Confessions
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My First Chance as a Substitute Dog Trainer Brought on a Panic Attack

After being an assistant, I got an assignment to lead an agility class -- here are my survival tips.

 |  Oct 1st 2013  |   0 Contributions


When I was 17 my dream was to be a dog trainer ... and then I became homeless and the dream of working with dogs professionally was taken away. Since those days my life has taken many different turns; I work in nonprofit management, I’m a successful author, and yet, I always knew that something was missing. Last year, the day after Thanksgiving, I confessed to my partner that I really missed working with dogs and wanted to explore what it might mean to do so again.

I've written before about my experiences of being a homeless teenager and losing my dogs. At that time I had been pretty sure that the dog world was gone to me. I was so hurt by how I had been abandoned and rejected, and as the years went on and my life became filled with other activities, I thought of dog mostly nostalgically, but not as something that could actually be an integrated part of my life again. I thought everyone in my life would laugh at me when I told them about my now-not-secret dream of dog training, but I was surprised that all my friends seemed totally not shocked (did I mention I'm a total dog addict?) and also incredibly supportive.

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no one was surprised when last winter I said I want to start doing more work with dogs

I sprang into action finding ways to make working with dogs more of a focal point in my life. I became involved with the Do More With Your Dog Organization, becoming more focused on trick dog work, and eventually making the decision to move forward with their Trick Dog Trainer Certification process. I also knew that my skills were rusty, having not really worked with dogs other than my own since I was a teenager a decade back.

I began reaching out to NYC trainers and mining my network of dog-loving friends for connections they might have to good trainers in the area, who might be willing to give me a chance to assist in some classes. For me, this was definitely a case of networking paying off, because an acquaintance I have through the art world also happened to be an agility competitor and connected me with a friend of hers, a world renowned agility trainer who teaches pet-level classes in Manhattan.

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Our mutual friend introduced us, we clicked, and since January I've had an opportunity to basically do my favorite thing with dogs: assist weekly agility classes. It's been an incredible opportunity for me to learn from the best about dogs, training, and class management, and as an aside really opened up old wounds, but not in a bad or painful way, but rather as incredibly rejuvenating. I feel like the pain of losing my dogs and the dog world as a teenager has been cleaned out, and I've been given amazing new opportunities to grow.

I call it "recapturing stolen dreams." I've been assisting with these pet-level agility classes for almost a year and this week, the night before class, I got a text from the trainer I work with that she had a family medical issue come up and she wouldn't be able to be at class the next day. Could I be the substitute teacher for the two classes? I said yes, and then proceeded to have a panic attack.

This was so new to me, and so laden with old traumas, but I was able to get myself together and start planning. I spent the morning before class rabidly looking up samples of novice level course maps on the Internet and sketching possibilities into a notebook.

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messy sketch of the course i created for Wednesday's class

For training, planning is important, but just as important I've found is adaptability. This is a lesson I relearned on Wednesday night when I started to set up for class and realized that I would have to scrap the course designs I'd planned, because I had underestimated how narrow the running area was. (Did I mention we do agility in building in lower Manhattan?) To help, I scrawled “Have Fun” at the bottom of the page of notes I had (my own and the syllabus the actual trainer sent me) to remind myself not to take things to seriously.

The classes both went better than I had hoped for, and I even stopped sweating bullets about 15 minutes into the first class! Thankfully in my other career as an author I regularly talk to large crowds, so although this was totally different -- six people, six dogs on folding chairs -- I tried to channel some of that confidence into this new experience. I think that all of us (myself included) find it easy to believe that trainers –- or any experts for that matter -- have things all figured out. I hope that the students and dogs I substitute taught saw me as confident and in control. I wanted to give the dogs in the two classes a great night, and I'm pretty sure that everyone had fun!

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I try to have as much fun as my dogs do

Here are my top tips for folks thinking about wanting to train:

1. Find mentors - Find a mentor to apprentice under, and make sure it's someone you really click with. Research who she is, what sports she competes in (if that's important to you) and at what levels. Not every dog trainer is the same, and it's important to find someone to work with who is committed to helping you grow and learn, but who also is personally in line with the kind of trainer you want to be.

2. Consider education carefully - If you are thinking of exploring formal vocational training programs, do your research, especially if it’s a study-from-home program that costs a lot of money and makes big promises about how much money you will be making in return. There are a lot of scams looking to take your money. Be careful! 

3. Have a voracious appetite for knowledge - I read as much as I can about training and dog behavior. I read things by people I disagree with as much as I read philosophies that make sense to me, because I want to know as much as I can, so when I do engage in training debates I know where the other person is coming from.

4. Be adaptable - Things will come up, just like happened to me with the space not being the right size for the exercises that I'd planned. We're working with dogs and one of the best things about them is their spontaneity, the way that they can catch you off-guard and keep you on your toes. Training successfully means ditching the rigidity and being able to respond in the moment to what's happening, even if it means reworking lesson plans!

5. Have fun! - I think this is the most important tip. One of my favorite aspects of living and working with dogs is the way they are fun magnets and keep us from taking them (or ourselves) too seriously. Don't try to fight the fun, harness it, use it as much as possible when you're working with dogs.

Are you a trainer? Have you ever thought of becoming one? What has stood in the way of your dog-focused dreams? Have you overcome those obstacles? Tell me in the comments!

About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.

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