Becoming a Dog Trainer

Since It’s Me or the Dog first aired back in 2005, I have received thousands of emails, letters, social media messages and phone calls from dog lovers around the world who saw me working with dogs on TV and wanted to do the same (but usually not on TV). People were able to witness the amazing opportunity I had to help families and their dogs overcome issues which were sometimes tearing them apart, and they wanted some of that. And I can’t say I blame them.

A career as a dog training professional is one of the most rewarding paths out there. Maybe not always the most lucrative, but certainly among the most fulfilling and enriching.

Before I was a full-time dog trainer (first in private practice, and then later on TV), I was an actor. I had some good success – a few small TV roles in the UK, a couple of commercials, a long run in a musical in London’s West End and on tour around the US and UK, and a few productions in regional theatres in the US (I moved there after I met my husband in the West End musical). And while I loved theatre and the thrill of performing, I was not complete.

All my life, I had loved dogs and been fascinated by them. My parents did not let us have dogs growing up, and it would not have been fair to any dog I adopted given my young adult life as a traveling actor, but I started working with and learning about dogs as soon as I could. I paid my way through drama school by running a successful dog-walking company and began surrounding myself with the people and information that installed my earliest foundations as a dog trainer. Unlike today, there were hardly any dog trainer schools back then, but I slowly began to learn and grow as a trainer, eventually setting up and running several successful dog training companies first in the UK and later in my new home, New York City.

My career as an actor was fun but there was no doubt that even after just one visit with one of my dog training clients, I would emerge from their apartment feeling jubilant. I had just helped a family with a breakthrough that would lead to a far higher standard of living with their canine household and that just felt good. That’s when it struck me – I wanted to be a full-time dog trainer.

I share this not just to shed a little light on my background, but also to illustrate why I founded the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behaviour. For years after my show started airing on TV, I never had a good answer for the question I was asked so often: “How can I do what you do? I want to become a dog trainer.”

Sure, there are some good schools out there, and courses you can take both privately and via a few universities, but from what I could tell (and what I was hearing from people asking me the question), none of them ticked all of the boxes. Some were online-only without any hands-on experience. Some were focused only on one tool within the dog trainer’s toolbox. Some forced people to move to another city (and sometimes a different country) for months and months. And most frustratingly, most of them were not dedicated to a comprehensive dog behaviour education which clearly taught what behavioral and cognitive science has been proving of late – that fear-free, positive reinforcement-based training philosophies are more effective, longer-lasting, scientifically sound and safer, even for big, strong dogs with severe anxiety issues. Most schools claimed to teach all of the methods and then leave it up to the student to decide. I felt that was doing the students a disservice, given all that we know about how and why positive training is a better option in all circumstances – especially with ‘red zone’ dogs.

So I founded the Victoria Stilwell Academy to be able to answer this one simple question: “How can I become a dog trainer?”

The Academy just celebrated its one year anniversary, and as I write this, our inaugural class of UK students are on track to graduate and a new UK-based class begins in June.

We had a few problems to solve when building the Academy’s curriculum:

  1. People could not afford the time and/or expense to travel away from home for long periods of time to study.
  2. We needed to have students with me and other faculty in the same room to most effectively teach and oversee development.
  3. Students need as much hands-on experience working with dogs during the course as possible.

We solved these problems by custom-building our Dog Trainer Course curriculum as a hybrid system which features multiple learning models throughout the six-month course. Students come to us just two times during the course for approximately one week each (in Lancashire for UK courses), and the rest of the course is completed at home via self-paced online lessons, real-time cyber classes, and a supercharged professional mentor experience.

After one year and three classes of students going through the system, we are excited to report that it is working. The feedback from students has been overwhelming, and it is the most amazing thing to see our graduates spread their wings and achieve their dreams the same way I did almost 20 years ago.

What is truly wonderful for me on a personal level is to see how I used to be in our students. I was that person in another career, looking for greater fulfillment and drawn to work in some way or another with these amazing animals. So many of our students come to us from a different career, looking to make a change and follow their dreams of working with dogs. And not all of them are or want to be dog trainers, either! Many have goals of working more effectively in rescues and shelters, while others are dog groomers, pet sitters, or dog walkers – just like I was before I began my journey to become a trainer.

We are truly blessed to attract incredibly engaged and thoughtful students who are looking to turn the corner, even if they do not know what comes next. A few weeks ago at our ‘farewell’ cocktail party for a US-based class, I got the chance to go around the room and offer my take on each student’s progress and strengths. By taking a deep look at who our students are and identifying what drives them, followed by hearing them share in their own words why they are with us, it drives home how fortunate we are to share our time with such amazing groups of people.

We are proud of the Victoria Stilwell Academy and what we have built over the past year-plus. We are even prouder of the people we have had the honor to help chase their dreams. So if you are thinking about a career in dog training or just want to learn more about dogs and use that knowledge for another dog-related profession, go to  We hope to see you in a future class!

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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