I'm dedicating this blog post to all of my fellow professional dog trainers and instructors out there and I will begin it with this plea: we need to do better as professionals. We need to understand that in order to promote our own services or businesses, it is not, I repeat, is NOT necessary to take others down. Yet time and time again, professional after professional keeps falling into this trap. We must do better.
Highlight What You Offer
You've done your homework. Have spent years cultivating your craft. You've worked hands-on with countless dogs and their handlers. Books have been read, seminars attended, enlightening conversations had. You know what you are doing and yet are ever hungry to learn more, to further perfect how you train dogs. You are a dog training professional and I tip my hat to you.
Now, you need to go out there and let the dog-loving world know what it is that you offer them. How it is that YOU can help THEIR dog.
But...how do you do that? There are SO many other professionals to choose from...how will you stand out?
In my opinion, all you have to do is speak plainly, honestly and let your work product do the selling for you. Take videos working with your current clients (with their permission of course) and post them to social media or a YouTube channel. Write up how you approach certain training situations, touching upon the WHYS not just the HOWS, and post them as blogs or musings or other nuggets of helpful information. Provide some tangible value for your prospective clients to grasp onto. Holding "Ask the Trainer" or similar public events where you can answer pressing questions in real-time can work wonders. Basically, let these people WITNESS who you are, what you do and how you can help them and their dogs.
You will notice not once did I say to bring up a competitor. Nor dismantle a competing school of thought. Or highlight how your results are a million times better than so-and-so who cannot even earn one measly accomplishment...I think you get the point.
Yet it is so EASY to fall into this trap! One minute you are talking about YOU and what YOU offer (which you should be doing) and the next second, you are bashing a fellow professional you may not agree with 100% time who is your direct competitor (which you should NOT be doing!).
This is where we need to be honest: vicious gossip and a "my team against your team" mentality has infected the entirety of the dog world. Both must be actively fought against, otherwise everything will eventually backfire against you, your client and worst still, the very dogs you were charged to help.
None of Us Know Everything
I don't care how long you have been working with or training dogs, how many success stories you have under your belt or how many certifications or ribbons you have on your wall, you don't know everything. No one does, no matter how much they purport to.
The only true experts are the dogs themselves.
All dog training is a combination of understanding how all animals learn and our own observations. Observe the dog do a behavior, then try something to affect that behavior in some way and then observe how the dog reacts (does the behavior increase, decrease or stay the same). If you got the desired result, can you replicate it? Does it work with other dogs too or only this dog? If it works with several, you may very well have a "new" training tool in your belt! If it didn't go well, you will see what adjustments you can make before you try something entirely different. Rinse and repeat. That is dog training in a nutshell.
The point being, going into a dog training situation with your head in the clouds that you are a gift to the world is a surefire way to fall flat on your face. Maintaining a semblance of humility is a good thing...and dogs are excellent at dishing out opportunities to humble you.
Why does any of this matter with what we are talking about?
Well, if you think you are operating at a higher level than everyone and anyone around you, it is not outside the realm of imagination that you will look down on your fellow professionals. Not to mention the dog owners who would even DREAM of working those simpletons!
But what happens when all of your tools, gifts and skills are not enough? If you have built yourself up to be this idol who has descended from the heavens, how could you possibly reach out for help if you needed it? Not only that, who in their right mind would WANT to help you after you've spent a good part of your career bashing them? I unfortunately have a history of being a schmuck at times, still even I am not too keen on signing myself up for doormat duty.
Having questions, experiencing failure, coming up short are not things you should deny or shy away from. Each of us are in a learning journey and have our own strengths and weaknesses. Strip off the façade that you are perfect, you're not. But you can always strive to be better. This is impossible if you think that façade is the only thing drawing your current and future clients to you. A façade that you must maintain by tearing down those around you. All of this is self-destructive at best and can be backfire against the very dogs you are charged to help.
