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My Story: How I Got Here and Where I'm Going

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

A woman sitting on a field of grass and flowers with a dog lying next to her.
Telani and Kip enjoying a beautiful summer day.

In 2020, a survey of 2000 parents revealed that 74% of kids ask for a pet, with 78% of those kids asking for a dog. Kids asking their parents for a pet dog or puppy is kind of a cliché in the United States, and in my family, it was no different. My mom had resisted getting a puppy for a long time for the usual reasons: the kids wouldn’t take care of it, the dog would become the parents’ responsibility, it would make the house dirty, etc., but after a lot of begging and pleading and urging from my dad, she finally agreed to it when I was around 9 or 10 years old. My dad decided he wanted a “protection” breed, so we got a little Doberman puppy. Back then, it was common to keep your pet outside all the time, and since we lived in Hawaii, the weather was conducive to this. The puppy was only allowed in the house on rare occasions, and then spent the rest of her time outdoors in our backyard.

I think we kids sort of viewed her as an interactive toy, and that was about it. We played with her when we felt like it and walked her when we had nothing better to do. Ultimately, her existence was for our benefit alone, and we gave no thought to what we should be providing for her needs other than food and water and a place to live. We didn’t even take her for regular vet visits outside of her initial series of vaccinations, and I remember having to pick the ticks off her regularly, as they flourished in the area under her armpits. We did use a flea and tick collar, but it wasn’t enough to keep her tick-free. We didn’t know the first thing about truly caring for a dog or shaping a puppy into a well-behaved adult. Dog training was for “professional” or working dogs, and we did not deem it necessary for a family dog, which I suppose we assumed would come to us fully prepared to fit in instinctively. In a nutshell, we were clueless.

Fast forward to my early- to mid-20s. Once again, I had the urge to get a dog, and a coworker of mine said she had Rottweiler puppies for sale that she had bred with her own two AKC-registered dogs. Nothing had changed about my (lack of) knowledge about dogs since my childhood dog. I happened to be taking night classes at a community college at the time, and I casually mentioned my getting a puppy to a classmate. She told me that if I was going to get a puppy, to do it right: feed her a biologically appropriate raw diet and go to the dog trainer she recommended. I followed my classmate’s advice, which ultimately led me to where I am today.

Working with the right trainer from the get-go was absolutely pivotal to my getting started in the right direction and then being able to build upon that foundation as I progressed. What do I mean by the “right” trainer? This was a person who made continuing education a priority for herself. Instead of using an outdated, traditional approach to dog training (which relies upon compulsion and punishment to get a dog to obey), she had done the research and chosen to use force free/positive reinforcement methods to train dogs. It’s a method that has been proven, through peer-reviewed studies, to be the most effective type of training with the least amount of negative fallout for the emotional and physical wellbeing of the dogs.

My dog trainer/training mentor taught me to see my dog through a compassionate, empathetic lens and to see her as a sentient being with her own needs that it was my responsibility to meet. My dog and I were not meant to be in a one-sided relationship wherein she met all my needs–companionship, loyalty, unconditional love–which I benefited from when it was convenient for me; rather, we were a two-way partnership, where I listened to her needs and met them as well. To communicate with my dog, I had to learn her language. I had to watch her movements, her posture, the small changes in tension in her body that let me know what she was feeling. Through the guidance of my mentor, I learned that training is a science (and an art), and I was hooked. I devoured every book she recommended to me and threw myself into learning everything I could about caring for dogs, learning about both their physical and emotional needs.

I still made plenty of mistakes with my dog. Having a guide and mentor and educating myself was a process that took time, and my dog's growth didn't pause for me to learn all that I needed to (I'm still learning, by the way) to get through the rearing process unscathed. Not understanding the need to protect her young, developing body, I played with her too roughly as a puppy. I encouraged strenuous play that lasted for too long, though she was eager to participate. I ended up hurting her one day by catching her back legs on the bed and pulling her toward me. She yelped, but quickly recovered to play some more. It wasn't until years later on an x-ray that I saw the lasting damage I had caused. I took her to dog parks, I scolded her for trying to meet other dogs on leash (causing her to be a reactive dog whenever she saw another dog on leash), I never did master loose leash walking with her. While I understood the foundations of how learning theory and dog training worked, I had difficulty applying it to behaviors and situations in which I had no experience. I'm human. I yelled at her, I jerked her leash in frustration, I left her in the backyard to play when I couldn't handle the prospect of struggling yet again with her leash walking. Yep, I did all those things, even though I knew that they were unhelpful and potentially emotionally damaging. Fortunately for me, she was by nature a happy and resilient dog, and those mistakes I made weren't enough to leave a lasting impression on her; she mostly just ignored me and went on doing whatever it was she was going to do anyway, and I was very lucky to have this outcome.

I shadowed and assisted various force-free trainers to gain experience and then became a professionally certified trainer and behavior consultant. I worked with all kinds of dogs with all kinds of challenges, from puppies and basic manners to dogs with more difficult behavioral hurdles to overcome. I partnered with shelters to keep adopted dogs in their homes and to help fosters prepare their dogs for adoption. The work is immensely rewarding to me, not just from a perspective of helping dogs, but from the perspective of seeing my clients’ quality of life change. I have witnessed clients in despair, crying because they don’t want to give up their dogs but they’re at the end of their rope and don’t know what to do, become joyful clients with even stronger bonds with their dogs.

Of course, not every case has the outcome we hope for. I have had the heartbreaking task of supporting clients who must struggle with the decision to euthanize their dog for behavior that is dangerous to the lives of others and cannot be rehabilitated for any number of reasons, including genetics, past experiences, medical issues, or reasons we can’t always understand. And even through their sorrow, these clients are grateful to have someone who can objectively lay out the facts for them so they can make the decision for themselves as to the best course of action. Thankfully, these cases have been rare for me, and in every case, the client made the decision that took into account the quality of life of everyone involved, including and especially that of the dog’s.

Certainly, as a dog trainer, I train dogs. But more importantly, I educate people. While I love working with individual clients and guiding them to be successful with their dogs, I want to reach a wider audience. I want to empower people to train their dogs, not by giving them recipes, but by teaching them underlying principles that they can apply to any situation with their dogs. I’m not looking to turn dog owners into dog trainers (most people don’t get a dog to become a trainer, although most dog trainers started out as just owners, like me), but rather to give them tools that will last them a lifetime and give guidance and support when they run into obstacles. I want to give back to the community what my training mentor gave me: knowledge, empowerment, compassion, and the joy of building an unbreakable bond with my best friend, my companion, my heart, my dog.

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Sep 05, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great journey you are on, Telani! Thanks for sharing your heart with us and our dogs!

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