As an African American, I’ve found the last few months difficult. I have explored different aspects of my personal and professional life and thought about the various trips that have brought me to where I am today.
I’m a dog trainer – a professional in an industry with few black colleagues. This isn’t the first time I’ve wondered why there are so few people of color in my profession, but it may be the most powerful time to discuss it in hopes of increasing the diversity of a long-time extremely white occupation the USA
How I got here
In 1985 I went to my first class in dog obedience with Casey, my new Irish Setter puppy. The class was run by the local kennel club and held at a community center in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where my husband of the US Navy was stationed.
As the only African American in the class, I stood out, but that was none of my business. As a child I went to mostly white schools and in many neighborhoods I lived with a white majority. I was used to being one of the few black people in many situations! I also enjoyed what I learned in class so much that after just a few sessions I decided to acquire obedience titles with Casey and become an obedience teacher myself.
The experienced and much older ladies of the kennel club recognized my enthusiasm and my talent for training and took me under their wing, looked after me and welcomed me into their inner circle. Since then, I’ve been immersed in the world of dog training and behavior.
In the minority
I was incredibly lucky to have so much support from my fellow dog trainers, especially since I was often the only African American wherever I was in the canine world, whether I was taking part in local exterior dog shows, obedience tests, or agility tests. I see more colored people in the canine world today, but at most local events, out of the dozen that are in attendance, you can count black people on one hand or maybe two.
I feel confident when competing against my dogs someone in a dog show. But over the years I have felt the least comfortable among my fellow dog trainers at professional dog training conferences, workshops, and seminars. Why is this? I’ve thought about it a lot.
For one thing, I stand out even more at these educational meetings than at dog shows. The dog training profession is strikingly white and consists largely of white middle and upper class women. This is especially This applies to the subgroup of trainers who employ positive reinforcement and science-based training.
But it’s more than just being a minority. Over the years I have attended many dog training conferences and events. Although I cannot say that I experienced overt racism or bigotry, I often felt reduced and invisible. Worse still, I was occasionally mistaken for “help” in the conference hotels hosting the events.
I don’t know how to explain this other than saying that dog trainers are not always perceived as the most inclusive people who embrace and are open to different points of view and perspectives. There is a joke about dog trainers that goes, “If you put two dog trainers in one room, what would they just agree on?” That the third dog trainer is wrong! “The profession is rich in contrasting schools of thought and method with exclusive cliques and very strong lines in the sand.
Most of the people who know me know that I go to the beat of my own drummer and generally don’t disturb other people’s opinions. But I have to admit that even for me, a middle-class, suburban black woman raised and trained among whites, stepping out of the comfort zone of my own little training community into the big one has been daunting at times. Think how difficult it might be for newcomers to get into the dog training profession, especially if they don’t see anyone at the table who looks like them.
It wasn’t until I became a minor celebrity on the reality TV show “Greatest American Dog” in 2008 that other trainers noticed and recognized me and spoke to me at events. At this point, dog training had never been the focus of a prime-time television show, and most trainers had seen at least one episode. It seemed like the show was a safe topic as a starting point for conversation. After the show ended, I met and became friends with many other trainers.
FRAUGHT RELATIONS BETWEEN DOGS AND AFRICAN AMERICANS
Historically, the relationship between black Americans and dogs is very different from that of white Americans. Our relationship with dogs has been complicated and depraved, and affected by violence, fear and intimidation.
As a very young kid in the 1960s, I regularly saw images on the nightly news of blacks being knocked down with police fire hoses and police batons, accompanied by toothless and falling German Shepherds – dogs that were sometimes let loose to terrorize and attack civil rights activists. These pictures haunt me to this day.
However, we can go back further. Dogs have been an essential tool in implementing and managing the establishment of slavery in this country, from their presence and use on slave ships during the middle passage, to the banks and plantations where dogs were used and bred and trained as tools of intimidation in pursuits , attack and even kill runaway slaves.
These experiences have undoubtedly created a cross-generational fear and avoidance of dogs in many black families. Even within my own family, I have relatives with such a real and present fear of dogs that they refuse to visit my home (I’ve never had less than two dogs, and today I have five: two Dalmatians, one Pharaoh dog, a long-haired Chihuahua and a Yorkie).
In poor areas of many cities, dogs often play a role as household protection Crime. In areas where such dogs are common, children are consistently warned not to approach dogs – any Dogs.
With all of this in mind, it makes sense that it has been a slightly longer and more difficult journey for dogs to be accepted and viewed as viable and close members of African American families.
INCREASING THE VISIBILITY OF BLACK TRAINERS
I often ask other trainers how they got into dog training. For many, it was not desirable to enter the profession until (as in my own experience) they attended a dog training class with their own dog or had the opportunity to hire a professional dog trainer to help them with their dog.
For this reason, I would like to suggest that the more trainers out there who are colored people, the more colored people see that dog training could be a good career choice for them! I also suspect that a lot more black and tan people would be using a professional dog trainer if there were more black and tan dog trainers!
As a dog trainer, what can I do to make my job more inclusive and diverse? I have a couple of ideas:
1. Additional efforts must be made to attract newcomers from different populations. That means looking for and recruiting customers, employees, interns and students of various races, cultures and nationalities.
2. We have to create and promote an environment that encourages and welcomes anyone. Learning about cultural differences so we can better understand and communicate with racial and cultural minorities is a good start.
3. I encourage all trainers to review their own training programs and look for possible barriers to diversity in terms of marketing and public relations, people, communication style, and training materials. This includes recognizing possible prejudices and / or lack of sensitivity in ourselves and others around us and taking the smallest steps to make it better. In order to change you have to want to change.
4th Trainers should apply the same principles and speak as openly about our commitment to humane, fair and compassionate dealings with others as we do for dogs.
5. Let us know that you are passionate about combating racism, discrimination and bigotry, both in our industry and in society at large. Our community reflects society as a whole and is no exception.
My hat will always be to the “ladies of the club” who drew me into dog training 35 years ago. In all fairness, they were a rugged old bunch of lumbering women (with dogs and people), rough around the edges, and definitely anchored in old-fashioned dog training methods.
In terms of inclusivity, however, these women were path ahead of their time. They greeted me with open arms when they didn’t have to. If it hadn’t been for them, I might have missed one of my greatest passions in life. Let’s work together to make sure other dog lovers who look like me don’t miss out on theirs.
Canine Education Specialist, Canine Behavioral Advisor, and Trainer Laurie C. Williams owns the Pup’N Iron Canine Fitness and Learning Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia.