By Jennifer Burns M.A., CPDT-KA
In April 2017, I attended a session at Clicker Expo where Kathy Sdao, an Applied Animal Behaviorist, was exploring the topic of preventing burnout. And among other discussions, one part of her talk deeply resonated with me.
Kathy asked the audience to raise their hands if they knew someone in the industry who had either:
- Quit the industry, or
- Quit on life.
I wish I could say I was shocked to see the amount of hands that shot in the air, but I wasn’t.
Burnout is a slippery slope, which affects not only the person experiencing the emotional rollercoaster, many times, it also affects those around you. More than ever I feel a need to bring light to this dark topic in the form of awareness, and feel compelled to openly share about my personal experience with burnout.
What does burnout look like?
In May, I made a commitment to lovingly adhere to a burnout prevention plan, and little by little, my compliance faltered, and burnout became a reality once again. My heart was heavy. But the silver lining is that perhaps a dose of reality can bring this issue to the forefront. After all, we cannot help our clients if we cannot help ourselves.
I am a dog training nerd. I watch dog training videos and seminars for hours on end. I can train and observe behavior all day and be perfectly content. I truly love my job. I feel lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to interact with clients and their dogs, and to facilitate positive changes in the lives of dogs and humans. I am outgoing, talkative, and I enjoy being social. So why was my motivation waning? And how could I tell?
While it is different for every individual, my personal red flags of burnout were:
- I was relieved that I don’t have any new clients
- I prayed for cancellations
- I cancelled a lesson because I was simply exhausted
- I considered making a career change
- Training my own dog felt like a chore, rather than a joy
- All I wanted to do is sleep
The path to burnout.
As certified professional dog trainers, we are experts in learning theory who problem solve and figure out all the variables within the quadrant that are affecting a dog’s behavior. So why is it that so many of us struggle to apply that same learning theory to our own lives? All living creatures need positive reinforcement. We all need a way to fill our emotional bank accounts, to keep our cups full, or to keep our “candle lit”, as Sdao would say. I pursued dog training because I sought fulfillment. I love dogs, and I wanted to help as many dogs and people as I could. I didn’t account for the emotional toll, and quite literally, the price I would pay for putting a dog’s needs or a client’s needs above my own.
If our own reinforcement is solely based on perceived client success and positive feedback, we are inevitably setting ourselves up for failure. We can’t possibly fix every dog, every problem, or every emergency. Though we feel like superheroes when we achieve success, at the end of the day, we are human. And while perceived success when working with a puppy may be immediate and easy to attain, as aptitude increases, so does the complexity of the cases. In the beginning, these challenging cases can serve as brain fuel, but later, when a trainer’s caseload almost exclusively consists of complex behavior modification cases dependent on client compliance and environmental management, “success” may not be as cut and dry, and external reinforcement is intermittent at best. Therefore, relying on validation from our clients or professional success is far too great a burden to bear long term. In my naiveté, I was convinced that personal fulfillment came from just working with dogs without any attachment to outcome. In reality, I am completely attached to the outcome.
As if I needed more data to prove the power of intermittent reinforcement, I started gambling for that external validation from clients. I started returning phone calls, emails, and texts as soon as I could regardless of the time of day or circumstance. I became almost addicted to checking social media, emails, phones, etc. on the off chance that I would receive the positive feedback that I was seeking.
Often, I came up empty.
To counterbalance what I was experiencing, I started booking clients at their convenience rather than my availability, I started allowing last minute cancellations, week by week my time off became increasingly less to accommodate more clients, I started diving in to rescue organizations, and I added more to my plate rather than taking care of myself and my loved ones first, because I was desperately seeking that external validation. This is the beginning of burnout.
How to prevent burnout
To continue in this field long term, one cannot rely solely on external validation to keep one’s “candle lit,” and therefore self-care is absolutely imperative in the world of dog training. Think of the flight attendant’s speech on your last airplane ride: “Apply your oxygen mask first before helping others.” Burnout happens when you keep giving more of yourself, even when you are running on fumes. I am acutely aware of how burnout feels and the importance of self-care, and yet I am still learning how to master that enigma commonly known as “work-life balance.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced burnout, and I’ve learned invaluable lessons from each burnout along the way that can hopefully help others from walking down the path that I—and many other trainers—frequently follow. In order to prevent burnout and maintain a healthy work-life balance, I break self-care down in to the following categories, making sure that each category receives adequate attention and fuel:
Our bodies are the vehicles in which we share our gifts. Dog training can be physically taxing. If we are struggling physically, we cannot possibly do our job well. This is part of my typical self-care checklist:
- Sleep – I’m in bed by 8:30 pm each night, with all technology shut down by 6 pm. 8 hours of sleep—PERIOD.
- Eat healthy – Everyone’s style is different but I eat 5-6 small meals a day on the run, and I limit caffeine and sugar. It’s not rocket science, but it’s very important.
- Exercise – At least 3-4 times a week, so it becomes a habit. In fact, I intentionally block out slots in my calendar for fitness, and I do not schedule clients during those times.
What do you need to do to care for your mental state? It may mean turning off your phone at a certain time each night to clear your head. It may mean reading because that’s how you feed your mind, or it may mean not scheduling clients before a certain time of the day. This is a sample of how I take care of my brain:
- I rarely take a client before 10 am
- I never take an aggression case after 4:00 pm.
- I try to stay off my phone in the evenings, not just for my family, but for my sanity.
Whether you believe in something greater than yourself or not, this is about feeding your soul. It could be waking up with a grateful heart, prayer, watching the sun rise, watching your dog swim in a lake, or meditating. The choice is yours but your soul is precious, so be kind to it.
What does your heart need to feel whole and fulfilled? That’s the bottom line. I enjoy drinking coffee in the morning and watching the sunrise with my significant other. That quality time is where I ground myself emotionally, and my cup is filled with love and connection for the day.
Write a list of what is important to you in your life, and prioritize accordingly. You may do this every week, or you may do this twice a year—as fluid beings, life is always changing. Make sure your actions and life reflect your priorities and your values. I look at my calendar each Sunday to ensure my week encompasses all I’m discussing here.
Make a schedule and stick to it.
As dog trainers, many of our schedules vary weekly, and I find this easier said than done. One year ago, I was seeing anywhere from 4-6 clients in a day, 7 days a week. The equivalent of working 12-14 hour days, not including follow up emails and text messages. I had no social life, and was often relieved when clients cancelled. That’s a one-way ticket to burnout. My current schedule looks a bit different: I have allotted time from 10-4 to see clients, and I do not return emails or text messages after 6:00pm.
Take time off
I used to think that only having one client in a day could constitute a day off, and I have often struggled with this in the past. I have seen countless dog trainers, myself included; go months without even a day off. Do yourself and your clients a favor, and take time off regularly. Just to be clear, time off should be void of any client contact.
Develop healthy boundaries
Brene Brown, author, researcher and my personal hero talks about boundaries at length in her research. I’ve learned that having boundaries with clients doesn’t mean that I don’t care about their emergency, but rather, it allows me to have more empathy for them while staying true and authentic to myself and to my profession. When I respond to every emergency email/text at 8pm or even 10pm, I end up in a downward spiral of emotional chaos, and lose the ability to be truly supportive and helpful in my role as a professional dog trainer. This is often where compassion fatigue originates, due to a lack of healthy boundaries. We are all sensitive souls, and at a certain point, there is only so much we can do. Know your role. While we often wear multiple hats, we cannot possibly stay rational and neutral when we are in the emotional trenches with our clients.
Cultivate more joy in your life
Burnout is a slippery slope, and you often don’t even realize you’re on that slope until you’re in the midst of it. Joy isn’t the absence of a ringing phone or staring blankly at the television, joy is something that makes your heart sing. I love horses. I knew almost nothing about them until a couple of years ago, when I started volunteering for an equine therapy program. I love watching horses, riding horses, and learning about horse behavior. Taking a break from work and life, and being with horses reminds me of my love of animals and behavior. I come back to my clients feeling refreshed, energized, and more grateful that I am able to live my dream as a professional dog trainer. Find what that joy looks like for you, and do more of it.
You are enough
At the end of the day, whether your clients have had success or not, you are enough. I know that I look at every dog as an individual, and while I want to help every dog reach their full potential, each dog is inherently “enough” with or without training. I love when clients unconditionally love and accept their dogs. Our inherent value is not based on our success or failures, how much money we make, or how many dogs we have rehabilitated. The sooner we can see ourselves through the unconditionally loving and accepting eyes of our own dogs and the dogs we train, the sooner we can give ourselves the grace and space to accept and love ourselves at the deepest level while avoiding burnout.
This may seem pretty intense and deep for an article on burnout, but if you were in a room of 100 animal trainers, and even 5 people (let alone the reality of 10-15) raised their hand indicating that they knew someone who has “quit on life”, then this is a topic that demands an intense look at how we value ourselves and our own inherent worth. We all have an invaluable skill set as dog trainers with incredible gifts to offer, but, if we can’t provide enough oxygen to keep our own candle burning, there is no way that we can truly be in service to the dogs or the people that we strive to help every day.
Call to action
I urge anyone who is currently working in the animal care industry to take an in-depth inventory of your current life. Ask yourself, “Where would you like to cultivate more balance, more joy, and more fulfillment? What would your ideal life look like?” Identify your needs, and then take the appropriate action steps to achieve your needs. Life is precious and short. We truly cannot afford to put ourselves last.
Jennifer Burns is the owner of Conscious Dog Training in Round Rock, TX. She is a CPDT-KA, AKC CGC evaluator, and a professional member of the APDT. In addition to a Masters Degree in Psychology, she also has over 13 years of rewards based dog training experience. Jennifer is an avid clicker trainer that specializes in puppies, therapy dogs, and behavior modification.