That time I almost didn’t but I’m glad I did: my continuing education experiences as a professional dog trainer and shelter worker

Six days. Two workshops. Glorious amounts of wisdom shared. Mind blown.

That pretty much sums up how I’m feeling as I curl up into my Marriott hotel room tonight. I’m smiling as I recover from the rollercoaster of emotions that I go through at every conference, workshop or class I attend. I smile because I know. I am one of the lucky ones. Who after more than 30 years of soul searching, gets to do what I love and love what I do.

Two years ago I made the decision to become a professional animal trainer. I’d been working in shelters and with animals for more than a decade, but had always been pressured to find a “more professional” career. Fast forward to today, and I’m firmly on the path that was always meant for me.

The journey is as exhausting as it is invigorating. Tonight, for instance, my thoughts are buzzing like little freight trains of information from my latest continuing education experience.

Two nights ago, I arrived in Jersey for Michael Shikashio‘s & Trish McMillan Loehr‘s Working with Aggressive Dogs Workshop. I’m happy to say that I’m taking home some practical defensive handling techniques to share with my inner circles. But the topics that stand out tonight are not so dog-focused.

The last 24 hours leading up to my flight here, I seriously considered bailing. I was tired, per usual. But mostly, I was anxious. I had this moderately reasonable fear that while at the workshop I would either A) run into a former colleague turned bully (or one of her friends) or B) meet yet another trainer that manages to chip away at my confidence. I call these reasonable fears because they’re based on past experiences that were very real. But luckily, these past experiences happen to be the exception not the rule.

Despite my anxiety, I boarded my flight. It turned out, as it most often does, that no one at this workshop was out to get me (or out to get anyone else). Instead, in attendance were some genuinely intriguing, kind-hearted, and generous people. Every body there was in some shape or form a “dog person.” Whether they called themselves trainers, shelter workers, dog parents, or something else. And what I love about being in a crowd of dog people is that I can always find a mix of passion, reason, goodwill, and creativity. With, of course, a dash of crazy.

Conferences and workshops can be overwhelming for me because I struggle with anxiety. At the same time, I enjoy the challenge of facing my largely social-based fears. One of the tactics that helps me cope in social settings is focusing on the people around me. By taking a genuine interest in others, my anxious thoughts are forced to take a backseat while I learn something new (and sometimes in the process, make a new friend!).

This workshop was no different because there were a lot of people different from me, which meant a lot of opportunity to learn! I connected with one girl over her “Do No Harm” Victoria Stilwell Brand shirt, and engaged in some emotionally-charged debates with others over animal sheltering. During the hands-on activities, I got to practice coaching others kindly. And likewise got coached by others in what I was doing with my body and what I could do differently.

Safe to say there were plenty of aha!-moments. Sometimes it was the confirmation that something I have been doing at work is indeed right! And other times, it was the realization that I still have a lot to work on. <sigh> But the most exciting moments were when something new-to-me “clicked” into the framework of my current role. That moment when I could see exactly how this was applicable to my shelter, my animals, and my people.

Occasionally, there were some “off” moments, too. You know, those times when two people butt heads in a very public way. Or when someone asked a question that felt way out of left field. Or, for me, the several times I tended to get ahead of myself by asking questions that were more advanced than the scope of the workshop. (Yes, I’m always THAT person in every class).

All that to say that I am completely blown away. I’m thrilled with the education I get to take with me and apply in my everyday work. I’m excited about staying in touch with some of the talented people I met. And most of all, I’m grateful. Grateful beyond words. That I have the support systems to push through my fears, so that I can show up well to experiences like this. Experiences that better equip me to improve the lives of animals and the people that love them.

So, my takeaways from this workshop (aside from all the dog-related takeaways I’m not mentioning in this post) are:

  1. Don’t let one bad experience keep you from a thousand positive ones
  2. Take genuine interest in others because it’s good for you and good for the world
  3. Always remember that you don’t know it all
  4. Stay humble and stay hungry for knowledge
  5. And when it comes to being a professional dog trainer, “Stay. In. Your. Lane.”

Ok, maybe that last one was dog-related. But what can I say? My life revolves around dogs.

Stay tuned for reflections from my Maddie’s Fund Foster Dog Apprenticeship! Spoiler alert: I left bursting with inspiration.

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