Ep. 13: Trainer. Instructor. What is the Difference?

Feb 4, 2021

When it comes to dog training, there are lots of terms that go along with it. Lingo and jargon that professionals throw around, which can cause a layperson's head to start to spin! In this episode, we will break down what exactly is meant when someone is called an "instructor" as opposed to a "trainer", whether these terms are truly interchangeable...and what being either of them should entail.​

This discussion is designed to be helpful for those individuals contemplating entering into the professional dog training realm...while also ensuring current professionals are approaching their roles with the ideal perspective.

Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the All About Dog Sports and Dog Training Podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things dog training. Whether it be dog training tips, insights of what your instructor or a trial official may be going through, why you may want to consider getting involved in dog sports, and much more. In this episode, we're gonna be talking about what the difference is between an instructor and a trainer and if there's any difference between them at all. Before we start diving into the podcast, let just do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the owner and lead instructor for both Dog Sport University and Scent Work University. These are online dog training platforms that are designed to provide high quality instruction as well as flexibility and convenience so that you can receive the dog training assistance that you need no matter where you're located. So without further ado, let's dive into the podcast.​

In this episode, I wanted to dive into what the difference is between being an instructor or being a dog trainer and whether or not there really is a difference. And also to really help cement what I think those roles really entail. So just as a quick caveat, I am a professional dog trainer as well as an instructor. I have been for a number of years. I've worked specifically within the realm of scent work since 2011. But I've also specialized in working with reactive dogs, aggressive dogs, fearful dogs. I've taught a variety of different group dog training classes. I've spoken at seminars, I've worked with competition organizations, I've provided private lessons, day training programs, I've managed dog training facilities. I've done a little bit of everything.​

But one of the things that I wanted to really touch upon in this podcast was for those individuals who are interested in becoming a professional in the dog training industry. I think it's helpful for us to understand what it is that that role actually entails. And to really underscore the skills that you need as an individual and what each of those roles are. And in my opinion, an instructor and a trainer are actually two different things. And there are very few people who actually are good at doing both. That's basically what this podcast is going to be all about. So I hope you have a better understanding of what it is that you would need in order to be successful in either of those roles.​

So in my opinion, and again, I do not claim to be the end-all and be-all about all things dog training, dog sports, scent work, anything. I'm not. There are definitely people who are far more experienced than I am. Who are very well accomplished and have a lot more accolades than I do. But in my opinion, there are indeed two different things when we're talking about instructors or trainers.​

In my opinion, an instructor is someone who is taking information and they're trying to translate that to a human client who can then help teach their dog how to do a particular behavior. So just within that simple definition, you need to have a certain level of skills in order to do that successfully. Because you have to take the knowledge that you have about how you can help a dog learn a particular behavior. And then you have to translate that to a person who may or may not have any background in dogs so that they not only can understand it, but so they can actually do it with their dog. And then they have to actually successfully be able to do that. That's really hard. It's not easy in the least. Even just trying to walk someone through how to teach their dog how to sit, it seems like such a simple behavior.​

And the one thing that I've noticed throughout my years of being within the dog training world, is that those of us who are more experienced seem to ... And people who are far more experienced than I am seem to forget how simplistic we can make it all appear. And that it's almost natural that we understand how to use our bodies, where to place the treat if we're gonna be using treat training. What it is that we're looking for. How it is that we're able to communicate to the dog, "This is what I would like you to do." What is lacking, more often than not, is the ability to translate that almost natural ability that you have to do that skill to another human being who doesn't have that background. That's the biggest lacking piece that I see with people who are interested in becoming instructors is they may very well be able to work with a dog one on one, but then trying to get them to explain what they did to another person so that person can actually do it, that's a really big gap.

