A rare update from my corner of the Internet: some things have changed here (others stay the same). I’ve started on a new chapter of my life, let’s call it “becoming a dog trainer”.
I’m currently studying for a Certificate IV in Companion Animal Services, which is a government accredited dog trainer/pet professional education here in Australia. The version of it that I am doing takes two and a half years part time, and takes place mainly online. The offline elements comprise two seminars, and work experience with animal training and class teaching.
(The study does not free me from needing work in the meanwhile, but it sounds better than “unemployed” and gives a focus and vision for the future)
The Plan with it has two versions:
The behind-the-scene motivation driving version is a crazy visionary, elaborate day-dreamish concept for a kind of animal training hub with a multitude of projects evolving around a dog sports training school/community at the core, combined with retail, foster care/rehoming, and behaviour experiments/product development and testing of dog equipment; overall a system that encourages, inspires, creates, structures, logs, and systematises innovative animal training projects.
The vision and its many offspring has been running in the back of my mind for several years, and keeps breeding new spin-off ideas… It isn’t a project I’d expect to ever carry out in its entirety, it is more a daydream/idea generator that I hope to pluck some elements from for real world implementation if/when suitable windows of opportunity open some day, and if I’m ready.
The official and more-likely-to-be real world version of what is supposed to happen is to establish & run a dog training and behaviour consultation business when I’m done with earning the certificate. The idea was to perhaps start up gradually with dog walking or pet sitting in the meanwhile. That way I could begin earning an income now while also gaining experience handling many different dogs, and building up a client base that could maybe help me start up easier later as a dog trainer.
It sounds like a sensible plan, but as usual I’m very risk averse, pessimistic, unsure and dragging my feet. I basically need a thorough step by step plan for “how to do” and communication/behaviour scripts for all situations. Accidents or problems occurring in a dog walking or pet sitting capacity could stick to me personally and harm my professional reputation as a dog trainer later, as well as harm people or animals (and my confidence to do anything in the field). That’s not a reason to not do it, just to be careful what I do and not think of it as easy.
I hope to be able to use a dog trainer business as my platform for gradually incorporating some of the more experimental ideas from the imaginary animal training concept. A stage one in a change of career direction … from nothing, to something.
A strong argument for this plan is that I’m genuinely interested in animal behaviour and learning, and I like to work with dogs. The life style may also suit me. Dog trainer/behaviour consultants can be an independent “on the road” type of job (a bit like the interviewer job in that way) visiting dogs and their owners in private homes to achieve behaviour goals, working from home. That could suit me quite well I think, especially if it was mainly with established clients (I remember with dread the first-visit-anxiety from the interviewer job … hitting at every visit).
Here is an example: Tenille from Dog Matters showcasing a day in her life as a dog trainer:
I’m not like her – not small talkey, not upbeat, not business minded much, and not inclined to use all the same training methods, but it is a nice little snapshot of what an independent dog trainer’s everyday job can look like.
Another upside is that I do actually have quite a lot of experience working with animals, albeit not in a training capacity. I’ve worked with industrial pigs for almost seven years back in my past history, in different places/production systems (and we did train the piglets to use their water dispensers, so… ;-). I’ve also worked with dairy cows and been horse riding and had a variety of pets (dogs, cats, budgies, guinea pigs (17!), rats etc).
Years of experience with being around animals doesn’t necessarily count for much, people can work with animals for many years – even in a training capacity, which I haven’t – without coming to much of an understanding of animal behaviour, basically just super-imposing their own preconceived animal mythologies on them and doing whatever works. However, I feel I have some sort of general grasp of animal behaviour coming out of my years with practical work and all the observations and flashbacks/re-thinking loops haunting my mind.
One more serious upside is if my commerce/marketing degree could finally be put to good use. That’s an asset most dog trainers don’t seem to have; a potential source of competitive advantage.
The downside of the Plan is that dog owners are people, and basic manners training & behaviour modification for pet dogs (the main part of the market for pet dog training services) isn’t my passion. My hidden agenda as a dog trainer may be to try to convert people to more ambitious & fun dog team work activities, such as scent work, urban mushing, or agility… That is, when I’ve myself explored the various dog sports disciplines.
Another downside is that dog training professionals are also people. So far I don’t feel like I’ll blend well into the dog trainer / pet services community, at least face to face. I’ve been to a few seminars, some of which were excellent, but as usual I found the social mingle situations of the breaks between lectures highly challenging and stressful, partly due to the social expectations, and even more due to the background noise inferno and general unstructured crowding… so I sought out refugee in quiet places… outside, in the bathroom, in my car etc, stressed out & missing out on most of the professional networking opportunities.
