DSC_0010“You were a dog person the other day,” he told me as we debriefed the event from the prior weekend.

I paused, trying to wrap my head around exactly where he was he was going with this.

“You were a dog person, and I’m not used to seeing you that way.”

My confusion must have been apparent. After all, I am a dog trainer with my own gang of beloved K9s at home. I am in fact, the epitome of a “Crazy Dog Lady”. How on Earth could he not see me as a “dog person”?

He seemed to catch my internal monologue and responded to my confusion by elaborating. “Usually, when you train, you are a people person. It’s what sets you apart. But the other day, you were a dog person. I could tell something must have gotten under your skin.”

The truth was, something HAD gotten under my skin. Some things that had unfolded on the first day of the two day event had me reeling and a little defensive. And apparently by day two, my unease was noticeable.

His comments hit me hard, but I tried to brush them off as we proceeded with our meeting.

We recounted the weekend’s events, the training that occurred, the trainers who participated, and the slew of techniques, some new, some old, some great, and some not so much, that were presented as dozens of working dogs took the field.

He wasn’t a dog trainer. In fact, he was simply a dog owner who had his first Malinois pup and who was attempting to navigate his way through the sea of trainers, decoys, and techniques to raise his pup with a purpose. As such, his perspective was different, making his insight invaluable.

The rest of the afternoon, the words rang in my head. I replayed the conversation over and over, revisiting the weekend’s events, and trying my best to understand exactly where things went wrong.


I AM a Dog Person

_E9T0539My default social tendency is to be a “dog person”. Growing up, I was always shy. I never spoke unless spoken to, and I’d often hide behind my Mom when someone addressed me directly. I know you’d never guess that if you met me now (I’m really quite loud), but you can ask my parents – I swear it’s true.

As a child, pre-teen, and even into my teenage years, I always confided in my dog all of my life’s problems, and she was the only one I ever felt truly understood me. Plainly stated, I cowered around people. But my dog made me feel comfortable. My dog never judged.

Over the course of the years, I worked on my confidence, and most importantly, I worked on my communication skills. I forced myself into nerve-wracking situations, taking speech classes and embracing public speaking opportunities the moment they popped up. I realized quickly that I couldn’t hide behind my Mom forever and that I needed to actually talk to people to be successful. So I taught myself how to do it. But even now, my default is to be a “dog person”. If I get rattled, stressed, or emotional, I revert to my default setting, and my people skills go out the window.


Being a dog person isn’t so bad….right?

“You were a dog person that day.”

The words continued to haunt my thoughts.

I am a dog person. What’s so bad about that?

That day on the training field, everyone saw the shift, and while I knew it had happened, having it pointed out caused me to examine my reversion a little more carefully.

Then, it hit me. As I continued to dissect our conversation and the events that unfolded, I came to the realization that the problem with being a “dog person” was that, plainly stated, it was ineffective.

If I can’t connect with the people I’m teaching first, how will they be able to transfer their new understanding to their dog?

As trainers, it can be easy to get carried away. We see the potential in the dog at the end of the leash, and our years of experience and drive for perfection can manifest themselves in the form of confusing training jargon and unrealistic expectations. But if we are more focused on training the dog than informing and equipping the person, we quickly become ineffective.

Instead, we should strive to continually offer recommendations that are implementable and realistic, whether working with someone new to dog training or someone well experienced. If we can connect with the dog owner on a human level, we can work with them to set achievable goals for their dog’s training that will lead to visible progress and consistent success.


Communication is a lost art

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Photo credit @ Tamandra Michaels

These days, with the prevalence of the internet, texting, social media, and all of the other platforms that have replaced face to face conversations and phone calls, our communication skills are seriously lacking. Getting inundated with photos of abused and neglected dogs, watching propaganda videos designed do nothing more than break our hearts, and seeing hundreds of judgmental dog lovers and owners inserting their opinions and duking it out on internet forums further justifies our want and need to spend time with our dogs. But as we do, and as we immerse ourselves in the comfort of the companionship of those who don’t speak, sometimes we sacrifice those skills necessary to help them live better lives.

As much as you are drawn to dogs, and as much as people may drive you crazy, the simple fact is: you can’t train a dog if you can’t connect with his person. And as a trainer, if you aren’t effective at changing the behavior of the dog owner, the training will never happen, and the dog’s behavior will never change. For this reason, as trainers, we must be “people people”. And in fact, I’d submit that we must be BETTER “people people” than most. We can’t make a difference simply being “dog people”.


