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
My 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
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.