“To be honest, I want to train dogs because I don’t really like people. I just want to spend all of my time working with animals.”
This quote may not be verbatim, and we are not attributing it to one individual in particular. However, we can say with some certainty that, since opening our doors in 2006, we have heard several variants of this when speaking to individuals who are interested in pursuing a career in dog training.
In virtually every industry, a successful business needs a plan for providing high-quality customer service and effective communication with their customers. It is no different in the dog training world. In fact, if anything, it is more important, because human-to-human interaction is absolutely pivotal to success. Remember, dog trainers are helping owners with something that is extremely valuable to them – in recent decades, dogs have been elevated from mere household pets to valued members of the family unit. Explaining the how, why and when of dog training is fundamental to helping owners to understand their dogs and build a healthier human-canine relationship.
In this article, we’re going to get the thoughts of previous graduates from programs at the School for Dog Trainers who have gone on to start their own businesses. We asked them about the importance of interpersonal skills as a dog trainer, and the key personality traits required to convey training concepts to dog owners.
Consider your attitude towards people before becoming a dog trainer
“As a USMC Veteran with PTSD, and a dog trainer, I can sympathize with not liking people – but for different reasons,” explains Pamela Molina (Owner, Molina K-9 Training). “People can trigger an episode for me, so that was something that almost stopped me from pursuing my dream field. But I recognized it wasn’t that I didn’t like people, I was just afraid of the outcome.
“People who say they don’t like people and that’s why they go into dog training really need to self-reflect and address those thoughts/feelings towards people before they decide to jump into a field where they will be surrounded by people requesting services. Personally, I had to address the fact that I needed to work on myself before I went to dog training school so that mentality wouldn’t create an obstacle in my ability to provide quality guidance to future clients.
“Just a few years of working as a dog trainer has helped me reconnect and understand people,” Molina continues. “But if I had kept to the mentality of “I don’t like people”, I don’t see how I would have been as successful.”
Molina says that there is an obvious correlation between good communication and good training outcomes.
“As a trainer, you are the bridge of communication from dog to human. Chances are that the owner will be frustrated with some behaviors and the dog may be struggling to understand what they’re being asked to do. You have to be able to communicate, understand, and provide solutions for any obstacles the team may have. If you are biased against the human aspect of the team, your advice will be mediocre at best.”
Honesty is the key
As Kari Baker (Trainer, Fronte Unito Cane Corso) explains, it is essential that a dog trainer is able to communicate to the owner. She admits that prior to training dogs professionally, she wasn’t much of a ‘people-person’.
“I considered myself a person that didn’t like humans,” explains Baker. “But for me, I enjoy working with my clients with their dog, almost as much as working with just their dogs. It is so important that they understand what to do and why they need to do something.”
Baker also said there is one trait to bear in mind when it comes to dealing with your clients – even if it means you need to correct their behavior in addition to correcting their dog.
“Honesty is the best policy when communicating with your clients. If they are doing something wrong, it’s our responsibility to tell them.”
Good communication will help your business succeed
In our introduction, we touched upon how vital it was to be able to communicate effectively with your clients. Joe Perez (Owner, Outliner Canines), agrees.
“Being able to communicate with humans is what will ensure you can stay in business,” says Perez. “As a small business owner that trains pet dogs, most of your leads are going to be cold leads, or warm leads at best. This means that you have to articulate how you’re not only different, but better than every other cookie-cutter training program out there and the best option for your dog.
“You have to be able to find their pains, fears, goals and expectations. Then give that prospective client a warm and fuzzy feeling that you’re going to take care of them and their fur baby, all without sounding arrogant or overselling yourself.”
Perez also says that finding a way to keep the client invested – and their motivation high – is extremely important for a dog training program.
“Once you’ve captured that lead and turned it into a client, you have to teach that person the easiest way to get results for their dog. You have to find a way to motivate them to do their homework and make sure they know that their dog’s results are dependent on their participation.”
“Dogs don’t write the check!”
As Kayla Hill (Service Dog Director, K9 Summit) points out, the dog isn’t the one paying for the training. It is the dog’s owner who feels that training is required – and helping them to build that connection with their pup is of utmost importance.
“Being able to connect with the owners is what unlocks the dog’s potential,” says Hill. “People contact us, the trainers, for help connecting with their dog.
“Being able to empower the owners and equip them with good communication tools requires solid communication and teaching skills. The results are 10% dog & 90% owner!”
Adjust your style to the needs of your client
Even if you aren’t someone who craves human interaction, you can still create a teaching style that gets effective results for your clients. As Shawn Dunbar (Owner, Back of House K9) describes, if you truly care about the dog, you will get results.
“I am not a ‘people person’, but I care about the outcome and the relationship between the dog and its owner,” explains Dunbar. “I have conceded to the fact that I have to take different measures to be able to communicate with the owner for the betterment of the dog.
“Much like a kindergarten teacher has to be mailable within her classroom, I have to take the same approach with each client. All of this guarantees a positive outcome from the training process.
“I found myself on a few different occasions where I was forced to communicate with someone in a different way than I am used to, in order to be able to help them understand what their behavior was doing to their dog, and that if it was not corrected immediately, the dog was no longer going to respond positively.”
Important personality traits for a dog trainer
We asked our Alumni to give their thoughts on the personality traits a dog trainer should possess in order to effectively convey training concepts.
“In my opinion, I would say that patience, timing, and observation skills are the most important,” answers Dunbar.
Perez believes a personal connection is vital. “I feel like some important personality traits to be a successful trainer is having the ability to connect with people, make them feel comfortable, and have them trust you with their dog,” he says. “You have to do this fairly quickly during either the phone consultation, or an in-person evaluation. Being honest and upfront about what it takes to work with you also helps.”
The final piece of advice comes from Molina.
“I feel the most important personality traits a dog trainer should have are patience, good communication skills, adaptability, empathy, and a desire and will to problem solve,” she says.
“One final thing I’d like to add, a dog trainer doesn’t have to be “extroverted” or “upbeat” to be successful – that’s a myth I hear running around a lot in the industry.”
We are all wired differently. Your clients are all wired differently. Their dogs are all wired differently.
Yet one constant remains, no matter the type of dog, or the issue an owner is trying to resolve. You have to be able to be an effective communicator to be able to teach the dog – and their human – the best way forward.
As a dog trainer, saying ‘I don’t want to work with humans’ isn’t an option.