By Steve Appelbaum, Founder and President of Animal Behavior College
Congratulations! You have shown the discipline and taken the time to master a demanding course of study. You are either poised to graduate or have already graduated from Animal Behavior College. So, now you are a certified dog trainer, certified cat trainer, or a certified pet groomer. What exactly does that mean, and what do you do with it?
First, certification is a confirmation of something, usually provided by external review, audit, or assessment. ABC certifications confirm that the individual being granted the certification has completed and passed a specific course of study. A student graduating from ABC’s Dog Obedience Program (DOP) will be awarded a certification attesting that they did indeed pass and complete the ABC DOP and, as a result, may use the acronym ABCDT (Animal Behavior Certified Dog Trainer) next to their name. Students graduating from ABC’s Cat Training Program (CTP) will be awarded a certification and may use the acronym ABCCT (Animal Behavior Certified Cat Trainer) next to their name. ABC pet groomer graduates of our Grooming Instruction Program (GIP) are awarded an ABCPG (Animal Behavior Certified Pet Groomer) certification with the same allowable uses. Okay, that’s great, but what does all this mean? What are these certifications, are they valuable, and how can you use them in furthering your career? Let’s take these questions one at a time.
What does all this really mean?
Basically, certification lets people know that the person certified has achieved something of merit. Usually, this is a technical and/or academic mastery of a skill or vocation. In the case of ABC certifications, people who earn them are awarded a certificate from the school, which communicates to others that the certification holder has mastered their course of study and graduated in good standing.
Most people are familiar with specific certifications. A classic example is the nationally recognized Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification. This raises an interesting question about certifications and who grants them. In the accounting world, colleges do not grant their graduates CPA certification. Basically, the National Association of State Board of Accountancy (NASBA) and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) came together to create uniform standards that all accountants needed to comply with. This resulted in a Uniform Certified Public Accountant examination that all 50 states administer.
Accountants earn their CPA after passing the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination and meeting state-specific education and experience requirements. The point here is that in situations where independent groups come together and create uniform industry standards that most experts agree upon, and those standards are recognized at a state or national level, certification is granted by either the organization that created the standards or states administering the exam.
The pet industry is much different than the accounting industry. There is no nationally recognized standard for dog trainers, cat trainers, or even pet groomers in our industry.
Dog training is particularly fractured in part because behavior modification is an inexact science with many variables that can shape how behaviors are taught and learned. As of this writing, there are dog trainers who believe in only using positive reinforcement. There are other dog trainers who believe in using positive reinforcement first and then basically following a system of elimination that governs when and if other methods of modifying behavior are utilized. Still, other trainers disagree with the order of when various methods are used, and the debate only gets more arcane and, at times, contentious from there. Some trainer groups claim to speak for dog trainers, but other trainer organizations disagree, and on and on it goes. Then you have trainers, arguably the majority, who just want to train dogs and avoid toxic arguments with fellow dog trainers.
This has been going on for several decades. While all but a fringe element desire more harmony, there isn’t anything close to a nationally agreed upon and recognized standard for dog trainers.
Yet how are pet parents, AKA pet owners or dog owners, supposed to know who is qualified or even what qualified means when looking to hire a dog trainer to assist them with their pet?
One way is to interview the trainer carefully. Do they communicate clearly and in a fashion that you can understand? Are they someone you, as the pet parent, want to work with? Beyond that, pet parents look for experience, referrals, and education, which includes certifications.
This is why so many dog trainers have initials by their names. But do those initials mean anything to the typical pet parent?
To put this another way, at least from the public’s perception, are certifications valuable?
To answer that question, ABC has conducted several surveys of dog owners. The first survey, conducted in 2013, included 500 owners, and the 2nd undertaken in 2018 was comprised of 625 dog owners. In these surveys, we asked some basic questions. The surveys were interesting in what they taught us about attitudes regarding certifications held by the general public. 62% of participants in the 2013 survey said they would be more inclined to hire a dog trainer if they were certified. 71% of participants in the 2018 survey said they would be more inclined to do so. This tells us that certification relevancy, at least concerning hiring a dog trainer, increased by 9% in roughly four years. When 7 out of 10 people consider certification relevant for hiring someone, certification is valuable.
