Episode 19 – Crystal Dunn

Crystal Dunn

Crystal Dunn

Crystal Dunn has worn a lot of hats in the training world. She started out as a volunteer in 2005, training dogs in shelters, and left the tech world to train dogs full time in 2006. For ten years she owned her own company, specializing in in-home training, working with her team on thousands of cases ranging from puppy obedience to serious aggression. Other projects include training performance dogs for dog toymakers, consulting on safety and best practices for an array of dog-related businesses, and managing a large scale pet resort and training facility. All the while, she has consistently kept one foot in the rescue world, working with numerous shelters and rescues to rehabilitate dogs, offering low-cost training opportunities to the public, and even training an all pit bull therapy dog team. It may sound scattered, but at the core of all of her endeavors is a common theme: educating people and enriching the lives of dogs. Currently, she writes full time for dog and non-dog related businesses and serves as VP for the nonprofit Love-A-Bull. She also hosts the podcast, Far Fetched, that focuses on debunking common myths and misconceptions about dogs.

Far Fetched Podcast: https://www.farfetchedpodcast.com

Love-A-Bull: http://love-a-bull.org

“Welcome to the Animal Trainers podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing trainers and behaviorists who are helping animals. This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free platform designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only place that automates local rides and transports. Now, on with our show.

 Crystal Dunn has worn a lot of hats in the training world. She started out as a volunteer in 2005, training dogs in shelters and left the tech world to train dogs full time in 2006. For 10 years, she owned her own company, specializing in home training and working with her team on thousands of cases ranging from puppy obedience to serious aggression. Other projects include training performance dogs for dog toymakers, consulting on safety and best practices for an array of dog-related businesses, and managing a large scale pet resort and training facility. All the while, she has consistently kept one foot in the rescue world, working with numerous shelters and rescues to rehabilitate dogs, offering low-cost training opportunities to the public and even training and all pit bull therapy dog team. It may sound scattered, but at the core of all of her endeavors is a common theme. Educating people and enriching the lives of dogs. Currently, she writes full time for a dog and non-dog related businesses and serves as a VP for a nonprofit Love-A-Bull. She also hosts the podcast, Far Fetched, that focuses on debunking common myths and misconceptions about dogs.

 Hey, Crystal, welcome to the show. Hi. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m really excited to have you. I want to learn more about who you are and what you’re doing in this training world. Why don’t you kick us off and tell us a little bit about your background and your journey to where you are today? So I’ve been training dogs for about 15 years now, or going on 15 and I started out in Houston. I started out actually in a big box store, just taking a training position for, you know, just a big pet supply provider. And, you know, one of those typical commonplace dog trainer positions just to see if I like it. I was first in the tech industry, and I kind of came to a point where I really needed a change in my life and kind of hit rock bottom when I was laid off from a job that I had for quite a few years before that. And found another job and that depression had already kind of sunk in with all that time I had to think about how unhappy I was.

 And so  I moved into a new position and lasted about three months before I quit that and I took this just random job that I found on the Internet. And I still remember interviewing for that job and the guy said, You know, I can’t meet your salary requirements? And I said, Yeah, I’m aware of that. And then the first paycheck I ever got, I cried, but it was worth it, you know. It was funny. It was a mix of tears of joy and tears of happiness, and that was kind of my foray into the training world. Before that, I had volunteered in shelters for a while, so it kind of got my feet wet with training that way. And I had bought a house and I just adopted a dog and, you know, that kind of became my jam while I was out of work, is spending time with her. And so, I kind of got into it that way and from there just kind of took off. I did that for a couple of years and I did training, between 15 and 18 training classes a week. So you know, props to anybody who does that job, too, because the training field doesn’t get a lot of respect. But I got to say that I cannot imagine a lot of other environments, where I could have learned as much in that amount of time. I mean, in two years, I’ve probably trained thousands of dogs. And granted, it was mostly obedience and very little more advanced behavior type training. But it certainly prepared me really well to go into the more complicated stuff. 

So, I left that, and I started doing more private training, so I could grasp a better understanding of more complex behavioral issues. I started taking cases in people’s homes and then eventually started my own business, and I ran that business, leaps, and bounds for 10 years and restarted in Austin. And I just kind of kept my foot in the rescue world the entire time. So, kind of a long history, I guess, in training with varying levels, degrees of intensity. It’s been an interesting road to go down. I bet

 So, I’ve never really had anybody on the show who really started in a big box environment with all of those classes per week. And so, as somebody who was brand new to that industry, what was the biggest challenge? Was it juggling 15 to 18 classes, or was it really getting up to speed in how to do the training? What was the biggest challenge there? You know, I was really lucky in that I had a couple of teachers, who had actually been trainers for a long time before that. One of them was a retiree who literally taught at that store for fun. We’re still friends to this day. Her name’s Ginger. Shout out to her. She was amazing, and she really kind of showed me the ropes and got me going. I think the biggest challenge about working in that environment is the variety that you get and of course, the frequency with which you have to do it. I mean, there were Sundays where I trained 4 or 5 classes back to back. And if you’ve ever trained obedience classes, they’re exhausting. By the end of those days, my brain would just be putty.

 But I would say overall, it was pretty straightforward and kind of put me through the paces as far as earning my credentials as an instructor. My obedient skills were very refined coming out of the class. Everything teacup Chihuahuas, to Great Danes and Wolfhounds that I mean, you name it every single breed of dog and mix a dog you can imagine. Part of that was spent near Greens Point in Houston. So, you know, in that area, there’s a lot of pit bulls and stuff, which was kind of my foray into, like getting to know pit bulls. And I think that the hardest thing about it was honestly, just not doubting myself so much, coming out of it because I didn’t feel like that particular role, it wasn’t a very respected role as a trainer to come out of. And I looked at other schools and stuff and considered going through training courses that were more formalized. And then started going through materials and everything and realized, You know, with all the research, everything in the study that I did on my own, as well as all the things that these wonderful trainers that taught me, that I really just needed to keep reading and researching on my own. Eventually got credentials and everything. But yeah, I think it’s just, there’s a big lack of respect that goes with that role. And even within those stores, towards those trainers, there’s a lot of lack of respect.

 So then you said you went into the private training. You also mentioned you did some shelter work as well. So talk to me a little bit about what that transition looks like for you and some of the major differences. And how that’s kind of helped hone your training method, if you will. Yeah, so when I started my own business, I wanted to really specialize in helping families with their dogs and really hone in on the family dynamics and resolving issues in the home. And I felt very limited when I trained obedience classes, stuff as to what I could really do. It’s really hard sometimes to identify the problems from the classroom environment. And so when I started my own business, I was getting to go into people’s homes more and everything. But I also worked a lot with local rescues, and I just kind of had one foot in that world just because I felt like it really grounded me. And sometimes when you work with animals, especially in training, you’re kind of torn between wanting to do good and wanting to make a living. And I was trying to find my balance there, as to how can I help dogs that are really, genuinely in need, and educate people, while still paying my bills? And so I just kind of worked with both. I had clients that were obviously paying clients. But then I had rescues that I worked with, specifically with their dogs, and I’d go into the home, whether the dog was in a foster home or in a freshly homed home, and that, honestly, became a large part of my client base too. A large part of the reason why my business took off. And, you know, within the first 2 months I was booked up. Which was a really great feeling but also extremely scary, in a weird way because I was, you know, seeing four and five, sometimes even six clients in a day. That was in 4, 5 or 6 homes in a day and, you know, learning how to keep all that straight and everything too, which was an interesting challenge. A good challenge to have if you’re a dog trainer, for sure.

 Yeah, definitely for sure. Especially since starting your own business is stressful enough, right? And so then you have the clients that come with you, and now you have a good but different problem that you’re trying to balance. But I love the transition and the story in that and what I really like and I want to dive into a little bit more is the impact that the rescue world has on you. And why is that so important? Right. You’d mention that it grounds you and so tell me a little bit about training and rescues and your relationship with them and what that looked like when you had your business? I think the thing that really drove me to training to begin with was the fact that I had volunteered in shelters and I had such a hard time being in shelters. I’d put my time in and I’d go and work with dogs and even just transport dogs to and from adoption sites and clean kennels and you name it, you know. And no matter what I was doing, I felt really good about it. 

But I also felt emotionally destroyed at the end of those days, to the point where it was legitimately depressing me. And I knew that either I was gonna toughen up and kind of become jaded about the whole thing or I was going to have to figure out a different way to be helpful. And so I kind of started thinking about the root problem. Why were all those dogs in those shelters to start with? You know, and that’s there are various reasons for that. But one of the big ones is just general ignorance. You know, people over breed dogs. They mistreat dogs, they neglect dogs, they don’t learn about dogs. And yet they are this huge fixture in our lives. I’m a firm believer that dogs don’t get the credit that they deserve as far as how much influence they have on our world. And it’s commonplace to have one, but it’s not necessarily commonplace to have one that’s been trained, and I think that there’s a huge disconnect there, that causes a lot of problems. And I was walking into those shelters every day and I was seeing that and it was tearing me up, and I thought there’s got to be something I could do about this. But if I can’t emotionally stay here, it seemed the only option would be okay, I need to do something in the education room. 

So that really drove me towards training. And it’s kind of always been at the core of everything that I’ve done. From just taking that Joe job really, technically as a trainer, to starting my own business and definitely graduating in that business, to taking some pretty serious cases that were dogs that needed full-on rehabilitation. That were, you know, known to be aggressive towards humans, towards other dogs. You know, issues that a lot of other trainers wouldn’t touch. And all because I was just super frustrated with people, not really knowing, necessarily. And it’s not always their fault either. You know, we were kind of a product of where we come from and I had to work really hard to learn about dogs. And I thought I needed to share some of that because they are a big deal. They’re a big part of our lives.

 How does that play into how you work with your clients when you were training? How do you approach that with your clients and their dogs? I came up at an interesting time because it was right as the Dog Whisperer and stuff were huge. Just as seen on TV, dog training, in general, was really popular at the time. So a lot of the houses that I went into people really go, So you’re like, you know, like how we see on TV? Sort of but without the editing. So brace yourself. It’s going to take longer than 30 minutes. But yeah, there was this unusual openness to what I wanted to do that was very well timed when I started doing it, so I felt really lucky. And then I got to do that back when people were really fixating on dog training, becoming normalized in general. I think the people who came before me were working a lot more uphill, in that sense than I was, and I really was able to kind of get on that train. But, you know, with the methodologies that I found more useful. 

So, yeah, going into clients’ homes and stuff, the first thing that they would often say is, Man, OK, I know it’s me.. I know it’s my fault. It’s that they were already primed for it. And I’m like, Well, it’s not necessarily all you, you know, it’s always nature versus nurture and, you know, let’s look at all the factors. And it’s funny sometimes we’re backing out of that like, Okay, well, slow down. It’s not all you. We got it,  your dog is an individual. So it was really interesting. I had some really wonderful people that I’ve gotten to meet over the years. One of the things that I really love about working in the dog world is that bad people are really scarce, in the dog world. You know you don’t really, you’ll meet a lot of terrible people who wanna help their dogs. So that’s been a nice side effect of working with people, who really love their dogs. And, you know, it was funny going into their homes. It’s almost like they expect a certain amount of judgmental ness to come from you. Oh, look at all these things that are wrong with your dog, you know? And really, I was always just really impressed that they wanted me there to start with. And I try to come from that humbling angle, like, I’m really, really impressed with you as a human, that you will seek somebody’s help and want to actively learn about this and will actually work with your dog. And that’s just the key to success right there.