So now that we kind of understand what instructor is, now we want to talk about what trainers are. As far as I'm concerned. A trainer is someone who is working with a dog or a number of dogs one-on-one without having to do the piece of working with a person. So this is typical when you see a client hire you. I just want you to come. I'm gonna pay you a segment for a month, two months, six months, whatever. You come in. You train my dog. I go to work. I come home and my dog is trained. Now, ideally, in an ideal world, you are still bringing that person up to speed because you could get that dog to do all kinds of things. But if the other person who actually owns the dogs and lives with the dog doesn't have the skills, then they're gonna be in the same boat they were in to begin with.​

But a trainer is someone who is working directly with the dog. And we see this a lot for business models who offer day programs or day training services for training facilities where people will drop their dogs off, the dogs are trained by these professionals, and then maybe another staff member will bring the person up to speed when they pick the dog up. Sometimes there are programs where they do that every time they pick the dog up. Sometimes they have a particular times slot where they will work with all of the clients that are in that program where it's basically like a little mini class. But what's interesting to note is that the people who are doing the training, more often than not, are not actually the people who are then communicating to the person, being the actual owner, what it is that they need to do. As far as to cement those skills. Now that's not true across the board, but it's very, very common that you'll have a trainer work with a dog during the day and you'll have somebody else be the face to then communicate what those skills are.

So again, in my opinion, I do think these are two completely different things. Of being able to work directly with a dog, to get that dog and a variety of dogs to do a particular behavior. To get them to understand certain sets of skills. And then you have an instructor who has to take the knowledge of what you need that dog to do, communicate it to a human who then has to translate it so that they understand what to do with their dog. I would say that neither of these is harder than the other. They're both actually fairly complicated because if you are able to work with your own personal dog, let's say as the trainer category, that's great, that's wonderful, that's a good thing. But let's say that your dog is really super food motivated, and they also really love toys, and they love to give you lots of attention. That's great. That's wonderful. Those are all fabulous things. But now I hand you a dog who doesn't have a whole lot of social ability, who is not very toy motivated at all. They don't understand what toys are. And they actually have a lot of stress issues where they will disconnect and they will just walk away from you. And it's very difficult to find out what's motivating for them. How are you going to train that dog?

So for trainers, you have to be able to be able to pull upon a large swath of tools that you would be able to apply to a variety or vast number of different dogs. Different breeds, different personalities, different backgrounds because that's what you're going to be seeing. You're not just going to be working with your one dog. Not if you're doing this professionally. You're gonna be getting a lot of different types of dogs. So you can't even just box yourself into a corner of I only will work with dogs of this profile. You could, I guess, but as far as other people contacting you and saying, "Well, I have this other type of dog. Can you help me?" If you only have the skillsets to work with dog A but they're bringing you dog Z, then that's not gonna work.​

So the reason why I wanted to do this podcast is the dog training world is exploding in popularity, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I mean, obviously, I'm in it. It is my business model. I love that it's doing well. And there's a very strong desire for people who want to do something. Maybe they're stuck in an office job. They're stuck in another kind of job. A career they're just not that happy with. And I've had this happen throughout my career. People saying, "I wish I could do what you did. I'm gonna research it. I'm gonna do my education. I'm gonna intern. And I'm gonna quit my job and I'm gonna become a dog trainer," is typically what people will say. And that's wonderful. If someone is actually serious about that, I'm more than happy to have that conversation. And the first thing they say is, "I can't wait to stop working with people. I'm so tired of working with people. I just want to play with puppies all day." It's like, well, that's not really what this entails.

So even for the individuals who if you can get into a position where you are truly a dog trainer, meaning that you are working one-on-one with dogs primarily, you're still going to have to work with people. Because the last time I checked, all dogs are owned by people. Even if you're just working within a shelter, you're still gonna have to be working with people. You have to work with the shelter volunteers, the shelter staff, the people who run the adoption department. You're not just working with dogs. So you have to have good people skills. Even for trainers who may not have to communicate specific training things to another person, which I would argue they still have to do to a degree, you still have to have good people skills. So it's not simply I love dogs, and I hate humanity, and therefore I will become a dog trainer. That doesn't work.​

When you're an instructor where you're actually going to be teaching other people, whether it be private lessons, whether it be group classes, whether it be both, this need of having good people skills is magnified to the nth degree. Because you are educating these people. You are teaching them what they need so they can be successful with their dogs. What that requires is you have a level of empathy so that you don't get burned out and you don't start stressing out when you get the same question from 10 different people over, and over, and over again. Particularly when someone is starting out ... Again, this is very general terms. But if someone starts out as either an instructor, or a trainer, or they call themselves either or, they're offering basic manners classes. Regardless of how it is that you teach, your first year is probably gonna be a little rocky. You'll work some of the kinks out and whatnot. But you'll have a certain array of questions that you receive such as what should I be feeding my dog? And why is it that I need to do that? And oh, my dog does this and I just want them to do something else. Runs the gamut. You get through your first year, and that's fine, but then year two comes around and you're getting the same exact questions. And then year three, and year four, and year five, and so on.