Next, we went on and listed seven different certifications. These included some certifications from trainer organizations, other schools, and ABC. We did not list ABC first on any list. Finally, because I am a bit of a troublemaker at the core, we also listed two certifications we invented just for the survey—meaningless acronyms. Then we asked which of the certifications the participants had heard of. One organization’s certification garnered 31% in 2013 and 33% in 2018. ABC scored 29% in 2013, 33% in 2018, and the remaining certifications scored 7%-25% in 2013 and 8%-27% in 2018. Interestingly the two made-up certs scored 7%-10% in the first survey and 8%-10% in 2018. This told us that a few certifications, including our own, enjoyed a bit of name recognition with the public and that this recognition grew in the four years between the surveys.
Finally, we asked whether possessing a specific survey was critical for a pet parent to hire a dog trainer and, if yes, which one? Applicants could also select “doesn’t matter”. Here, the answers got even more fascinating. In the 2013 survey, of the 62% of people who indicated that trainer certification was important for them to consider in hiring a dog trainer, only 20% indicated preferences in certification. Their preferences were roughly split between various certifications. A surprising 80% had no preference, meaning that while they wanted a dog trainer to be certified, they didn’t care who certified them. The 2018 survey was almost precisely the same.
So, while some people’s eyes might be glazed about now, all of this taught us was that certifications are considered necessary by many dog owners, but the specific certifications seem to be less critical. Because certifications are deemed important by dog owners, they are valuable. However, they are also valuable for another vital reason. As mentioned earlier in this article, certifications indicate mastery of a topic, skill, or vocation. We believe all certifications are valuable if the person being certified expands their knowledge and worldview.
What about cat trainers?
The status of cat training and cat trainers is a bit different than their dog training brethren. Cat training is a relatively new concept. Sure, people have known for decades that cats can be trained in commercials and film, but training house kitties? Of course, cats can be trained, and cat parents often find themselves in need of assistance so they can effectively address common behavioral challenges like litter box issues, scratching furniture, spraying, and socialization. Plus, teaching cats to comfortably travel in a crate so they can be quickly taken to their veterinarians for routine care can be a lifesaver. Since there are more cats in the country than dogs, the opportunities for cat trainers are pretty untapped. This is all great news for cat trainers, but cat parents still have little way of knowing whether the person they hire to assist them with their wayward feline is qualified, given that there are no national standards for cat trainers. The only difference between this and dog trainers is that aside from far fewer cat trainers, cat trainers seem to play better with each other than dog trainers do. This means fewer debates and disagreements but still nothing close to a national standard.
So, is a cat training certification valuable?
From an educational standpoint, absolutely! Again, this is about mastering a course of study, vocation, or technical skill. Learn as much as you can!
From a marketing standpoint, while we have not yet conducted surveys of cat parents and their attitudes about feline trainer certification, we believe that the perspectives will be very similar to dog owners.
What about groomers?
Grooming is much the same. While there are movements afoot to create national standards, and some organizations are trying to gain national recognition, that has not come to pass as of this writing.
OK, how do I use my certification to promote myself and my business?
Include your certification credentials after your name. Mention it in your bio and if you have the room, explain what it entailed. For example:
“I graduated from Animal Behavior College and was certified as a dog trainer in 2016. I took a 14-month course that included everything from behavior modification principles to hands-on training experience; after that……. (list other certs and experience here).”
Degrees and certifications can be funny. For those of you who watch The Office, you do not want to act like Andy Bernard, who was so impressed and proud of himself for graduating from Cornell University that he couldn’t resist mentioning it in just about every conversation. You do not have to flaunt it, but letting people know you are certified tells them you are serious and knowledgeable, which is essential.
Also, be prepared if a potential client or someone you are trying to develop a business relationship with asks you about it. When answering, it is important not to brag or be defensive. For example, if someone asks “What’s the difference between an ABCDT and some other certification?”, do not knock any other certifications, schools, or organizations. Just politely explain what your certification means and leave it at that. Most non-dog trainers are just curious and want to know you are the real deal. So, wow them with a friendly personality, good communication skills, and yes, the fact that you were serious enough about your passion to enroll in and master a year-plus course of study that resulted in you being awarded a groomer, cat trainer, or dog trainer certification.