 One of the things that kind of stood out to me was that they blame themselves, right? And so, as you were talking, I made a quick note. It’s almost like you’re having to undo them, right? Undo that guilt. And so it becomes this, like tear them down, build them back up, right? It’s not your fault. And then you have to get them to a good place to be able to help and understand their dog, which definitely is more people/human problem than it is a dog problem. 

What was the driving force? Was it the ah-ha moment that they were having when you told them, hold on a second. It’s not all you. Was that you’re driving force to keep going in this? Because there’s always positives and negatives to how we handle this. So talk to me a little bit about that. You know, I think training dogs, especially the way that I’ve done it, is very much a roller coaster. You have really good weeks, and you have really bad weeks. And it really does, it keeps you humble if you keep going out of the box. As soon as you get cocky, a dog comes along and tells you, you know nothing. And there’s I think it was Patricia McConnell that said this, that I may have seen her speak and she said this, that this might have been one of her books. But she said, “The more I know about dogs, the less I know about dogs”. And I think that there’s such truth in that the longer you do it, the more you realize how little you know. And you become a much better listener and a much better observer, with time. And you also learn when working with people and dogs together, you learn the value of psychology, human psychology as well as dog psychology, because it’s not just about training a dog to do something and all the curveballs that they can throw you. But it’s about getting a person to respond to you and want to follow you and want to do their homework. And that’s different for some people. You know, some people are motivated by gold medals, and some people are motivated by German Shepherds gnawing at their heels, you know, and it just depends on which one you get.

 So I learned to really kind of pay attention to and ask about what motivators really applied people. And, yeah, if you’re a new dog trainer, my one single solitary bit of solid advice, I think would be to learn more about human psychology because it will help you. At the end of the day, you get to feel effective sometimes. But when you’re doing behavior modification, it takes a lot of time, especially if you want to take the time to do it right. And it can be something that you don’t always get to see the end result of. You have to really develop a trust in your own processes. And a kind of faith in yourself. It’s really hard-earned, in this field. And that particular faith in myself, I don’t think it really came along for quite a few years. I think I was probably well into five or six years into training before I felt like I had any real solid faith in what I was doing. And just every single time it worked, as often as it did work because it did work, I was just pleasantly surprised. Maybe that’s what kept me going, I don’t know. 

Every now and then somebody would send me a video of a dog I’d worked with for, you know, four or six or eight sessions, and they would show me that dog doing the exact thing we’re hoping they would do, whether that was just like passing another dog on walks or something cool like that. I mean, like, Ah, cool, it was worth it, it worked. And even sometimes that happened faster than I was expecting, you know, so that was really nice. But I think you have to have that faith in yourself, and you have to have an unusual amount of perseverance. And you can’t necessarily base your confidence or your success on your direct successes sometimes, too, because they rely so heavily on the ability of other people. You know, when clients wouldn’t do the work, when they wouldn’t, you know, listen, sometimes. I thought, Okay, I just need to get better at getting people to listen to me better. And how can I change this? How can I learn from this? But that is a fact of it, too. Sometimes they just don’t. And sometimes you have to accept those failures as part of the job. And they’re hard to accept when you know a dog might be at the end of that, paying the consequences. 

