As a dog trainer, you help people and their dogs overcome challenges to live their very best lives together.
It’s an incredible thrill knowing you are in a profession where your skill and guidance are changing lives for the better. However, it’s important to recognize that any caretaking profession has its stressors. Big ones.
If you constantly put the needs of your clients and their dogs above your own or are increasingly overwhelmed by the countless responsibilities you are juggling in your job or business, compassion fatigue or burnout can creep into your life.
Here at the Victoria Stilwell Academy we are committed to helping you get joy and fulfillment from your dog training career, both now and in the future. So, let’s talk about what compassion fatigue and burnout really are, and the ways you can reduce their impact or avoid them entirely.
How do compassion fatigue and burnout differ?
Burnout and compassion fatigue are often lumped together because they both can boil up feelings of anxiety, isolation, frustration, and anger. They can also occur simultaneously. But the cause is quite different for each.
Compassion fatigue is an erosion of your empathy for the distress of other people and animals, due to the trauma of responding to the needs of others for so long. If you’re the type of dog trainer who gives your all to the people and pets you serve, the constant emotional stress can rob you of what you once most enjoyed: the deep satisfaction of helping dogs and their people. Here are some warning signs:
- Feeling overwhelmed, powerless or even apathetic when faced with the suffering or needs of others. Caring was once your dog-training superpower, and now you almost feel like a stranger to yourself.
- Often feeling irritated, angry, impatient, sad, or anxious.
- Having difficulty concentrating and feeling less efficient and productive as a trainer.
- Feeling exhausted, both physically and emotionally.
- Withdrawing from contact with others.
- Finding less enjoyment in your work, in activities you once enjoyed, and even in your relationships.
If a resentful “I just don’t care, anymore,” is starting to crop up in your thoughts, it’s time to tackle compassion fatigue head-on by refocusing on your own self-care.
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
- increased mental distance from your job.
- feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job.
- reduced effectiveness in your role.
If you are wrestling with burnout, you probably still respect your chosen profession and the pets and people you serve, but an unmanageable workload, unfair administrators, or unclear job responsibilities create a toxic impact on your sense of purpose and accomplishment. You are exhausted and unmotivated due to your job conditions, and you dread the arrival of each workday.
Just a note: If you are feeling anxious and “just not good enough” as a dog trainer, you may be struggling with what is often called “imposter syndrome” instead of burnout. Our tips here can help, but you should also check out our article on imposter syndrome and positive thinking.
To tackle burnout, your work environment needs to change. If it’s your own business that’s overwhelming you, you’ll need to re-envision your goals and ways of working. If you are an employee, you’ll need to actively request support or flexibility. You may even need to jump ship to a new company or begin seriously planning your next steps into the self-run business of your dreams.
10 ways to help put compassion fatigue or burnout behind you
Boiled down to their basics, compassion fatigue is addressed through self-care and burnout is decreased by changing (or leaving) your work environment. However, if you’re the owner of your own dog training business, some self-care techniques – like setting boundaries – can serve double-duty by improving your business work environment, too.
Here are 10 suggestions that every dog trainer should consider to begin the journey back from overwhelming physical and emotional fatigue.
1. Accept that changes are needed – good changes! If you are feeling off balance and confused because you love dog training but find you aren’t as excited as you once were at the beginning of each workday, don’t blame yourself. Lots of caregivers and professionals experience compassion fatigue or burnout at some point in their career, so you aren’t alone. However, you’ll need to commit to taking active steps to urge your attention back toward your own self-care or a healthier work environment.
2. Delegate work that’s unrelated to your passion of helping dogs. If juggling business management tasks in addition to training is fueling your burnout as a business owner, maybe it’s time to hire someone for those tasks. A good bookkeeper can be worth their weight in gold if you dread double-entry accounting. Marketing tools can help streamline your social media posting and pet business communities offer done-for-you marketing help. If you’re an employee, talk to your manager about tasks that are outside of your responsibilities. With the proliferation of expert virtual assistants, both small and large businesses can now outsource work affordably.
3. Dial back your services. Are you a business owner who says “yes” to every dog owner’s problem or need? Maybe it’s time to cut back on the range of services you offer. Concentrate on becoming the go-to expert in just the dog-training niches you really love. Even if you accept the same number of clients, you’ll have streamlined your time and focus. Refer people to other trainers for services that cause you more stress than satisfaction. We’ve got a whole article on creating a rewarding and profitable business niche to help you out.
4. Set boundaries. You need and deserve hours when you can mentally disengage from helping dogs and dog parents, and focus on your own family, pets, fun, and fulfillment. However, you have chosen a profession helping people who push the limits when they are hyper-worried about their dog. If you want to reduce your emotional fatigue and also create a solid line between work and personal time, you’ll need to set clear boundaries for both clients and yourself.
- Choose the times you want your day to begin and end, and then take steps to stick to it.
- Let your clients know when you are and aren’t available. Add a signature line on your email stating that after-hours inquiries will receive a reply the next business day.
- A separate phone for work and personal life can be a boon. Leave the work phone behind when you are on your own time or activate the “do not disturb” function.
- If you bend your own rules and answer your email after hours, use the “delay send” function so messages don’t go out until the next business day begins.
