“Tails From The Field” is a series of true stories from Chad Culp’s experience in the field of professional dog training. Some details, such as names and breeds, may have been changed for privacy protection.


A lot of people ask me how I became a professional dog trainer. Most of the time they ask out of genuine curiosity or just to make small talk but occasionally I get the sense that they are skeptical about whether or not I actually know what I’m doing. Other times they ask because they want to know how to become a professional dog trainer themselves. Whatever the reason for the question, it comes up often enough that I thought I’d share my story. I think people generally just want a short answer, so please feel free to check out my bio for the short story or keep reading for the longer story.  

Important Note: This story is not only about how I became a professional dog trainer but, more specifically, it’s also about how I became a “balanced” professional dog trainer. I hope that sharing my journey might clear up some of the confusion surrounding the various styles of dog training and behavior modification. Ok, here we go: 

Going Way Back 

I have been living with and playing with dogs since 1966. I am counting the year of my birth because of the early imprinting I received by being raised with a German shepherd for a babysitter and being surrounded by all sorts of other family and friend’s dogs. It was a gift that I am forever grateful for. 

I didn’t have many friends to play with but my Indiana childhood was filled with dogs that I was allowed to be alone with to run and play. I was too young to remember much but our first family dog was a German shepherd named Kelly and she would watch over me like a babysitter. A few years later, when I was in kindergarten and first grade, we didn’t have a dog of our own, so I would literally go around the neighborhood and play with the neighbor’s dogs. Knock, knock, “Can Tammy and Bruno play?” It probably sounds insane by today’s standards but people would say, “Sure, come on in.” and let me go in their backyard to play with their dogs. Boy did we play too! I had several dog friends in the neighborhood but Tammy and Bruno are the ones I remember the most. They were Saint Bernards with enormous tongues that would cover my whole face when they licked me! I would rough house and wrestle with those dogs and come home all sweaty and covered in slobber. It was awesome! 

Ah, the 1960‘s and 70‘s, the good old days! Pregnant women could drink and smoke, you could ride a motorcycle without a helmet, drink unfiltered water right from the hose, ride in the back of pick up trucks and children were allowed to play with dogs unsupervised. Of course, this may not have been the safest upbringing but I am super grateful to have grown up with so much freedom and lack of fear. These early experiences taught me to “speak dog” in an instinctual, intuitive way that no amount of scientific data or dog training classes could ever do. Not to say that research and training aren’t important, that’s a given, but that didn’t happen for me until much later in life. From the perspective of today’s culture of hyper-safety and helicopter parenting, I suppose one might say that my bond with dogs was forged in the fires of recklessness! 

NOTE: The sponsors of this channel do not support or endorse any of the dangerous statements made by this lunatic…oh, wait, this channel doesn’t have any sponsors. Great, okay kids, back to the show! 

By the time I was in second grade, we had moved to California and were able to get a dog. We got a husky puppy but, unfortunately, he got hit by a car. It was devastating but it didn’t take long before I wanted another dog. By the time I was in third grade we had moved again and had two dogs, a German shepherd and a husky. That’s when I feel like it all really started for me. Those were not just family dogs, they were my dogs. I trained them, walked them, picked up their poop, fed them, brushed them, bathed them and was held responsible whenever they did something wrong. My Dad liked to call them “his” dogs when they were good but whenever they did something bad, such as destroy our giant 1970s bean bag chair, he would say, “Chad, your dogs made a mess, go clean it up.” I think it was a pretty good lesson in responsibility for an 8 year old kid. 

Early Adult Life with Dogs 

Prior to deciding to study canine behavior and training on a professional level, I had always trained my dogs pretty much by the seat of my pants. A little of what I call redneck dog training advice from my parents and family friends here and there but mostly just going off my gut instincts. That and I did watch Barbara Woodhouse on TV in the 80s. I used mostly praise and petting as rewards and the occasional punishment such as a spank on the butt or a swat on the nose for bad behavior. I also used treats once in a while but I was able to train my dogs based on a mutually cooperative relationship more than anything else. With that said, I must admit that anything I refer to as “training” from my pre-professional life is a very loose interpretation of the word. Compared to what I would now consider a well trained dog, the dogs of my younger days were not really well trained. They were all great dogs though, despite my limitations, and I miss them all very much. 

A New Millennium Brings a New Career

The 2000’s led to my first steps on a new journey of becoming a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist. Life, with its many twists and turns, had put me in my late 30’s and facing several major crossroads. My music “career” was turning out to be a side hustle at best and really just a hobby that was damaging my hearing…and my liver! My day job as a cabinet finisher was causing me to have skin rashes and my newly rescued 3 year old dog was becoming aggressive. I needed something more than “seat-of-my-pants” dog training methods. The winds of change were turning into a hurricane! Almost 40 and needing to do a 180 in basically my whole life, I quit the band, quit drinking, got married and focused my energy on figuring out what my next career would be. 