Yeah, it’s definitely hard. It definitely takes me down a path where I want to know a little bit more about, circling back to the grounding of your rescues, right, working with rescues. So you’re now with Love-A-Bull and it’s a great organization. I did a little bit of research on them, and so talk to me a little bit about what Love-A-Bull is and how training and what your role is, ties into that? How do all three of those kind of work together?  So Love-A-Bull was an organization I got involved with back in 2010 and I was looking for rescues to work with in Austin, as I was restarting my business, and I found them and they’re a pit bull rescue and advocacy group. So I thought, Well, that’s a good mix because I really like pit bulls. And at that point, I had rescued a pit bull mix of my own, who was my teaching assistant, basically. And he goes everywhere with me. And so I kind of formed an informal partnership with them, where I took training cases of theirs pro-bono, sometimes and sometimes at a discounted rate. It was just kind of part of me, acclimated myself into a new city. It was actually funny, about very quickly into it, they started, restarted, I guess, an all pitbull therapy group called Pit Crew, which was the first one of its kind in the world. And it’s all pit bulls and pit mixes that go into hospitals, schools and, you know, assisted living centers and you name it and provide animal-assisted therapy. And I wanted to start a team like that because I had worked with my own dog, in therapy work and saw how well he excelled at it. And I’d seen a few others do the same thing and thought, man you know, people are sneaking into therapy dog groups, calling their dog’s boxer mixes and stuff when it’s very blatantly a pit bull. Just because they’re trying to hide the fact that this is a pit bull, and I thought, Well, I want to give credit where credits are due. There’s tons of pit bulls that serve in therapy works. There’s tons of pit bulls that also service dogs and stuff. But they weren’t really getting any credit at the time. So Pit Crew was kind of like here are some pit bulls doing therapy. The proof is in the pudding kind of thing, and it worked out great. It became a hit, you know? 

And so I worked with Love-A-Bull on training, and I’ve been training that team for the past decade now. And what started out as this kind of teeny tiny endeavor where we had to, you know, smooth talk our way into   turned into this,  more demand than we can fulfill, kind of situation. And somewhere along the way, I joined their board to help them start some other programs too and or continue with some programs, like the Discounted Training to the Community program. And those were just different ways that I could help. That initial motivator of mine, which was just to get as much educational information out there as possible about people and their dogs and how to coexist. Well, you know, and enrich those relationships and stuff like that. I love that you were able to take your love of the pit bull breed types and your education and your training and emerge them all into one place. And that you guys have formed this amazing relationship, just kind of on a whim, right? Like you said. And so 10 years goes by lickety-split when you’re having fun, right? What is funny is they’re one of a few rescues that I was working with at the time, and they just kind of took over my life. Nothing wrong with that, right? Absolutely nothing wrong with that. No, they’re my family, at this point. They’re friends, family, that have been there for a long presence in my life.

 And, you know, it’s been really cool to be involved with that, too. Yeah, it’s a really well run organization. I don’t say that just because I help run it. It was that way when I stepped in and, you know, it’s been cool like Pit Crew has won awards and stuff. And so that’s kind of been part of who I became as a trainer without even really realizing it was happening. It’s kind of nice to look back on those instances where it just naturally happens. It doesn’t feel forced. It doesn’t feel like I have to do this. I have to do this and I have to do this right. It just happens and before you know it, you look back and you see that journey and that path that you took. So it is kind of cool that that happened very organically for you and that everybody is benefiting from that. Not just people, not just the Love-A-Bull team, but the dogs as well. And you know, you’re giving the community a purpose really and something to rally around, which is very cool. It was even something that I kind of instituted as the business owner too. My trainers didn’t have to volunteer at Love-A-Bull per se, but I wouldn’t hire a trainer unless they had some experience in rescue work and had some interest in helping in that realm. Whether or not they were able to give their time freely wasn’t really a condition. But it was definitely something that I looked for in qualified trainers because I felt like and I still do, I think if the trainer doesn’t work with dogs that come from those backgrounds, they’re missing out on a lot of very valuable information about what dogs are about and the challenges that they face everything. And if that’s your field and that’s what you do, you need to know about it, you know? Yeah, I think it’s very cool.

