Friday, November 21, 2008

The Unbearable Cuteness of Being a Dog Trainer

Admit it. This is what you think we do all day.

One thing about working as a dog trainer -- cocktail party conversation.

Tell the random stranger at the awards banquet that you are an import manager or mechanical engineer, and usually not much goes forward from that.

Tell him you are a dermatologist or a dog trainer, and be prepared to hear his stories, endure his folklore, respond to a barrage of questions (most of which are more appropriately handled by a veterinarian -- and that goes for both dermatologists and dog trainers), and often have to deflect a demand for a free diagnosis of whatever is vaguely troubling him -- which you know he will ignore, because hey, what do you know?

There are people -- sometimes I think, everybody -- who would much rather bitch about their problems than solve them. Their mating call is "Yeah, but." I try to avoid the mistake of offering solutions in these cases, but still find myself sucked in when I am unwary. The correct response is to offer a business card and turn the conversation to something less incendiary, say, that jazzy new abortion clinic on the corner, or one's recent conversion to Mormonism.

Still, I suppose that's better than the engineer's wife who asked what I did for a living, and when I told her, responded with an enthusiastic "How cute!"

It would not occur to me to characterize anyone else's profession as "cute." I mean, assuming she is not a teddy bear stylist or greeting-card kitten photographer, say. And I still wouldn't say it to her face. Who can tell when it's been a bad day on the kitten ranch? Kitten bites get infected! Maybe the teddy bear boutique was besieged by crazed plushies in rut this week. One never knows.

I didn't ask Mrs. Cute what she did. It was apparent that the answer was not "diplomatic attache to Yemen," and was quite likely "nothing much."

Anyway, at the time I was carrying a client load that included some high-maintenance humans and a couple of fairly committed trainer-eating dogs. I'm sure Mrs. Cute did not conjure a 90-pound resource-guarding Weimaraner coming for my face when she pronounced on the nature of my career.

But it is little wonder that people have only the vaguest notion of what I do. Few people bother to train their own animals, and popular culture has provided very few, and very weird, images of what a dog trainer does at work.

The most common archetype is Barbara Woodhouse -- crazy as a sack of squirrels at best, and enough to scare the bejimmies out of most people contemplating going to a group class. If you are under 30, you may think you have never heard of this lady. Fear not; you've seen the parody a jillion times. It will never die.

Cesar Millan's television show comes close to a realistic portrayal of the kind of private counseling and one-on-one work that has been my kibble-and-butter for fourteen years. Cesar's clients are richer and on average loopier than mine. California, ya know. I do not look so good in a shortie wetsuit. I am not so willing as Cesar to take a bite -- don't know anyone else who is, actually. But I've met him, and he still had all his fingers. Neither of us typically solve all your dog problems in a 12-minute segment.

That fake dominatrix from England -- actress, not dog trainer. She's got the costume (for dominatrix, not dog trainer -- I mean, stilettos? Really?) but not the chops or attitude (mere bitchiness is not authority, Honey), and certainly not the knowledge. Anyway, a B&D mistress gets paid a lot more per hour, and who am I to say she hasn't earned it?

Possibly the best capture of the flavor and feel of working as a private dog trainer that I have ever seen in the "media" is in this short work of science fiction.

Fifteen years of bitching about work, and who knew? My husband actually heard something. It wasn't all "Blah blah blah KEN."


  1. "House Trainer" is a great story.

    I was wondering what your opinion of Cesar Milan was. I don't watch his show but I read his book from the library, and thought it had some really useful stuff.


  2. "The most common archetype is Barbara Woodhouse -- crazy as a sack of squirrels at best,"

    Hey now. I've known sacks of squirrels. Sacks of squirrels have been my friends. And Barbara Woodhouse is no sack of squirrels.

  3. Love the story -- want to turn in my truck for a bubble!


  4. Awesome article. I get the same thing: when I mention I'm a trainer, it's always "Have I got a case for you!"

    It's kind of like answering that college question of "What are you majoring in?" Of course I'm a psych major, and *gasp* that automatically means I'm analyzing everyone and everything around me! What do I think of this person, or what might be wrong with my friend's cousin? Hello, I think YOU'RE what's wrong, because you're making the big deal over the fact that you don't even know I'm not going into CLINICAL! (Holy wow, does that even make sense?)

    Oh, and by the way...I'm in my mid-20s and Barbara Woodhouse was one of the first people I read about when I was learning about training. Good woman, had the right idea, but seemed to take things a bit off the deep end in a way. Then again, it's the same way with many trainers out there: Koehler definitely had some things going for him, not so much with other things. Karen Pryor has some things right as well, but seems to have the wrong ideas about other things. No one's perfect, and we can ALL stand to learn from each other, whether we're "old-school," "balanced-type," or "positive-only." No one type of trainer is 100% right with every single dog out there, and that's where I find a lot of arguments starting.

    Anyway, off my soapbox now...

  5. When I was studying political philosophy, and found myself at a social function outside of academic circles, 'twas the same:

    "So what do you think of Our Mayor, huh? Is he going to win the next election? Are you running for office when you graduate? You gonna be the first woman President?"

    (Sound of graduate student's head rhythmically striking drywall ...)

    And I learned to never let out that I was teaching a course on the US Constitution -- this seemed to be the cue for strangers to ask for legal advice. Because a really close reading of the Anti-Federalist handbills is going to give me great insight into your fence fight with your next-door neighbor, right? Why pay a qualified attorney who has been admitted to the bar?

    As for Woodhouse, if you have only read her books, you miss out on the deep loopiness of her persona. See if you can find some old videos through the public library system. She had a BBC show that was aired here on PBS in the 80's. She usually had great timing and chops with dogs, but left the human students flitterpated and degraded. Many older people would not consider a group obedience class because they think (consciously or implicitly) it will come with public humiliation such as they saw on that show, or has trickled out into the popular culture.

    I'm fairly tough with my students and urge them to do the best for their dogs, but mocking and scolding them for their best efforts doesn't strike me as the best pedagogic approach.

  6. It's been a while since I've watched her classes (we have some of her videos at the library in my hometown 2 hours away), but IIRC she did tend to be kind of sharp. The dogs she worked with didn't seem to reflect that though, but like I said, it's been a while.

    Her "Down-stay" hand signals always confused me, that I remember well...looked like she was throwing a baseball!


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