Career advice

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 7/1/07
By: Gail T. Fisher

Having a weekly column means always being on the look-out for interesting topics, and noting something that might be appropriate. When the same question comes up three times in one week in three different contexts, it feels as if the Universe is tugging on my sleeve with a subject for this week’s column. Not being one to ignore a sleeve tug . . .

The first occasion was during our five-day Instructor Training Course for people wanting to learn dog training with an eye toward becoming class instructors or professional trainers. As with past sessions, this latest course was made up of talented, bright and eager students who made the five days fly by, and were a pleasure to teach. Of course one of the topics of the session was continuing education and what to do next.

The second event occurred during the course, as I was preparing for the next day’s session, when one of our employees came by my office to ask if he could make an appointment to talk to me sometime. No time like the present, we sat down together right then. This eager young man just graduated high school. He has been working at All Dogs Gym for several years after school and during vacations and wanted some career advice, which I was happy to give him.

The third occurrence took place at the National Association of Agricultural Educators Six-State Conference held last week at the Hilton Garden Inn in Portsmouth. I was pleased to be invited to give a presentation at this conference, where one of the high school teachers in attendance asked me what he might advise a student who wants to become a dog trainer, behaviorist, or have a career in dogs.

With so much focus on seeking education for a career as a trainer, this must be the topic du jour (or du semaine), starting with: Get an education. For someone fresh out of high school my bias, being a New Hampshirite, is toward the University of NH, where the Thompson School offers a comprehensive program leading to an Associate or Bachelor Degree in Animal Science. Coursework includes anatomy, physiology, nutrition, health, behavior, first aid, plus career-oriented electives such as kennel management, grooming, veterinary technician, preveterinary coursework and the like.

Just as important as a classroom education is hands-on experience working with animals (always on the lookout for mentors): at a kennel or doggie daycare, as our young employee has for several years, in a veterinary practice, volunteer at a shelter, help out assisting a trainer in classes. In other words, seek experience anywhere and everywhere possible.

I started my own career by volunteering to work in a boarding and show kennel. I had no demonstrable skills, so I offered to work for nothing to prove my worth – and was soon earning a (far-from-living) wage. At the same time, I volunteered to help the trainer from whom I was taking classes, demonstrating my eagerness to learn, so she took me under her wing. I set up chairs, swept the floor after class, and helped in any way I could, just to be there to learn from her and repay her generous mentoring.

These days, unlike when I got started in dog training, there are a wide-variety of ever-growing opportunities to learn about dogs, dog training and other pet-related professions at educational seminars, from on-line courses (research carefully; caveat emptor), technical colleges, two- and four-year schools, and specialized, targeted post-secondary courses such as the ones that we offer for pet groomers and dog trainers (again, research carefully).

When exploring your options, ask questions, including learning the background and philosophy of the teacher or trainer, what employment opportunities may be available after you complete the program, and what other career opportunities might be available for someone with the credentials you seek.

Finally, be realistic. In a job interview years ago, when we asked an applicant why she wanted to work with dogs she replied, “I just love the smell of puppy breath.” While a career working with animals can be tremendously rewarding and enjoyable, the work is physical, it’s not always fun, it is not a high paying field, there are plenty of “other” smells . . . and rarely, if ever, do you have time to stop and smell the puppy breath.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2007. All rights reserved.
For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.