 So as we get close to wrapping up our time together, was there anything that we maybe missed that you want to talk about before we wrap things up? Yeah, gosh there’s just so much, I guess, to try to pick and choose. I have led kind of a scattered training career in some ways over 10 years of it. Not so much, I guess. But I guess my main thing is, you know, just I think that in the training world we needed to do a little bit more to lift each other up and work together and learn from each other. I’m a huge advocate for that. I think that trainers stand to learn something from each other, even when they are at odds with each other’s methodologies. I could say I mean, I’ve studied under quite a few different trainers, over the years and will observe any time I have an opportunity, just because I’ve always been able to take something away from watching somebody else work with dogs and work with people you know. There’s an endless number of things that we can learn, and I think that we need to do that more with each other instead of competing with each other. A big part of why I’ve been able to be successful, I think as a trainer, has been because I’ve never wanted to actively compete with trainers in my community. So much as work with them. And there were many cases I took over the years where I was the second or third or even fourth trainer on that case and would have to do a fair amount of research into that case to see like what the other trainers had done and what they tried, and that was endlessly helpful in those cases, even when mistakes were made. So I think that’s a big part of what we need to do in our field to make things better for us and for our clients.

 I like that that was the one thing that you chose to bring up because I agree. And I think that part of the assumption, part of why I think you bring that up and why that’s so important to you, is because you come from this rescue/shelter community where it is very much a lot of people and a lot of organizations pitting against each other. And I think seeing that and living that being part of that, that’s that change that you want to see and that you’re bringing over into this training industry. And I agree and that no matter what industry we’re in and no matter what we’re doing, we’re on the same team, right, like it’s hard for me because I get healthy competitiveness. But sometimes in this animal welfare industry and training and rescues and shelters, it’s very pitted, and I think it is really important to support each other and work together. We can be territorial animals, that’s for sure. I love that. I have nothing else to say after that, that was perfect. Well played, well played.

 What I will say is that there is a lot of apprehension with trainers to work within the rescue community as well, because a lot of that work is expected to be free. And that is a sticking point for those of us who have worked in this world, trying to figure out exactly where that line is drawn and how to draw it, which is a big part of it. So I will say, you know, know your worth and stick to your guns as far as, you know what you charge. And even if you have special rates and stuff, with rescues, there’s nothing wrong with charging for your time and your specialty either. Even if it is with a rescue. And giving where you can, you know, is a big part of it. But you know, we need more of us who are in this world for all the right reasons. You know, to really genuinely help dogs and help people. You can still pay your bills that way. 

Yeah, as we wrap this up, I do want to just mention that you do a podcast of your own called Farfetched. And why don’t you tell us a little bit about what that is about? And I want to encourage people to go check it out and listen. It’s a lot of fun, and we’ll definitely link to it when we post your podcast as well. But why don’t you tell us a little bit about what that is? Yeah, Far Fetched is just all about dog myths and misconceptions and debunking those myths. So we talk about everything from like in one episode, I cover a pack theory and the dominance myth. In another episode, we talk about how to pick the quote, unquote best family dog and some dog genetics and how that actually works. How much of the dog you’re actually seeing versus who doesn’t love to play the guess that mutt game? But it is the common question, right? Everybody wants to know what kind of dog that is? So right. Just because you’re getting a border or you get what looks like a border collie, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting all of a border collie and I say that from experience. And you know. So we’ve got some cool episodes like that. We’ve got one that will be cool coming out. It’s about kids and dogs and all the common misconceptions around raising kids and dogs together, which I’m doing with my mother on that episode. Thank you, Pandemic. So that one should be really interesting. You guys get to hear me correct my mother for an hour. We get along great, actually, but it is pretty funny. I get to talk about what it meant to raise a dog in the eighties and nineties versus now. And then another one coming up on, of course, pit bulls, which has become an area of expertise for me, for sure. I’m really excited to hear the upcoming episodes, so we’ll definitely link to it when we publish your podcast. And I really just want to say I’ve enjoyed my time with you and I love what you’re doing and what you stand for. And thank you for joining me today. Thanks. Yeah, Thank you for having me. It’s been great.

 Thanks for tuning into today’s podcast. Please make sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and be sure to give us a review so we could help even more animals. Don’t forget to sign up on Doobert.com to join the tens of thousands of Dooberteers across the country and around the world helping animals and the organizations working to save them.”

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