One of the things that happens particularly for instructors is they begin to lose their empathy, their ability to listen to people asking questions. And remember that these people have no reason to not ask that question. It's not as though the client that you have in year three heard about the client in year one when they asked the question, you gave the answer and they just decided to ignore it. The client in year three is in the same exact knowledge position that the client in year one was. In other words, they have no idea what the answer would be, that's why they're asking. But as an instructor, you have to remember that. You can't just say, "Well, of course that's what you do. Why would you even ask that?" That's not gonna help you retain clients. And that's also not gonna help you reach them. They're not going to be as receptive to the information that you give to them.​

So why is all this important? Why are we even discussing what the difference is between instructors and trainers? Why is this even a topic? And the reason being is that, again, the industry is exploding in popularity, which is not a bad thing. But I think it is important that all of us, including the professionals who are working within this industry, understand what our roles are and are always mindful to ensure that we are meeting our duty to our clients. Whether they are the humans directly that own the dogs or the dogs that we're working with. We always have to assess, as a community, where our skills are, where our strengths are, and where our weaknesses are, and how we can sure those up.​

So as an example, I am not a very big fan of people at all. I'm totally contradicting myself here. But I am not a big people person. But I know that. And I also recognize the fact that I cannot just work directly with dogs. Dogs don't own themselves. They are owned by people. And I also can recognize and empathize with why someone would want to have a dog in their life. All the benefits that comes along with that. And more likely than not, people who own dogs tend to have a lot of the qualities that I like. They tend to be very sympathetic and empathetic. They enjoy having this little creature in their life. They are caring. They get so excited when their dog does something that a non-dog liking person would be like, "Why are you so excited about that?" Oh, but look, they looked at me, and they wagged their tail. It made my day. That's adorable. That's a really nice thing to have happen.​

So I'm able to remember all those things about why it is that I enjoy working with the people because I know that working with the person is going to improve the quality of life of the dog. So again, while humanity as a whole I'm not a huge fan of, I can recognize on an individual basis by working with this client, and making a connection with them, and ensuring that I can give them the knowledge and the information that they need. I am directly improving the quality of life of their dog. That's impressive. That is a great motivator. But that also means that I'm setting a pretty high bar for myself where if I am not able to communicate to this person or educate them in a way that can help their dog, then I'm failing. I'm not meeting my own metric. And in my opinion, that metric should be true for everyone who is a professional instructor or trainer within the dog community.

The one thing that I've noticed over the years, particularly as I've become more involved with dog sports, is there is a assumption that if you have achieved a certain number of titles or accolades, that automatically guarantees that you would be an excellent instructor and trainer. And nothing can be further from the truth. I'm not trying to bash anyone who has achieved things. At all. Not in the least. But to just assume that someone can have an incredible run with their own individual dog in whatever sport. Pick one. It doesn't matter. And then say that that one person with that experience with that dog can now help all types of dogs, and all types of people, and both is just simply not true.​

As an example, my very first Doberman is the reason why I became a dog trainer. He had all kinds of aggression issues, but he was also brilliant as far as clicker training was concerned. He made me look as though I was brilliant, and I'm not. I do not claim to be the best clicker trainer in the world. There are people who are far better than I am. But he was incredible in how he was able to pick up what we were covering in a given clicker training session. He taught me a great deal. I then began interning with shelters and with dog training facilities and realized that he was at a different level than a lot of other dogs were. Meaning that he was able to pick up on things a lot quicker. And he was more engaged in the game right at the beginning. And it's not as though he had any background in clicker training because he didn't. It was just his personality. And it was the bond that we had because he was my personal dog.​

So during my time of interning at the shelters, I had to figure out how can I now broaden my understanding so it's beyond this fear of just my dog. I had to make a bigger tool box. I couldn't just do things that would work for Zeus. I had to develop skills that would work for a wide array of dogs. And I was fortunate in having a large number of teachers. The dogs are the best teachers that you can have. Anyone who's interested in becoming a professional, volunteer at shelters. The more access you can have to dogs, the better it is. But I also was extraordinarily fortunate with the mentors that I had as far as professionals, instructors, and trainers, and both. Some truly incredible people that I had the privilege of working with. It was because of all of that that I was able to then transfer what I was able to achieve with Zeus to maybe even a fraction of that being able to teach and help other people. But that's not to say that everyone is able to do that.​

I would not have been able to be successful if I just simply said, "Oh, look. I took my dog from here to there. We accomplished these things. I'm now gonna go out and teach everyone and their mother how brilliant I am. And I'm going to share my experience. And therefore, they will all be successful as well." That wouldn't have worked because the things that worked for him, he was able to skip a bunch of steps that other dogs wouldn't have been able to in certain regards. So if I was working with either the dogs or the people in that situation, I would not have been able to help them. They would have been lost. Or at the worst case scenario, I would have set them back in their training.​

So the reason why I really wanted to bring all of this up is that as a community, we have to be very aware of what it is that each person as a professional is offering to their clients. Are you being clear to the human client? Are you being empathetic to the human client? Are you providing the human client with everything that they need so they can internalize that, turn it into something that they can actually understand, turn it into something that they could actually put into motor skills more often than not. And sometimes those are extraordinarily alien to them between holding onto leashes, and treats, and toys, and do this movement with your shoulders and your feet. It's crazy. Are you able to communicate all that without making the person feel bad? And so that they can then still do something with their dog so their dog understands what you want them to do. That is incredibly difficult. That is really hard. And it's no easier just being a trainer.​

How is it that you can take everything that you understand about dogs, and dog training, and behavior that may have only applied to a certain segment of the population? And now you receive a dog, or you're working with a dog who's outside of that segment, how can you now apply all your knowledge to help that dog understand? How are you going to be able to motivate them? How are you going to be able to bond with them? How can you help them achieve the skills that they need so they can be successful? This is all really important.​

And the one thing that I've been seeing a trend of is as the consumers, they're assuming that the only thing they need is to work with someone who has achieved a certain accolade. And that's simply not true. Again, I'm not trying to say that the accolades don't matter. They do. I think that it should be part of the consideration process. But you would be able to, in all reality, run through with your dog in any sport, go to the top, and be wonderful. The two of you are just in sync and incredible. And you would never be able to share any of your knowledge with anybody else. Not in an effective way. And I've seen this happen firsthand where people have given it a try and it failed miserably. It was not pretty. And they luckily realized it and said, "You know what? This isn't for me. This isn't what ... I don't want to go down this road. I thought about it and it's just not gonna work."

But for those of us who are in this realm of being professionals, always remember what your role is. You're here to educate. You're either educating the dog directly or you're educating the person who then has to educate the dog. You are an educator, which means you have to stay on top of your own education and anyone who comes up to you and says, "I know everything. I am the best thing since sliced bread," they're lying. Don't listen to that because it's just not true. You need to keep up on your own education. You have to be humble. You have to recognize what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, what it is that you enjoy, what it is that you excel at, what it is you still need to work on, and also be willing to refer things out.​

This is another thing that is getting ... I don't know if it's a trend so much as maybe that it's just something I'm noticing more where there are these really deeply embedded camps in certain segments of the community. So if a client works with trainer A, they will never be referred to trainer B. Even if trainer B would actually help them with a specific problem that they have. And to me, that is just short sided and it's not appropriate at all. I have personally no problem referring anyone to any reputable trainer, behaviorist, whomever if I think that they're gonna help that person. Including instructors. And I've done it before. I've had it where I was not connecting with a client. Where we just were on different wavelengths. I could not reach them so that I could actually help them, which is my job. So I referred them to another colleague, and they meshed a lot better, and all was well. You're not gonna be able to help everyone as a professional. So knowing your limitations is really helpful.​

And this is where understanding what the roles entail I think is crucial. If you wanted to be an instructor, which means, by definition that you're gonna be teaching people, you have to have good people skills. You have to be able to communicate. You have to have a number of different ways of saying things, of getting your point across, of relaying the information, of noticing if you have a class of eight people and six of them look at you as though you have three heads, you better find another way of explaining that. Not just simply plow ahead. And if you're a trainer where you're working directly with the dogs, you had better have a really big tool box where you can work with a wide array of dogs. And you shouldn't just be assuming, oh, well this is a lab and that's a golden, oh, this is gonna be easy. Really? I have some news for you. That's not necessarily true.

