outside their own local area?  We know of some who are all those things and more, and others who definitely are NOT. 

Finally, remember that professional education and development are ongoing.  You don’t complete a school – or even a graduate degree – and think you have “arrived”.  Just completing someone’s 6 or 8 week program is not sufficient preparation to make you a competent dog trainer.  If someone tries to tell you that’s all you need, that should be a red flag.

Our goal with our webinars and the Behavior Education Network is to share with you our academic knowledge, practical skills, and the experience we’ve gained from having a successful behavior consulting practice for over 25 years.  We want to help you be better at what you do, and have successful businesses.  We want you to learn not just from us, but from colleagues and friends we respect, and whom we trust to instruct courses for us. 

We have plans in the coming months to recruit more of our long time friends and colleagues to bring you cutting edge, state of the art instruction on important topics such as “obsessive-compulsive” disorders, nosework, incorporating games into classes, and more, so stay tuned!!





  • After much research on this topic, I found this certification to be the most complete and therefore most difficult to obtain. It is proof that all professions that touch on the k9 world can work together to put together what really should be included in a Dog Trainer Certfication program.

    My opinion is that the certification program should be world recognized, and modelled after programs such as PADI for scuba divers.

    Warm regards,
    Juli Wilson

  • Stacy Hulen

    Reply Reply

    Thank you so much for addressing this issue! Having two undergrad degree in other fields (psychology and education/reading specialist), an online program is a bit unnerving for me, and it is obvious there is good reason to be cautious. (Now, how do I talk you two good Drs into offering a certification program)?? Ha ha! Thanks for the feedback. It was very helpful in making some key decisions.


  • Julie Shaw

    Reply Reply

    Dr. Hetts,
    To me it is the standardization of what is taught, how it is taught and then how it is tested. I am MUCH more likely to refer my clients to KPA trainers because I know exactly what was expected of them to pass the program – both human and animal skills.

  • Thank you for this. I’ve just returned from the APDT conference in San Diego and was thinking it might be time for me to consider a career change. Right now the only training I do is for the dogs in the rescue and I’ve never wanted to hold myself out there as a trainer for the general public. But I’m thinking that more behavior training and obtaining the knowledge that would be required to pass a certification exam – whether or not I actually became certified – would perhaps put me in a better position to volunteer with local shelters and assist with the development of their training programs.

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply

    Acquiring more professional education is never a bad thing. Not only does ongoing education help you grow as a person and keep your mental skills sharp, it also allows you to better help dogs. You never know what doors will open up for you the more legitimate professional credentials you have. Go for it!

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