5. Set exciting future goals. Push your focus beyond the day-to-day grind and look toward your future. If you are an employee and want to jump away from a soul-crushing manager, update your resume and your LinkedIn profile and begin poking your nose into other pet-related opportunities on job resources like Indeed.com. If you’ve always wanted to go into business for yourself, start planning! Give yourself a shot of optimism by taking courses, no matter where you are in your career. If you run your own business but feel like all the responsibilities are overwhelming you, the instructors at The Victoria Stilwell Academy have walked in your shoes and can provide real-life guidance. Even if you can’t leave your current job or reinvent your business immediately, there’s no reason for your dreams to sit still. Get excited about planning your next steps.
6. Get the sleep you need. Let’s face it. You can’t conquer your daily emotional weariness if you are physically exhausted. If you’re pushing business tasks past midnight or are delaying bedtime because you dread the coming workday, now’s the time to set a bedtime goal and do your best to stick to it.
- If you’re a social media addict, turn on an audiobook or meditation app to wean yourself away from that glowing screen and help lull you to sleep.
- If you snooze better with your canine buddy at your side, enjoy the cuddle time. But if they hog your bed or wiggle all night, maybe it’s time to give them a bed of their own.
- If insomnia is truly wrecking your life, don’t let it slide. Bring it up to your doctor. Insomnia is a subject you can also discuss in a more-affordable telemedicine session.
7. You are what you eat. Are you surviving on fast food and microwave dinners that you grab during random free moments?
- Let’s jump back to “setting boundaries” for a sec. How about arranging your time so you do client visits during a set block of hours each day? Schedule in a lunch hour and aim to be home before dinner time. Claim your mealtime. It’s not a work perk – it’s part of your personal well-being.
- Look at adding more healthy, unprocessed options to your diet each week. You wouldn’t advise your clients to feed the cheapest or easiest-to-grab food to their dog, so why ignore your own need for a decent diet?
- If you’re just too tired to drum up an inspired menu, try a ship-to-home meal subscription temporarily to boost your enthusiasm and cooking skills.
- Remember to turn off or turn over that smart phone and enjoy uninterrupted meals. They only take a few minutes of the day.
8. Practice active relaxation. “Active relaxation” means disconnecting from work for enjoyable, stress-free exercise. Running to-and-fro during dog training sessions doesn’t count! You’ve probably told your own clients that fun daily exercise helps de-stress dogs, so it’s time to take your own advice. Instead of constantly resorting to passive relaxation like scrolling through your social media feed or plopping down in front of the television, take a daily lunchtime stroll with your dog, sign up for an evening yoga class, or pull that bicycle out of storage.
9. Seek human support. It’s easy to become more and more isolated when you are feeling frustrated, anxious, or just plain tired. When friends reach out, you may be tempted to turn down invitations because you can’t muster up the energy to emotionally engage with them (a sign of compassion fatigue) or because you still have work to get done (workplace burnout). Interacting with people other than clients may be just what you need to add a spark of newness to your life.
- Make a promise to yourself to accept the next social invitation you receive from a friend or take the initiative to message someone whose company you’ve missed to get together for coffee this week. Then talk about something other than work!
- Connect with a dog-centric community. Sometimes you just need to talk dog stuff with other dog people. Have lunch with another person you know in the pet business to commiserate once a month or so. The Victoria Stilwell Academy Dog Trainer Course will connect you with a mentor either online or in person, or consider joining an online community like Working with Dog for expert business guidance and support from other “petpreneurs.”
- If you need an objective ear, a counselor can help you identify the source of your emotional fatigue, walk you through self-care planning, or support you as you tackle workplace challenges. Local agencies have made mental health a priority since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so counseling is often free, affordable, or covered by insurance.
10. Create a self-care plan. To strategically remove yourself from the grip of compassion fatigue or simply live a more healthful life, build a simple but life-long plan of positive and enjoyable actions that help focus you on your own self-care. Pick a handful of do-able activities you used to enjoy and hard schedule them into your calendar.
- Meet a good friend for coffee, a drink, or a shared dog-walk the same day every week.
- Have dinner (in person or via Zoom) once a month with family or friends you miss.
- One Sunday each month, jump in the car and hike somewhere completely new with your dog.
- Schedule a half-hour massage or yoga class for the next 4 months. If you suspect you might skip or cancel these appointments, add an extra level of accountability by inviting a friend to join you.
- Pick an evening each week when you’ll pull out your bicycle, watercolors, gardening tools – whatever pastime you haven’t visited in a while – so that you can enjoy your hobby once again.
- Commit to meeting your bedtime, healthy eating, and active relaxation goals at least a few days a week.
Your own self-care plan will be entirely different from this one, but every small step you take toward taking care of yourself will make the next one easier.
To care for your clients and their dogs you need to care for yourself
Are you still hesitating? Maybe you’re thinking that there are people or pets who need so much from you right now, that you really don’t have time to fit in changes that only benefit you. But really, the more grounded, rested, and excited you are about your work, the more effectively you can help both animals and your human clients as a dog trainer. You’ve got a lot of years of career excellence ahead of you. Why not take these steps now, so you can stay in love with your career?
Need a shot of inspiration? Every spring the Victoria Stilwell Academy holds a dynamic Dog Behavior Conference with the latest information on training, behavior, and rescue work. Or if you are not yet a VSA graduate, commit to a total career reboot by joining our faculty and other VSA students in our flagship Dog Trainer Course. Click on over and read up on these opportunities for a quick reminder of what excites you the most about your career in dog training.