For the past dozen years or so I have made my living helping people to train their dogs. Over the years I have probably been a thousand kitchens, sitting down with my clients and helping them to find a middle ground they can live with in the company of their difficult dogs. I have carved out a niche meeting dogs with problems that range from serious aggression, to grieving for a lost family member, and most of my job surrounds figuring out what the dog needs and addressing that within the family he lives with. Sometimes my job is a little different though.
About ten years ago I had a client who called me when the family dog began attacking her. When I went into the home, I found a very bizarre situation. The husband was emotionally abusing the wife, and had come up with a unique way to do so. He taught the dog to attack the woman on cue and then blamed her for getting the dog angry. It took me quite some time to figure out what was happening in that case. One day I dropped by and the husband was not home. I spoke to the woman alone for the first time, and made her aware of some of the community resources available to her. Shortly after, the family discontinued seeing me. This is not uncommon especially when there is domestic violence involved.
About eight or nine months after our last appointment, I went to my mailbox and got a letter out. In a small blue envelope on a simple sheet of stationary, I read the following:
Thank you for the time you spent working with me and Micah. We have left Darius and moved away, and we are safe now. I wouldn’t have been able to leave without the support you gave us.*
The letter was not signed, but I recognized the names of the dog and the husband. I realized something at that moment. I am not JUST a dog trainer. I am a person in our community who helps people, sometimes in unexpected ways. In this case, I was lucky enough to know what to do when I had the chance to talk to this lady alone.
This was the first time that I encountered something that I have since encountered many times in my career. I am a lot more than JUST a dog trainer. I am called in to do dog training, but one of the true joys of what I do is that I often get to be a whole lot more than JUST a dog trainer. In fact, dog training can be the tip of the iceberg in terms of my day to day activities. I have been the butler, answering the door in the course of my job. It wasn’t intentional; we were working on teaching the dog to cope with the door bell ringing and one of my volunteers turned out to be a real guest. I have signed for packages and answered the phone. I have held the baby, and swept the floor. I have called 911 and reported an emergency and I have closed the gate behind me when I am finished.
As a professional, my business card says that I work with families to overcome behaviour problems in their dogs. My training is in behaviour modification, in ethology and in consulting skills. As a behaviour consultant, I need a whole set of skills that we don’t talk much about or train for. We don’t talk for instance about needing to be able to recognize when domestic abuse is occurring and we often don’t talk about what to do about it if we do see it. We don’t talk about how to talk to owners about euthanasia when their dog is too dangerous to live with, and yet, we are sometimes faced with the need to do so. And when pets die, we sometimes have to speak to the children of the families about death even if we haven’t had the training to do so. In the course of my day to day activities I have had to assess a dog and determine if he needs to go to the vet, teach my clients about basic husbandry and help them to learn about things like cutting nails and stripping a terrier. I have visited people who are unable to leave their homes, sometimes as the only person they see in a given day when I come to walk or train their dog.
I am glad that I am more than JUST a dog trainer. In the course of my day I get to work with interesting people and do interesting things. Things I didn’t expect when I started this job. If I have learned one thing it is “be willing to do the unexpected”. Doing the mundane unexpected things I have done at work has kept it interesting, exciting and surprising each and every day. Dog training is not actually an animal job; it is a people job. What I get back is more than just the money I earn helping people with their dogs, but also respect and acceptance and participation in a wider social construct. Dog training is the kind of job that allows me to be a part of my community in a way that is meaningful and wonderful.