 

That day on the training field, there is no doubt I was a “dog person”. Don’t get me wrong… I didn’t fly off the handle or anything. I wasn’t rude, and I wasn’t behaving poorly. However, I did default to training jargon, and I did become completely unaware of the mood and comprehension of those I was trying to lead. As a “dog person”, I was ineffective as a trainer. Everyone who knew me sensed it. Everyone knew that something had rattled me. And despite the fact that I possessed the knowledge to get the dogs trained, and despite the fact that my skill set was refined and I could connect and communicate with the dogs at the end of the leash, my people skills went out the window, and I became entirely ineffective. As a result, those who needed help – those who were there for training, were forced to seek advice from other trainers who may have been less experienced but who ultimately were more effective that day.

If you are in the dog care field, whether you are a trainer, a groomer, a veterinarian or a rescuer, I urge you to remain compassionate to others and seek to understand them. Hold on to your people skills with force. They are the only way you will be effective in helping those dogs you love so much.


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    14 replies to "Don’t Be A Dog Person – An Open Letter to Dog Trainers"

    • Roger Beed

      Hello Meagan, I started out in the Navy with dogs in the 1960’s and started training for Government agencies in the 1970 & 80’s. In the 1990’s and there after I did work completely for myself. I did run my own school for training both trainers/handlers and dogs. I retired in 2008, love working with the dogs, still have four of my own.
      Best of luck,
      Roger Beed

      • Meagan Karnes

        Awesome! Nice work! Dogs are the best 🙂

      • Dawn Bowland

        Roger, I have been trying to get in touch with you. I worked with you a long time ago out of Indiana and have a case I would like to talk to you about. Would you please be willing to talk to me and give me your opinion. This is a time sensitive issue and I am now in North Carolina so e-mail or phone would be best.

    • Michelle Mullins

      Thank you, my story is very similar to yours and despite my best efforts sometimes I too revert to being a dog person. The struggle is real:)

    • M Dein

      I guess I am an animal person. I gained clarity and comfort from reading you insightful article. I have a Masters degree in communication, but am finding as I get older I’m increasingly short-tempered and unwilling to use my skills to actually deal with people. I’d much rather love on my dogs and cats, feed the ferals and rescue some puppy. Animals will never call you out on your weaknesses or treat you like a plebe.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thank you. I am an animal person too 🙂 I have to constantly work on my people skills because my default is to just hang with the dogs all day!

      • Evelyn H

        M Dein, it is something I have observed in ‘teachers’ as we age. Exasperation at teaching the same thing over and over the same way. 🙁 To last as a teacher, you have to love ‘teaching’ not just your subject.

      • Ted

        I notice once you get older (I am in this category), people tend to be less likely to put up with other people’s crap and in many cases, be more blunt and outspoken because they know they’re not going to get punished or ostracized. Lol. I find that I have less friends now that I’m older and I shed off people who just don’t gel with me. Less drama for me which is what I want.

    • Ruth Gray

      How very very true. Time and again we see trainers with little understanding or empathy for the owners and who suffers but the dogs. Not everybody learns in the same way and we need a multitude of ways to get our knowledge across. And yes, patience is a great virtue.

    • sherry

      I appreciate your writings.. so personally candid.. thank you for sharing.. Not sure there are very many trainers really willing to own, let alone *confess* that they were maybe less than perfect on a given day : )

    • Evelyn H

      I think that you are wrong.
      One needs to be a ‘dog person’ to be a dog trainer 🙂
      It is when you are a ‘dog training instructor’ (as in instructing other people how to train dogs) that you need to have “people skills”.
      And it is just like anything else — often the people who are really good at something, make very bad teachers. The really cannot understand the difficulties that ‘ordinary’ people have.

    • Rhea

      I like this post because it speaks to me in more than one way. I do not relate well to people and unless I have a specific item to discuss with a basic outline of materials I will just stand there saying nothing and looking a bit dense. Socially challenged if you will. Dogs bridge the gap. I can relate to dogs, enjoy interacting with them and want to make their lives better. I learned (am learning still) how to train dogs in a variety of areas and because of that I am able to talk to people about their dogs. I cant stand talking to people as a general rule, but hand that person a dog and get them to ask me for dog related assistance and they will be praying for me to lose my voice!
      The other side of that is when that person comes along and sucks the joy right out of the situation; they are the ones that turn you back into the person that can only communicate with the dog and cant reach the human. Its hard not to but your right, if we cant communicate with the human in a way that makes sense to them we are wasting all of our time.

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