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Being a Student Again Revs up an Old Pro

I have been a professional dog trainer since I was 22 years old. That was, ahem, a few years (decades) ago. I am proud to have stuck with my career choice for so long. Dog training is rich and rewarding and often keeps me on my toes. There is definitely no sleeping on the job when you’ve got a living creature with free will, sharp. pointy teeth, and quick wit on the other end of the leash.

Yet, even though I do indeed work with dogs, what I really am is a teacher off people even more so than puppies. Because dogs live with people, and it is people who sign up for lessons. So as a dog trainer, I generally have two students at once who speak different languages, come from different cultures, and are trying to find common ground and a clear form of communication that is understandable to all parties. I guess that kind of makes me an interpreter, too. See what I mean? It is dynamic yet challenging work. However, when you’ve been in the same job for over 20 years, much of it becomes so natural you just do a lot of it without thinking. Additionally, as skills and experience build, it is very easy to forget what it is like to be new at your chosen craft. And it is essential, in my opinion, to stay in touch not only with what it is like to be new at something, in my case preferably physical skill, but also to actually continue to live in your students’ shoes over the years to the extent that pro can wear the shoes of a newbie.

It’s quite easy to accomplish the first goal mentioned above, learning a new skill, by taking courses in interesting yet unrelated topics. Over the years I’ve tried my hand at language lessons, skiing, golf, photography, yoga, Pilates, ballroom dancing, and bowling, to name a few of the extracurricular activities that have intimidated me and had me fumbling in a way I haven’t experienced with dogs in eons. It’s very humbling and always, always bolsters my patience with new students who are often struggling with not just potentially new concepts and information when they sign up for a dog training session, but also with the challenges of the physical skills and timing of handling and properly communicating with a dog.

Accomplishing the second goal of walking in a new dog owner’s shoes, in an attempt to be the best teacher I can be, can be a bit more tricky. Even as a professional, it’s possible to forget how challenging it is to have a new puppy in the house if your dog has hit a ripe old age. One of the side effects of love is amnesia. after all.

How then, do I jog my memory when it comes to living life with a new dog? Well, occasionally I get a new puppy, but really that only happens every five to 10 years, and that is not nearly frequently enough to keep my brain fresh and challenged. My other strategy is to foster a dog in need. This way not only do I remind myself what it is like to live with a rowdy, untrained adolescent dog (oh, so many dogs in need of foster and new homes are between 7 and 18 months of age), but I am also using my skills to help my community and help a diamond in the rough shine brightly in a new home. Win-win!

I have a new foster pup right now. She is the same breed as my two dogs, which is how I came across her. Somebody thought I might be interested in helping out a long, lost cousin and that I might be a good candidate to understand this dog and that I would also have contacts among breed enthusiasts who could help place her.

This dog is female, probably about 1 year old, and was found as a stay on the streets of a town nearby. She had no identification, no collar, no microchip, nothing. She sat in the shelter for three days on stray hold waiting for someone to claim her, but nobody did. She is a sensitive and active working breed, and the kennel environment was doing her no favors, so I was called.

She is a very friendly girl, extraordinarily people focused, but as far as I can tell, she’s had absolutely no training. She doesn’t even know the hand signs for sit, let alone the word! (I tried four different languages.) She pulls on leash, and as friendly as she is, her handler may as well be a boring old ball and chain when she’s out and about on a walk, just some sort of killjoy to drag around. She likes cheese and playing ball or tug but isn’t very good at either, which tells me in regard to the latter, that her joy for those things is inherent, but has not had much of an opportunity to be expressed or honed. But it’s all good news overall. If she likes attention, food, and games, I have plenty of ways to motivate her to pay attention to me and to enjoy all of the requests and household rules I’ll teach her, because learning new things, paying attuning to me, and following my silly rules are all opportunities for rewards. She is a delightful little dog, and she is exhausting me. I find myself thwarted, frustrated, confused, and yet simultaneously elated, proud, and in love. I am grateful to be the student once again. Thank DOG.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.

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Main article photo by: Photo by Denis Moskvinov-istock