This is Not a Death Match
Being a full-time dog training professional is hard. It is a hustle. You need to regularly bring in new clients and try your best to hold onto your current clientele as long as possible without urging them to stay on longer than they need to. This oftentimes means working at least 6 days a week with a combination of group training classes, private consultations, traveling from training center to training center...not to mention training your own personal dogs and potentially campaigning them if you are involved in dog sports. In short, trying to make a living in this field is not for the faint of heart. It can be extremely fulfilling but it is also super challenging.
That doesn't mean your direct competitors should be seen as mortal enemies.
I remember what it is like go a week without any private consultation enrollments. Trying to figure out what I did wrong, how I could correct it, when it will pick up again, only to see a flashy new advertisement of another local professional...
Could it be that THAT person STOLE my business?
Maybe it was the time of year. Maybe I wasn't focused enough on promoting those private consultations. Perhaps I was spread too thin doing the million things on my plate. Or, maybe the dog training gods just deemed I was not getting any private consultations that week. Who knows.
What about group training classes? Yup, I've had classes that didn't fill. Classes I was super excited to offer to only have 4 dogs and handlers enroll. Does that mean that the local training facility who had a session start at the same time was poaching my clients?
Yet I can see how easy it is to get into a defensive posture when your livelihood, your very means of supporting yourself and your family is under threat, even if it is just seemingly. So why not go on the offensive?! Why not bring the battle to them?! Why not show the world those enemies on the other side of town are simply fleecing their clients wherein you can actually get them the dog training results they are looking for?!
Because you and I both know, 9 times out of 10, that is not what is really happening.
Most of the time, your competitors are not doing anything bad or nefarious. They may train differently than you do. They may have a different focus than you do. But they are not hurting anyone, they are taking a different route to provide a solution to the handler and their dog.
They are also not in business to ruin you...yet.
"...What do you mean?"
Negativity and ugliness spreads like a virus and the dog community is a small closed one. Meaning if you are spewing hatred about one of your competitors, your fellow dog training professionals, they will learn about it sooner or later. So right now, before they learn of your indiscretions, they are likely not trying to actively take you down. But once they know that YOU are lobbing verbal slander bombs their direction, well, then all bets are off.
This is when things get out of hand.
Instead, we all need to take a deep breath and reassess what we are doing and wasting our energy on.
See What You Can Partner On
Here is a simple fact all of us dog professionals need to internalize: there are more than enough dogs in the world for all of us to work with.
There is no need to try to tear each other down.
Instead, we should see where we can partner with one another, for the benefit of the dogs!
Remember: no one knows everything. Many of us specialize in something. Scent Work. Competitive agility. Dog-to-dog reactivity. Helping dogs and kids to get along. Training service dogs. The list goes on and on.
In that vein, wouldn't it make more sense to partner with as many fellow professionals as possible? This way you can refer a client to them should the need arise?
Imagine how appreciative this client would be when they get the solid results they were looking for and under the care and tutelage of TWO caring dog training professionals. If I were that person, I wouldn't think twice about referring a family member or friend to YOU, as I know you would have their best interest at-heart, even if that meant partnering with another professional.
Working with other professionals helps hone your own skills too. It can help push you out of your comfort zone. Another set of eyes and history of experience can be so helpful to you and, by proxy, all of your clients, human and canine alike.
I was beyond fortunate early in my career to intern at a training facility where there were a large number of professionals. It was a community built on mutual respect and people who LOVED TO TRAIN. Did everyone sing Kumbaya and hold hands? Of course not. Was there drama, disagreements and even people who did not like one another? Yes, but these professionals never let that get in the way of what they were providing their human and canine clients.
That is all I am pleading for. A truce. A level of civility in how we act toward one another. We may not agree, we may not even like one another and we do not need to be friends. But we do need to be professional and civil.
Our clients and their dogs deserve nothing less.
Author: Dianna L. Santos, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CNWI
Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U, Dog Sport University and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.
In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!