Periodically people tell me that they are hugely jealous that I am a dog trainer and wish that they could be me. They tell me how amazing it must be to play with dogs all day. They explain that they love animals so much more than people and think that it would be a perfect to make a living working with animals.
Depending on how serious the person is, I decide how deeply I want to burst their bubble. But every time it comes up... a bubble is getting popped. With some people, I smile and say that I do indeed have a wonderful job and love it very much but explain that it is also a lot of work. They usually nod and assume I mean being a business owner, and yes, that is a lot of work too. But that is not the meaning of my explanation.
I then explain that dogs have owners and while I can train a dog just fine, it all comes down to the relationship I have with my clients. My two legged clients, that is. Usually they jump into the conversation at this point and quote something they heard on TV about "training the owner". And while I agree with some of that sentiment, it's more than that. The entire relationship between dog and owner, rests on the actions of the owner. Period. The End. The owner decides and controls everything for the dog, from food and toys, to walks and affection. A dog's life and its quality are in the hands of its owner.
Usually at this point I lose the person who is talking to me. A few nod as they try to follow along, but their eyes grow confused and distant, like I am trying to explain quantum mechanics. I have confused them. I can see the worry lines as they try to align my explanation with their expectation. And for some... POP! I may have even shattered some lofty dream. How can dog training have so little to do with dogs? It seems crazy to think someone called a dog trainer, could not actually be training dogs.
And don't get me wrong, I do train dogs. When I am doing day training without the owner, or I am teaching a skill in a class, I am teaching a dog. People who train service dogs, or offer board and train services, they too, are training dogs. But that all falls short if no one is teaching the client.
You see, everything I can do with a dog, anyone can do with a dog. In fact, that is what I spend my day doing, passing on all the knowledge that is wedged into my head. I am passing on practiced skills that my mind and body now do reflexively. I am a teacher of people, not a trainer of dogs. I am no different than a dance instructor. A dance instructor does not train your body to move, the student does. The teacher simply instructs what is the correct way to do it. The correct way to balance, move, breathe, etc to get the results you want. The same as a martial arts instructor, a linguistics teacher, a music teacher, etc. We don't control the instrument that you are operating, we are teaching you how to use it.
Now before I get hate mail because I am equating a dog to an Oboe, understand that yes, dogs are living, breathing, loving, creatures who depend on humans for way more than basic application. But that is why my skills at instruction, and my relationship with my client are so much more important. The worst a crummy guitar instructor can do is frustrate you and possibly you will quit, and leave your guitar locked in a case forever. With a dog owner, if I fail my client, the dog suffers. Plain and simple, the results of my work with my client, effect the dog.
So when someone comes to me, dreamy eyed about running through fields filled with puppies, I'm forced to disappoint them. And for some, it is a jarring experience, because the people drawn to animal professions, are drawn to them for their love of animals. And with that draw comes a conundrum. A lot of "animal people" don't have the best people skills.
So it is a bit of a Catch 22. You are drawn to the animal professions because you love animals, and sometimes, not so much people. But you have to love people too to be successful in the animal professions. Because for every pet to be successful, it has to have a human caring for it.
So in the end, if you are still passionately dreaming of being a dog trainer, (or any other profession working with animals), you have to learn how to work with people. And that is just the bare minimum. In the end, you have to be passionate about working with people. Skills required include empathy (HUGE EMPATHY), the art of being non-judgmental, patience, flexibility, and being a good listener. When you can communicate patiently and compassionately with an owner, who is doing everything wrong, then you're ready to consider becoming a dog trainer aka "dog ownership instructor"... not that that name will ever catch on.
For more information on how to connect and work better with clients, read:
The Human Half of Dog Training: Collaborating with Clients to Get Results by Rise VanFleet