A quick shout out to Dr. Saputo here for telling me to quit cabinet finishing and to find a way to make a living doing something I actually enjoyed. Good advice doc! 

I was lost for several months. It was the first time in my entire life that I felt like I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a passion to pursue. I tried not to let it show but it was very unsettling for me. I looked into various possibilities but my mind kept coming back to dogs. I really wanted to work with dogs but, if I’m being totally honest, the dog training world always seemed unattractive to me. I didn’t actually know much about it but what I had seen reminded me of the mockumentary, Best In Show. Hilarious movie but it’s so funny because it’s so true! I just didn’t see myself fitting into that world. Then, on the recommendation of some friends, I tuned into a brand new TV series called Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan. Wham! That was it. I had what might be called a moment of clarity or a religious experience. I had chills up my spine and my eyes teared up, it was such a strong emotional response, it was crazy! Nothing had ever been more clear to me in my life. I turned to my wife and said “I want to do that!” Then after the dust settled, I had to come to grips with the “how to” part. And so my journey began. 

The Dawn Factor

Right about now I want to give a shout out to my lovely wife, Dawn. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that it sounds so smooth and easy on paper but making multiple major life changes is not easy, like, not at all. I would not have made it through this crazy transitional period without my wife. She was not only supportive, she was fully on board and helped me with the business and technology side of things immensely. More than that, she helped me get my act together across the board. Seriously, I was a major “fixer upper” when we first met. 

Animal Behavior College vs The Dog Whisperer

Once I had my sights set on what I wanted to do, I immediately began recording every episode of Dog Whisperer and searched the web for “how to become a dog trainer”, which led me to a one year certification program through Animal Behavior College (ABC). While waiting for my certification course to begin, I analyzed The Dog Whisperer to death, making liberal use of pause, rewind and slow motion on what was then a brand new device called a Tivo. I took many notes, started applying the methods with my dog and saw results right away. 

Once I began studying the written material for ABC, and other recommended positive reinforcement based materials, it became VERY obvious that what they were teaching was completely different from my analysis of the Dog Whisperer. Everything was treats, treats and more treats and they warned the reader to never, ever use any kind of force to make a dog do anything. It was all about the dog making “choices” and there was absolutely no authority to it. In other words, if the dog did something wrong or ignored a command there was nothing you could do about it. They would never say “No” and suggested things like saying, “Oops” in a silly voice and walking away.

“What in the world?” I thought to myself, “These people are nuts!” 

In fact, they did not even use the word command, they preferred the term cue. They would never tell a dog to do something, they would only ask. There was little to no focus on verbal praise and petting, oftentimes they preferred to use a little device called a clicker rather than verbal praise. Much of the writing I was coming across even stated that dogs “don’t work for praise” and “don’t have a desire to please.” Seriously, this is what they were saying back then and, unfortunately, many trainers are still holding on to these erroneous beliefs. 

Needless to say, my BS meter was pegging and I was considering asking for a refund from ABC but I decided to keep an open mind and stay the course. The things they were teaching were definitely incongruent with my life experience but hey, I was just a guy that grew up with dogs, what the heck did I know? This information came wrapped up in a lot of fancy language and claimed to be “modern, scientific and humane”. 

Of course I wanted to learn the latest, greatest, scientifically proven methods but I was skeptical to say the least. This might have all sounded believable if I didn’t have nearly 40 years of life experience with dogs under my belt but, regardless, I studied the material very thoroughly and passed all the written exams. I was dying for the hands on portion to start because, even though I like to read, I’m really more of a “show me” kind of guy. All the stuff they were preaching had me saying, “I gotta see this to believe it!” 

Reading books and taking written exams wasn’t enough to satisfy me, so by the time I started the hands-on portion of the ABC certification process I had already started taking group classes with a local trainer named Kate Davern, which I enjoyed a lot. I also observed some of the group classes at the local kennel club. I also got a part time job with a company called Dogs n Suds that supplied trainers for a bay area pet food chain. I shadowed their various trainers for a couple of months as an observer, then as an assistant and eventually they started letting me run the classes myself. I also assisted them with their non-competitive Dog Agility Classes. I found dog agility to be super fun, so I offered it with my own business a few years later. Working for them was a great learning experience, which I appreciated very much! I was also starting to do some training on my own, mostly just working with dogs of friends and family for free but it was all great fun. I only cared about getting as much experience and working with as many dogs as possible, I figured the money would come later. While doing all of this, I was still waiting for my hands-on training to start with Animal Behavior College. 

