As dog people go, I’m not thoroughly seasoned, but I’m well on my way. There comes a time in every enthusiast’s life where they realize (at least in part) how crazy the dog world is and they choose – consciously or unconsciously – to continue. I’ve been there at least a few times as I’ve learned and grown. I like to think that the journey has made me kinder and wiser, but the truth is that it’s also made me more critical and somewhat callous. I no longer care if people take my advice or not, nor do I feel responsible for the outcome of their actions. I don’t take on the burden of relationships with colleagues and hold them more loosely than I ever thought possible. I don’t feel the constant need to prove myself, and I feel strongly that my work should stand alone and speak for me. I’m also happier than ever before.
There are a few things that I wish I’d known going in to this – and likely in a few years there will be more things I wish someone had told me. Being a rather sensitive introvert, the lessons I’ve had to learn were quite possibly more painful for me than for many others, but on the off chance that they can help someone else, I’ll share a few points about the dog world that people like me can keep in mind.
1. Some people hailed as “experts” have no clue what they are doing.
Fame in the dog world, particularly in the dog training arena, does not equal competence. Quite often it is the direct opposite. The people who are the most vocal and who spread their videos and/or blog posts, even those who own training schools, can be either ineffectual or have very narrow expertise. Sometimes they are lying about their accomplishments, or even how they achieved them. They can be more passionate than skilled and try to make up the difference by shaming others, using technology to distract or by making up new lingo. This isn’t the case with every person in the limelight, but the average person starting out won’t be able to tell the difference straight off. In my experience, only a small handful of people at the top are worth listening to and the majority of the best influences are so busy with their training businesses or are so unsure about their worth that they must be sought out. Discernment comes with experience, so before you buy those DVDs or sign away the next ten year’s worth of vacation money for schooling, read #2.
2. There is NO substitution for experience.
“Book learnin'” is an important part of doing what you do in the dog world, but there is absolutely no substitution for experience. Unless you plan to specialize in a narrow subset category (which plenty of people do), narrow experience will NOT do either. There are far too many people who mistake their narrow scope of expertise for a well rounded education. If you’ve only ever worked with a certain type of dog, or only with the small handful of dogs you’ve owned, there is no way that you’re ready to give advice or handle all manner of dogs and situations. While people who have a wide range of experience can need to balance that out by learning more about what we’ve discovered scientifically regarding canines, I believe that those who have textbook learning and little practical experience do much more harm overall. There is no better correction line than practical, hands on experience.
3. Trust no-one unless they are trustworthy.
This is more of a life lesson than a dog world specific lesson, but is perhaps more crucial in the latter than in the former. Be cautious with the connections that you make, especially those that mean a lot to you. Everyone, absolutely everyone, has an agenda in this world. That’s not to say that everyone will try to use you or hurt you, but enough will to make it worth your while to be guarded with any new relationships and to continue examining current ones. Determining to keep your eyes wide open, to put parameters on the relationship or to make up your own mind about a person’s motivations are all good strategies. That said, networking is a very important skill in the dog world and one that will serve you well in the long run. Burning all your bridges, isolating yourself and refusing to work or socialize with others doesn’t work. Further, some of the best friendships you’ll ever have are with people who share your passion for all things dog. In the larger community, however, keep in mind that there are far more people who should remain acquaintances rather than close friends. Choose carefully. The price you’ll have to pay to keep some of those friendships going will eventually be too high and too counterproductive for your own success in your field. Cultivate and maintain relationships outside of the larger dog community to help keep perspective.
4. You will have to politik from time to time.
As much as I would love to tell you that you don’t have to engage in politics at all in the dog world, in all honesty I can’t. Politics are in play a lot of the time. Everyone has alliances, spoken or unspoken. In fact, sometimes what people don’t say or the conversations they won’t involve themselves in says more about their political leanings than what they do say and engage in. In general, it is better to support as much as you can in good conscience – and only engage when not doing so would be detrimental. In other words, don’t be a ‘right’ fighter all the time. In the end, it’s best to keep channels of communication open if at all possible.
5. Acquire and practice critical thinking skills.
There may be no better lesson than this one. Every other problem can be fixed, every other deficit sorted out – but a lack of critical thinking skills will land you in hot water over and over again. THINK FOR YOURSELF. Don’t be lazy and don’t let other people think for you. Claims that don’t make sense are just that, nonsensical claims. Do your own research. Take courses outside of the immediate realm of the dog world to further your understanding of how things work. Don’t be afraid to challenge accepted norms and don’t be dissuaded by shallow arguments. Read, watch, inform yourself, and always keep a critical eye.
6. Maintain as minimal an emotional investment in outcomes as you can.
We’re not dealing with pipes, wires and other building materials that always fit together properly if you just try hard enough and are skilled enough – we’re working with living beings who are, in the end, owned by other living beings. There is always the x factor at play with the dogs, and always free will involved with their owners. We can only take responsibility for what we have complete control over – and that is ourselves. If you’ve done the best you can, if you’ve enlisted the help of others for what you weren’t prepared to handle, and if you’ve done your utmost to be fair and thoughtful with the people involved, you cannot wear the consequences of what others choose to do. If you’ve done all you can and the dog still ends up in a precarious spot, you cannot choose to do ‘whatever it takes’ to save him or her. Too many people in the dog world don’t know when to say enough is enough and don’t know how to separate their work from the rest of their lives. That way lies bad decision making and complete burn out. There will always be another dog and owner who needs your ‘A’ game, so don’t let them down by being unable to choose to disengage from others.
7. Believe in and be kind to yourself.
If you have done your homework, and you are bringing a rounded toolbox to the table – you need to believe in yourself. There will be many times when you are the only one who does, and if you want to continue to learn, grow, and make a difference in the dog world, there are times that you’ll have to prop yourself up and slap on some confidence. I don’t have a tube of it myself to sell you, but I do know that if you are kind to yourself and conscientious in your work, confidence will follow. We’re all learning and we all make mistakes. Learning from our mistakes and thinking through our decisions in terms of accountability is really all that we can do. There will always be people happy to tear you up for whatever reason, so don’t add your voice to theirs. Don’t dismiss praise from clients and more importantly from peers – you likely are just that good.
Above all, have fun. If you’re not having fun in your slot in this world, then everything will be colored with that discontent. We all lose the thrill from time to time, but if you’ve lost it permanently, there is something that needs fixing.
In short, be careful, be conscientious, stretch yourself, think things through and…