Five years ago today I euthanized my dog Pualani. Her story is heartbreaking and complicated and I still think of her, and what I could have done differently, everyday. It has also been a rough week for a couple of my Difficult Dog students and so, a rough week for me as well.
Sometimes our work as dog trainers takes us to a place we didn’t expect when we started this career. I started working with animals over 20 years ago at an animal shelter. At that time I had not heard the term Compassion Fatigue. I had certainly seen it with shelter workers but it wasn’t anything we talked about. Thankfully, in the last few years that has changed but I still see it mentioned mainly with veterinary staff and animal welfare workers and not with professional dog trainers. I believe the vast majority of people who work with animals tend to be highly sensitive and empathetic humans. We do this work because we have a natural “feeling for” animals. Most of us have loved animals deeply since childhood. We certainly don’t do this work for the money!
I went from the animal shelter to a veterinary hospital where I worked as a Licensed Veterinary Technician. One of the main reasons I left the shelter was because I simply could not take the overwhelming sadness anymore. Sure adoptions were great but the receiving end became unbearable for me. I wanted to work with animals who had homes and people who loved them and actually paid to help them get and stay well. I opened a dog day care and became a certified trainer for the same reason. These clients LOVE their dogs! All should be smooth sailing, right? Well…
Possibly because of my experience with my own dog Pua, I have become quite proficient in working with difficult/reactive/fearful dogs. They are my greatest population of clientele. I work with many clients now who are having an extremely hard time with their dogs. Some of these are really tough cases. These are good people; sensitive, stellar dog owners and I know exactly how they feel. Many times I sit with clients through heartache and tears. This was not what I was expecting when I got out of animal welfare and into the training community but it is still there, different, but present.
In animal welfare we expect such compassion for animals from the workers but compassion towards humans is sometimes lacking. I certainly didn’t have much compassion for those people relinquishing their animals. I was also young, stubborn and idealistic 20 years ago. It was always easy and natural for me to be compassionate towards animals but people, not so much. Working as a “dog” trainer has brought me to a higher level of compassion towards people and I believe, has made me a better human being because of it.
Working on these tougher cases with dogs and their humans can be a lot for a trainer to take emotionally. So, take care of yourselves – take a walk, do some yoga, have a glass of wine, vent to your colleagues/partner, watch the Real Housewives to unwind (OK, I do 4 out of those 5 things, not telling which) and give your clients permission to do the same.