So again, another rambling podcast. But the point being that there are differences, in my opinion, to these roles. People do use the terms interchangeably. Does it mean that we now have to go an ensure that everyone uses them properly? No, but I think as professionals, if we can remind ourselves, okay, I am teaching a class, meaning that I'm teaching people and dogs. I need to ensure that I'm able to digest that information properly to these people so they can then help their dog. If I'm the assistant trainer or even the head trainer for a shelter where I'm working directly with the dogs, I'm not teaching anyone per se, but I'm trying to give these dogs skills so they can either be adopted hopeful, or if they're gonna be staying in the shelter for any period of time, I can improve their quality of life, or I can assess where they are and what may need to be done in the future, then I have the skills to do that. I mean, this is the ... The whole point of this is just to question and to really assess where do I stand now, and am I actually meeting the needs, and am I doing my due duty, my due diligence by my client? Whether they be the owner, or the dog, or both.​

The one thing that I'll say just in closing is that I'm hoping that people aren't taking this as though I don't want people to be entering into the dog training profession. It's just the opposite. This is my third career. I started off with horses. I was then a litigation paralegal. I then came into dog training. And I've done those other two careers for a period of years. This has been the most gratifying for me. Even though at this moment, I'm not able to teach in person anymore, I'm not able to train dogs in person anymore because of the fact that my body is horrendously broken, but being able to teach people virtually is extraordinarily gratifying. Being able to review videos that clients send me of what it is that they're doing with their dogs and noticing the joy, and the bond, and the dogs light up when they get the exercise right, and the people laughing as they're doing the exercise. They just even forget they're being filmed. That makes my day. I can be having the worst day ever. And I watch those videos and I cannot stop smiling.​

That's the beauty of being in this profession. That's the beauty of being a dog trainer or instructor. When you are able to do those things. When you are able to educate the person and the dog. When you're able to share with them the knowledge of how it is that they can live a more harmonious life together. We're trying to get these little, furry creatures, these little aliens to live a better life with their people. And that means that you have to translate sometimes. You have to say, "Your dog is doing this because in dog world, this is completely normal. In people world, not so much. So maybe we can teach your dog to do this, and this, and this so that they don't do those things and they're still fulfilled and they're still happy. And oh, by the way, you're probably gonna really like it when they do those things. You may actually like it so much that you teach them other behaviors. And you start on this big, long, wonderful journey where the two of you really cultivate your relationship and you think that training is a blast." As a professional, you get to cultivate all that. As a professional, you get to help people begin their journey and help them through it. And that can last the lifetime of a dog, which is pretty awesome.​

So I'm hoping that by talking bluntly about these things, about what I think instructors should do and what I think trainers should do, is not that I'm saying we should have less of those. I'm just saying that the people who are out there need to make certain they're doing their job. And always assess. You don't have to be quite as neurotic as I am as far as second guessing yourself. But just always ask yourself, "Am I meeting my criteria?" We're always very worried about criteria for our dogs. Are we meeting the criteria for ourselves? And if you're not, how can you improve upon that? And could it be that you're trying to be in the instructor category, but you would be more comfortable in the trainer category? And if you're in the trainer category and you're finding that you're constantly hitting your head against the wall with certain dogs and you're never getting anywhere, maybe you just need to develop some more more skills so you can have more tools in that tool box. So you can help more dogs.​

And also be certain that whatever specialty that you decide upon, whether it be a really big net, such as basic manners, or if it's gonna be a niche, such as working with separation anxiety, for instance, that you have the actual skills and the knowledge to help those people and dogs. Because if you don't and you're just offering that because you think that that's the thing that people need and you're just guessing, you could actually do a lot more harm than good. And it's gonna burn you out awfully because you're not gonna get results.

So I hope that my fellow professionals can just be aware of these different things. And also those of you who may be interested in becoming a professional, have an idea of what these things are head of time so as to prevent you from being crestfallen when things don't work out so well. Just know what your personality should be. Know what it is that you likely need to do. What your day would normally entail. The kind of skills you'd have to cultivate. And the continuing education you're going to have to be involved in so that you're able to help all these people and all these dogs.​

So I hope you found this podcast helpful. Thank you so much for listening. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.