I was really hoping to see something impressive but my skepticism about the certification material turned out to be valid. As I worked my way through the hands-on training, I saw no dogs getting trained to a reliable level. Yes that’s right, I said zero. Sure, they improved slightly, most of them learned to follow a treat really well but that to me is not a trained dog. There was no real obedience going on. They were at a loss with dogs that were not motivated by food and, as for reactive or aggressive dogs, forget about it. Some dogs were made to stay behind barriers during class so they couldn’t see the other dogs. Hyperactive, anxious dogs were being overloaded with treats which seemed to me to only make them more hyper and anxious. One poor woman who’s Australian Shepherd had been relentlessly jumping on her for six weeks finally asked me on graduation day what to do about it. She was so frustrated she was almost in tears. When the instructor wasn’t looking, I showed her how to stand on the leash but to please not tell the teacher I recommended it. You see, the instructor would have thought this to be “inhumane” and I needed her approval for my grade. My advice worked almost immediately, she kept our dirty little secret and I got a good grade. Phew!

While my “positive” brainwashing never fully sunk in, there was a point when I felt myself being converted…well…almost…but something still felt wrong. I wonder if people who join cults have a similar tipping point? It was weird. I started feeling guilty for using a prong collar on my dog. I started believing that maybe this “positive” stuff would work if I just gave it more of a chance. Maybe I’m just not doing it right? Maybe it just takes more time? 

So, I gave it a shot. I ditched my dog’s prong collar and started giving him a ton of treats. Long story short, he wound up getting in his worst dog fight ever and sent a neighbor’s pit bull to the vet for a bunch of stitches. He had been in some scuffles before but nothing like this, it was really bad. Up to that point, I had seen and broken up my share of dog fights but that was the first time I ever saw the kind of damage dogs can do when they don’t hold back. It was gnarly and I felt horrible about it. 

Needless to say, the prong collar went back on the dog and The Dog Whisperer went back on the Tivo! 

Oh yeah, and we all lived happily ever after. 

Finding Balance 

Throughout the first year or two of my deep dive into dog training, the one thing that was always on my mind was how to bridge the gap between Traditional Training and Positive Reinforcement Training. Why can’t I blend the Dog Whisperer stuff with the ABC stuff? Is there some unwritten rule about this? To me it seemed perfectly natural to want to find balance but it was starting to look like this was a radical idea. In the dog training community there seemed to be a great divide, like Democrats and Republicans or Vegans and Carnivores, which was crazy to me! On this side we never use treats, we expect the dog to do what we say because we say so and that is it. On the other side we only train with treats, the dog gets a cookie if he follows our request and no cookie if he doesn’t. Even back then, I knew something was wrong but now, after 18 years in the industry, I can confidently say that the great dog training divide is nothing more than tribalism and maybe a dash of virtue signaling. It’s definitely not logical.

Why should we throw the baby out with the bathwater like that? It made no sense to me at all. I was getting great results from using Cesar’s way but the positive reinforcement crowd was so down on him you’d think he was the spawn of Satan. Seriously! It was Cancel Culture before anyone had invented that term. Ironically, for a group that claims to be so “positive” they are really nasty to anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs. With that said, I was also seeing a lot of things that I loved about the treat-based training methods. The dogs were having fun and worked with enthusiasm which I thought was great! Why would I not use that as well? There also seemed to be some value in getting the dogs to “think” by having to figure out what they had to do to get the treat. I thought “Why use punishment if you don’t have to?” I also thought, “Why use treats if you don’t have to?” I also thought, “Why not use both?” 

It was all a bit confusing at first, I must admit. In one year’s time I had studied Cesar’s way and the Animal Behavior College way plus trained with local trainers, not to mention how many classes I just observed, all the Youtube videos I watched and all the books and internet research. Yikes! So many opinions and ideas, who knew dog training would be so complicated? My head was spinning but somehow I managed to keep a grip on reality. I didn’t have the confidence that I have today but, even back then, I just knew there had to be a way to juggle all these different ideas. 

