5 hidden challenges of being a dog trainer
Dog training has changed significantly over the years, from the local trainer in town running obedience classes to a whole industry of scientists, behavioural experts and trainers who regularly come together for big conferences and engage dog owners across the world.
Being a dog trainer can be a fantastic, transformative and hugely rewarding job. I’ve felt honoured to be part of the lives and journeys of many of my clients. Working with such a diverse range of interesting, funny, dedicated and caring owners and their unique and beautiful dogs is something I never dreamed I’d be lucky enough to do!
I’ve also had plenty of off days, as well as frustrating and difficult conversations. I’ve seen dogs in terrible situations that I simply couldn’t change. I’ve lost hours of sleep worrying about these dogs and their owners, wondering if I had done a good enough job, or if I was really cut out for this work.
And based on my conversations with other trainers, I’m not alone in this. So here are 5 hidden challenges that many dog trainers face (and that you never hear about in dog training books!):
1. You have to know about a lot of non-dog things
When I started learning about dogs, I deep dived into everything and anything I could find. It was a delicious period of ‘ah-ha!’ moments and big insights that fundamentally changed my understanding of canine behaviour. When that learning morphed into a business, I realised I had a whole lot of non-dog learning to do as well. Running a dog training business requires skills in many areas, such as marketing, finance, customer relations, time management, systems and operations. If you start building a team or hiring contractors you’ll also need to learn about recruitment, people management, team dynamics and various legal frameworks. Some trainers bring these skills with them from other industries. Others might be starting from scratch. This is why if you say to a dog trainer ‘oh you get to play with dogs all day? What a perfect job!’, don’t be surprised if you receive a hard stare.
2. Dog owners are overloaded
Dog owners are often overwhelmed with tonnes of conflicting information, most of which they find online. There’s lots of unlearning to do, and the fact that working with dogs is actually a very physical, practical skill (which takes time and practice to build) is often overlooked. Owners tend to arrive with their heads already full and swimming, which can make teaching and imparting knowledge more challenging. It also means that commitment and trust may be more difficult to earn - if things are hard or you have a tricky session, alternative trainers and quick fix solutions are at their fingertips.
3. The work can be lonely
It’s a strange irony that a job which involves loads of interaction with humans and animals can also feel incredibly lonely. I meet and talk to a lot of lonely dog trainers. Many dog trainers are self-employed and because they are in the role of supporter to their clients, they always have to be ‘on’ and have answers and solutions available (even when they feel unsure or are having a rubbish day). They can’t exactly stroll into a client’s home and say ‘Whoa, your dog is completely out of control and I’ve literally never seen that weird floor licking thing before. Let me Google it’. The chance to work through complex problems with others isn’t always available. If you’re constantly in problem solving mode for other people, you often don’t get a chance to do the same for yourself.
4. It can be hard to find your pack
Running your own business and being self-employed can naturally cause people to enter self-protection mode. It may feel uncomfortable to ‘give all your secrets away’ or refer clients to someone else when you’re unavailable. Peak bodies and organisations may not want to share ideas or have open conversations with others in the field, in case it undermines their place in the sector. In a sometimes clannish and critical industry which requires a niche set of skills and expertise, there can be huge fear in admitting you don’t know something, or that you messed something up, or are feeling out of your depth on a behaviour case. Thankfully, this is changing more and more, but finding the right places and people to connect with without fear of judgement can be tough.
5. Burnout is common
Compassion fatigue is an alarmingly common and damaging phenomenon in animal welfare professions. It is particularly prevalent in the veterinary and animal rescue world, but it extends to dog trainers as well. Barkley psychology professor Christina Maslach describes burnout as a “psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job...overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” Dog trainers are often highly empathetic and sensitive people (it’s why they ended up working with animals in the first place) but that empathy can mean they struggle to set boundaries, switch off and look after their own needs.
The learning that goes with being a dog trainer never stops, and finding places to connect with others, develop skills and share battle stories can be hard. Over the years I’ve developed a few tactics that have helped me navigate some of these challenges. These tactics led me to creating an interactive online course - Reach More Paws - alongside some guest speakers also interested in these topics. Take a look!
If you’re a new or experienced dog trainer interested in improving your business systems, sharing stories, meeting new collaborators and spending more time helping more dogs, we’d love to see you there :)
The first Reach More Paws course starts on 10 June - there are only a few spots left and applications close on 7 June (use code ADAG for a 20% discount).