I have been in the dog world for more than fifteen years now. My interest in animals started long before (my first word was my dog’s name), but my first apprenticeship with a local trainer and my first volunteer job at a shelter began when I was 16. I got my first official job as a dog trainer for a big box store at 18, did pet sitting and training through college, then landed a job as a dog trainer for one of the largest dog daycare and boarding facilities in Seattle.
I only lasted about a year at that job though, we were really not a good fit, but I continued training for a local dog club (one of my very favorite jobs and best learning experiences). By luck I applied to train at a long-standing and experienced grooming salon that was expanding into a larger space with an area for dog daycare. I became their daycare manager before the move was completed.
I managed there for years and really loved many things about that job but I think it was right around there where I started to get disillusioned with things, even though I wouldn’t realize it for many more years to come. I think at the time I believed it was due to the “you should do it because you love it” attitude that plagues the dog world. It breeds long hours (never-ending hours really), low pay, low benefits, low appreciation, high responsibility, and sacrifice for the “cause” or caring for live animals. That mentality stunts personal growth and smothers professionalism.
But that wasn’t really it. And when I moved to managing another larger facility with more staff in the hopes of improving my situation it started to sink in. There’s something wrong on a bigger level, how we think of and respect the dogs and people around us.
But thankfully I had found dog sport and the working dog world and my passion for dogs and learning to live with them only grew and intensified. I came to see dogs in a new way as my understanding of them deepened. I got really into ethology, how evolution affects behavior, and understanding how humans and dogs came to partner with one another. I saw many more similarities between us than differences.
When I made the move to training on my own, in my own business, I look back and describe myself as very generic, nothing noteworthy in my message. I had the skills, but I wasn’t really being honest with myself. I was getting dogs trained yes, but I felt like our deep, unique, and meaningful relationship was oh so much more than that.
But I kept trucking along. And on this journey guided by dog, I began to see connections between things. It was harder to see anything in the world, especially our relationship with dogs, as black and white. My interactions with dogs became a clear indicator of my own health. Was I getting outside enough, being thoughtful about what goes in my body, moving around, enriching my mind and senses, experiencing, creating? If my dog was telling me to go outside, I needed to go outside. My boyfriend started calling my dog my “mood ring”, and he was right.
I struggled with the dog world more than ever. On one end of the spectrum seemed to be the working dog world, which I loved deeply and taught me so very much about what dogs truly are. There dogs were respected as skilled, sensory aware, intuitive creatures and trusted in a way I had never seen before, trusted with human lives sometimes. I saw dogs living purely and wholly in the moment too in a way that I wanted for my own life, in a deeply admirable “go all in” kind of way. These dogs were dogs though, not often part of the family, and not often very connected to the humans around them. This world both touched on this age-old cooperative magic that we shared and also did not meddle in it. It was beautiful but also sterile.
On the other end were the trainer-ey trainers, mostly pet and behavioral dog trainers but in a way that understood behavior and how to manipulate it that was complex and amazing. They could build elaborate routines, impressive tricks, and break down behavioral processes into a science. They understood how dogs think, act, and behave on many levels, but somehow they seemed ill equipped, or maybe in denial of some of the bigger concepts that plagued our interspecies relationship and this struck me as a disservice to devoted dog owners seeking a better way. Concepts like intense drives in dogs, the continued creation of dogs plagued with health or movement limitations, often in favor of easiness, or easiness on the eyes. We were missing much of the dog-like qualities that I so admired, and this left people with intense, athletic, or behaviorally maladjusted dogs at a loss. There was this sense that the world could be completely devoid of discomfort and that everything would be managed carefully to ensure safety and contentment and these dogs had no place there.
I don’t see dogs like this. For me, the best of dogs and the best of people have a lot in common. I think of people and dogs in the great outdoors, moving together, experiencing the world, respecting one-another’s abilities, finding friendship in each other, and using life’s challenges to grow and learn. We have both been shaped by urbanization and lost sight of a lot of the things that bring out the best in us. We are complex, passionate, adept, and thoughtful beings. We had traded growth, challenge, and adventure, for safety, comfort, and familiarity. We had both lost some autonomy because of it and forgotten what we are capable of.
In my mind I was less of a dog trainer anymore. I was something else, a dog life coach, a lifestyle coach for dog people, [insert label here]. My job was to teach people how to understand their dogs and improve their lives in doing so. My duty to dogs was to nurture their best dog-like qualities so that they could navigate the world. It would be silly to think that we could live lives absent of stress or discomfort (plus that would be super boring). I wanted to teach dogs and their owners how to be street smart to life, in a way, how to shuck the barriers preventing us from doing the activities that feed our souls. If we are having experiences, some of them will be unpleasant. We will run onto mean dogs, rude owners, look challenge in the face, and we will have to learn to let go and move forward, the faster the better.
So if this article resonates with you, I invite you to reach out to me, I would love to get to know you. If it doesn’t then there are plenty of other trainers who will give you three steps to get your dog to stop [insert behavior here] and I’m sure they’re a much better fit than I will be.
And if you’re someone who got a dog to feel the sun on your face, live in the moment, learn, love, laugh, and grow together, know that you are the reason I do this, you warm my heart, and I that there are other life-loving, dog-loving folks like you out there and you’re not alone.