Police K-9 Trainer Saves Me From Madness 

At this point, I was almost finished with my certification, feeling grateful for having a thorough education in Positive Reinforcement dog training but also convinced that Positive Reinforcement alone is a very limited modality as far as getting real world results. My saving grace came in the form of Lance, a trainer who I met at a dog event that year, and his team at the K-9 Clinic. He specialized in police and personal protection dog training but also held public classes for pet dog owners. I went to check out his facility and was blown away. There were two German Shepherds outside the office in such solid down-stays that they looked like statues. Meanwhile the 30 students in his advanced class were out on the field doing off-leash obedience that blew my mind. I realized at that moment that I had never really seen trained dogs before. I had to train with this guy! It was an hour drive but I went to his classes every Saturday morning for over a year. He taught me the art of how to use a prong collar and how it could be used as punishment but could also be used for more subtle communication as well as to build drive in a dog. While the training was a bit forceful at times it was also very effective in helping with my dog’s aggression issues. Not that it was all force-based, they also used chopped up hotdogs for treats and there was a lot of focus on verbal praise and petting. More than that, the classes were all about having fun! The classes were very upbeat, fast paced and the energy was great. The humans and the dogs were all having fun despite the fact that every single dog out there was on a prong collar. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every dog should be on a prong collar but they did. I think they would be the first to admit that they don’t specialize in cute little house dogs. If they did, they would probably lighten up on the prong collar policy. Regardless, they specialized in strong working type dogs and did it very well. 

The most interesting thing to me about that experience was how thoroughly it disproved most of the information that is being marketed to and by the intellectual, scientific and veterinary behavior communities. According to all of those sources, the dogs out on that field every Saturday morning should have been miserable. According to the mythology proposed by the “positive” trainers, the relationships with their owners should have been destroyed, they should have all been “shut down” and cowering in fear but they weren’t, they were having a blast! It really just reminded me of what I instinctively knew all along, which is that you can’t believe everything you read.

Dog Walking and Pet Sitting

In the beginning, I didn’t have a training center, I didn’t do group classes, I only did housecalls. I had started picking up private training clients here and there but it was very part time. Fortunately, I still owned my own cabinet finishing business so, if my phone didn’t ring for dog training, I was still financially in the green. So, I guess you could say I wasn’t desperate for money but I was definitely desperate to get out of the cabinet finishing business. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for my cabinet clients but I didn’t love the work, it wasn’t super profitable and my doctor had told me to get away from the chemicals. In other words, I still needed to fast track the growth of my dog training business. I needed to get to the point where Thriving Canine made enough money to quit doing cabinets asap. 

Within the first year of starting my dog training business I realized that a lot of my clients needed someone to walk and feed their dogs when they went on vacation. I also discovered that a lot of my clients were too busy to walk their dogs on a daily basis or some of them had physical limitations. 

“Can you recommend a good dog walker or pet sitter?” They would ask. 

“Yeah, you’re looking at him!” I would say. 

Boom! There it was. The way to speed up my transition from part time dog trainer to full time dog trainer was to offer dog walking and pet sitting. It seemed like it was almost overnight that my mornings and evenings were filled with walking and feeding dogs. Then my afternoons started filling with dog training and behavior problem cases. Then I realized that a lot of my clients had dogs that were reactive to other dogs, so I started getting them all together in small groups for socialization and training class. It just sort of kept going like that and pretty soon I was having group classes out at local parks. I didn’t have enough clients to do a bunch of group classes so I just lumped them all together in one class, one day a week and anyone who wanted to show up could just show up. 

That was the birth of the Thriving Canine Drop-In Class. We had puppies, adult dogs, reactive dogs, aggressive dogs, dogs that had been kicked out of other classes, you name it and we had it. I know, it sounds nuts but somehow it worked. Perhaps it was that reckless 1970s upbringing that helped me pull that off, perhaps it was just dumb luck or perhaps I have a really excellent guardian angel. Whatever it was, I am very grateful for all those early clients who had faith in me. I have nothing but fond memories of those times! Thank you all very much!   

The Cindy Factor

The next thing I know, one of my clients, Cindy, says, “My property is not far from here, we could have these classes there. It’s fenced so we could let the dogs go off-leash.” Boom! There we go again, it’s amazing how things just flowed along. “Heck yeah!” I said, “That would be amazing!” That was when the Drop-In Classes really took off. It got to the point where there were regularly more than 20 dogs out there, one day we had 29, that was the record. 

Thank you very much, Cindy! 

The Dr. Quick Factor 

A few years later, I set up a booth at an art and wine street festival called A Taste of Morgan Hill and I was approached by a local veterinarian named Dr. Quick. He told me he was looking for a new trainer to run classes at his vet hospital because the previous trainer had just quit. The first thing he asked me was, “Are you certified?” He went on to tell me how much he believed in reward-based training, how Ian Dunbar had visited his place and how he was not looking for a “Dog Whisperer.” 