Dog trainers appear to be, on average, quite typical women and men (especially women… perhaps 95% women)… highly social, navigating small talk effortlessly like schools of fish swimming in water, and not very relatable for a weirdo like me (trying to pretend to not be a weirdo, with fluctuating success).
Dogs as a business card
Finally, there is the fact that my own two dogs have quite a range of emotional issues, including strong dog-reactivity (both) and various anxiety issues and phobias, here under separation anxiety (both), fear of car drives (one), fear of explosive sounds (one), and general anxiety (one).
They are great, unique and fun dogs, and quite well trained compared to my previous dogs. My previous dogs (living in different periods) were easy going, and therefore received much less attention and training. They had fundamentally good manners and social skills, but were poorly trained at certain civilisation skills, notably leash walking, which I solved by always walking them off leash. They both had great road sense. Although one had selective hearing, her friendly demeanour, polite manners, and knack for gently charming people meant that it never seemed like a serious issue.
In contrast, letting my current dogs off leash in public places would be grossly irresponsible due to their reactivity. They also have poor road sense (how did my previous dogs get great road sense? Yes I taught it, but they seemed almost pre-programmed to learn it quickly & remember it permanently). My current dogs have, overall, much less freedom, and they require strict management – a badly timed second of inattention can lead to big trouble. It feels like a big step down on the dog ownership status ladder, although I actually know and can do so much more now. It certainly makes dog ownership much more complicated and stressful than it used to be.
The good side of having “project dogs” is all it has taught me about behaviour problem solving, and the motivation it created to learn about the science behind canine behaviour in order to understand what I was dealing with. As a dog trainer in-the-making, the daily opportunities to try out and practice behaviour modification techniques on my own dogs is a gift. Most important, the growing understanding has turned the necessity into an interest, and started a positive feedback loop of learning and understanding more, and therefore finding it more interesting and wanting to learn even more.
During the lifetimes of my previous dogs, and up to when I’d had my current dogs for some years, my understanding of canine minds relied mainly on what I’d been taught in puppy classes and what I’d randomly heard/read from “dog people”, and later when the Internet emerged, BS from self-proclaimed Internet dog “experts” was added to that. There was a lot of old school stuff in the mix, founded on anthropomorphic species mythologies (mainly dominance theory) rather than behaviour science, and a lot of it was also very unkind to dogs.
(I’d like to apologise to my old dogs for the times when I treated them badly in good faith and even though I loved them, because I misinterpreted their behaviours and what I ought to do due to being misinformed by mythological dog behaviour BS)
Over the course of the last few years, largely thanks to my current dogs and their challenges, I’ve learned a lot and eventually ended up on the path I’m on now – on course to making dog behaviour my career. So now we’re back at the start of the post.
That’s some of the positive sides of having dogs with issues.
On the downside, they are bad business cards for me as a (wannabe) dog trainer. The limitations their issues impose on me as a dog owner – e.g. all the obstacles to taking them to places with other dogs due to their reactivity, AKA for example dog sports activities, and to taking other dogs home, and to car travel with the one that has a car drive phobia, and to leaving them home alone for many hours (especially after dark) due to their separation anxiety – will look bad on me as a professional dog trainer. It is a weakness that hostile / competing dog trainers could use to undermine my reputation if they wanted to.
I’m confident my dogs will continue to improve (and there are past issues we’ve overcome by now), so who knows how far we’ll have come by the time I finish the education. However, no amount of training, desensitisation and counter conditioning will fundamentally change their personalities. Their vigilance, hair trigger tendency to “flight or fight” responses to perceived threats, general disposition and tendency to aggression and anxiety, that’s part of their mental fabric I think.
Some of their issues are not even irrational, e.g. dog reactivity: we live in a neighbourhood with barrier aggression on all streets and many reactive and/or unruly dogs. My dogs have been attacked multiple times since we moved to the area, and are frequently threatened, starred at and barked at by hostile dogs (undermining the effect of counterconditioning quite a lot). No wonder if they feel we live in the middle of Enemy Land, and strike-first Defence is a high priority.
They have lovely dispositions in relation to us, and even the vigilance and wariness have useful sides in the form of protection and safety (especially for me; home alone a lot, and with a love of running alone in the bush). That said, a disposition like that of my old dog & all time canine soulmate… my gregarious, trusting, always enthusiastic yet polite lab x … would be a better dog training business card, and easier to combine with a dog training business.
That’s all for now.
PS. My second inert blog
Oh, and I have created a new inert blog, here. Its purpose is to serve as my online WordPress ID/platform for virtual communication in relation to animal behaviour and dog training, since it seemed a bit irrelevant to direct those people to this blog. Also, if I write about dog/animal-related topics in the future I can post there, whereas if I write about social and sensory aspects of anything, I can post here… and if I post in both places about the same event from different perspectives, I could link between them.