Well, I was unsure about this situation but it seemed like a potential opportunity so I played it cool and said, “Yes, I am certified.” We arranged to “do lunch” and at that meeting we discussed dog training methodologies. This is the part of the story where I say that I’m glad I didn’t quit Animal Behavior College. Thanks to that education, I was able to say I was certified and I was able to speak very clearly in scientific jargon such as the quadrants of operant conditioning, conditioned emotional responses, classical conditioning and so forth. He must have been impressed because he hired me on the spot. 

I never did tell Dr. Quick that I was actually a fan of the Dog Whisperer. I did tell him that I was not a believer in being “purely-positive” but the conversation was a little vague. On the very first night of basic obedience class my resolve was put to the test. Dr. Quick was there to observe me but he had also loaded the class with several reactive/aggressive dogs. Did he do that on purpose, was he testing me or was it just coincidence? I don’t know but there was one in particular that was full throttle out of control, snarling and lunging at the other dogs and even lunging and snarling at me. “What should I do?” I thought. “He’s watching me, he doesn’t like the Dog Whisperer, he likes reward-based training. Damn! I’m in a pickle.” I hesitated for a moment and then I just decided to do what I do and let the chips fall where they may. 

I had the woman put a prong collar on her dog and then told her to hand me the leash. She looked at me with her eyes bugging out, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yes, I’m sure.” The dog flared up at me, of course. No big deal, I was expecting that. I used a little defensive leash handling and then gave him a sharp correction with the prong collar as I walked him away from his owner. I figured I was fired at that point but I was committed, if I had stopped my momentum at that moment the dog would have bitten me for sure. I walked him all the way across the parking lot of the vet hospital and then back to his owner, with a few leash pops along the way and then handed the leash back to her. She was astonished and said it was “like magic”. The dog wasn’t perfect after that but he was much more manageable and I was able to approach and give him treats and even pet him. 

Warning: That was a hasty move, it was a judgment call. I don’t advise readers to attempt something like that on their own, it was very risky and I could have been injured. That being said, sometimes these dogs are just out of control because no one has ever taken control of them. They are not really aggressive, they are going crazy from frustration and lack of fulfillment and lack of leadership and there’s actually a sweet dog under there just waiting to come out. 

“Yeah, but what about the vet, was he pissed at you?”

No, he wasn’t. I couldn’t believe it, he was actually impressed with my performance. There was another dog in the class that was out of control that I also put on a prong collar. Think about that, it was the first night of class and I put two out of eight dogs on prong collars, one of which gave me a dramatic run for my money, and he was totally fine with it. I know, it’s crazy! And to think, I almost didn’t take the job because he said he hated the Dog Whisperer. 

I wound up teaching puppy and basic obedience classes at his hospital one night per week for several years, up until Dr. Quick passed away. When the new owners took over, they continued having me run those classes for several more years. All said and done, I held classes there for over a decade. 

Thank you very much, Dr. Quick! 

The Carmela Factor 

Somewhere along the line, one of my clients told me about a woman named Carmela who ran a cage-free boarding and doggie daycare facility and said, “You have to meet her.” It also turned out that one of my regular dog walking clients lived on the same road, so I had been walking by her place for months and didn’t even know it! “Oh yeah.” I said, “I know the place, I just thought she had a lot of dogs.” 

I stopped by there one day while walking my client’s dog just to say hello and check it out. It was awesome to see all the dogs and I was impressed by how well she ran the place and controlled the dogs. She was super nice too. I don’t even remember how it all happened but we became friends and at some point she offered to let me run some classes on her property. I think we had talked about The Dog Whisperer and she said something like, “You should open a Dog Psychology Center here.” I didn’t even ask, she just offered it to me, how amazing is that? 

At first I just started having Agility Classes at her place, which was a great addition to my class offerings. I continued having my Drop-In Classes at Cindy’s and my Puppy and Basic Obedience Classes at Dr. Quicks for several more years but, ultimately, all of my classes migrated to her property and it became the official home base for Thriving Canine.

Thank you very much, Carmela! 


Thank you so much for joining me on that nostalgic little trip back in time. It’s so crazy to look back and see how all the pieces of the puzzle came together, almost as if guided by the hand of God or some mystical force or, for the skeptics and non-believers, perhaps just a lot of good luck and coincidence. Either way, I feel very fortunate and grateful to be able to earn a living by helping people experience a better life with their dogs. I would also like to express my gratitude to you. Yes, you, my fellow dog geek. If you actually read this whole story all the way to the end, you are very special and I appreciate you. However, you need to stop reading now and go play with your dog! 


Chad Culp – Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant, Owner of Thriving Canine. 

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