Have you ever felt in awe of other dog trainers and worry that your own accomplishments just aren’t at the same level?

If you know you do good work, but constantly feel like you’re skating along on sheer luck, it’s possible you are struggling with something many top leaders and dog trainers face: “Imposter Syndrome.”

Even the best experts in our field are no strangers to self-doubt. In fact, a little bit of doubt can be really healthy! It keeps us sharp and striving to do our best. It makes us double-check our work and constantly look at things from different angles. But major, crippling doubt can stop us from even trying, or owning what we’re great at, which is when it stops being a help and starts hurting us. If this happens to you, don’t worry, we can help.

Let’s look at what Imposter Syndrome is – and isn’t. Then we can talk about how to build up your confidence in yourself and your work. After all, you need to take pride in your expertise to grow your business and become an even greater help to dogs and their owners.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome is a persistent, nagging feeling of shame and doubt that can strike dog trainers (or any professional) at any point in their career. Even high-achieving trainers can feel like they are unqualified. If this feeling is familiar to you, you’re not alone. In November 2021, the Victoria Stilwell Academy surveyed 106 current and prospective dog trainers, and 96% responded that they “have felt like an imposter, wondered if I’m a good enough expert or worried that I’m not doing enough for my dog training clients.” That’s a lot of uncertainty!

True imposter syndrome goes beyond comparing yourself to others in the profession. While our industry is competitive, dog trainers who struggle with imposter syndrome often feel unable to fully own or celebrate their successes. Accreditations, education and experience may feel like a fluke, or like they were achieved by sheer luck. 

How can you tell if you might be wrestling with Imposter Syndrome?

  • Are you embarrassed and downplay your experience when you are complimented by a client or another trainer, instead of feeling pleased? Do you struggle with how to respond to this praise?
  • Do you ever apologize while making your recommendations to clients instead of just providing them with your straightforward instructions?
  • Do you feel like you don’t have the right to charge the same rates as other trainers with the same credentials?
  • Are you mortified if your client’s problem isn’t solved right away? Do you worry that they are silently judging you?

Did you say “yes” to one or more of the above? As you can see, many dog trainers struggle with these feelings, and finding a way to move past them can help boost your confidence in seeking out opportunities which can ultimately boost your income

What makes you feel like an imposter?

Let’s get a little academic! Recognizing the things that sap your self-confidence is the first step toward owning your expertise with pride.  Dr. Valerie Young Ed.D., suggests that people with imposter syndrome fall into one of these five subgroups. 

Do you recognize yourself anywhere here?

  1. The Perfectionist sets unrealistic self-expectations about how things should be done. One flaw, mistake or setback — even one that is entirely out of your control – can equal failure in your eyes. 
  2. The Natural Genius believes talent comes naturally and there must be something wrong if a skill doesn’t come easily to you. If it takes some trial and error for you to master a technique, you conclude you just aren’t cut out for the job. 
  3. The Soloist wants to solve everything on your own. Admitting you need help makes you feel incompetent, even though it’s impossible for one person to know everything or manage everything unaided. 
  4. The Expert measures competence on how much you know, and you fear being exposed as inexperienced if you exhibit any small lack of knowledge.
  5. The Superwoman/Superman believes you are only successful if you can manage every role in your life perfectly, pushing the boundaries of what a person can reasonably accomplish. If you drop just one of the many balls you are juggling in your high-stress life, you feel you have failed.

And now let’s get real. Dog training is an amazing career, but parts of it are hard! 

  • Dogs are unique individuals who have unknown backgrounds and unpredictable behaviors that take some time for a dog trainer to work out. 
  • Consulting other trainers and veterinarians for help is par for the course when you reach the limits of your own knowledge or legal authority – and everyone has limits. Life-long learning is one of the traits that make great dog trainers.
  • Trainers can’t always do it all themselves. Running a dog training business includes hands-on work with both people and pets, plus all the marketing and recordkeeping required for successful business management. Lots of trainers delegate so they can concentrate on what they love: training dogs!

These are everyday complications in dog training that can cause a hiccup here and there, no matter how experienced you are. Beating yourself up mentally for “mistakes” that are just a natural part of working with dogs heaps on a lot more anxiety than you deserve.

Reframe fear by identifying the positive.

So how can you tame feelings of shame and doubt when you find them creeping into your everyday thinking? 

Dr. Young recommends that you stop that inner imposter’s constant bark of alarm by reframing your negative feelings as positive thoughts. Do this over and over, and positive thoughts will spring up more naturally than negative ones. 

Change isn’t going to happen overnight, but the more you practice, the better you’ll feel. 

Here are a couple of examples:

  • If a client comes up to tell you the dog training class you just led was amazing, but your first impulse is to react in embarrassment and instead apologize because the class wasn’t absolutely perfect — stop and reframe your inner conversation by focusing on the positive instead. Your client loved your class so much they actually stopped to tell you. That’s awesome! Instead of saying “Yes, but…” just give a simple “thank you!” Your client will be happy, you get a little glow, and you can always review your lesson more objectively later, in private. Just be sure to mentally revisit that compliment, too!
  •  If a dog owner asks you a question and you don’t have the answer, you might be tempted to wing it with a vague reply, or freeze in embarrassment. Instead, take a deep breath and reframe the conversation. You know that no one has the answer to everything — even world leaders have advisors! The dog owner has shown they respect you by asking for your advice. Just say, “You’ve brought up a great question. I want to be sure I get you all the information you’re asking for, so let me check that out and get right back to you.” Your client may even be pleased to discover their question requires a little extra research and that you are taking the time to get them the answer they need.

We know that reframing anxious situations won’t always be easy. When you feel one of those twinges of panic, just pause and take a breath, and then grab onto the positive feedback that people are actually giving you. You’ll gradually be on your way to quieting that inner critic.

Is it really possible to rewire your brain to think more positively? 

Science says, “Yes.” In a podcast with The Greater Good Science Center, neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson explains that for survival reasons, our brains are naturally wired toward the negative. Due to this “negativity bias” we naturally tend to focus more on the bad things that happen so that we can avoid them in the future.

To counteract that, you need to build up positive memories consciously and intentionally.

  • Turn positive events into positive experiences. Take time to bask in a compliment, pause to really look at a gorgeous sunset, and be sure to stop and enjoy when you have a particularly great session with a client and their dog.
  • Savor that positive moment, don’t just notice it and move on. Stop for 10 to 30 seconds to really, really enjoy it.
  • Think with intention that the positive experience is really a part of you. This may sound a bit like mumbo-jumbo, but haven’t you mentally revisited embarrassing events, sometimes even years later?  (“I’ll never live down that mistake!”) Now take the same amount of time — and even more — to mentally re-live your positive experiences. You want them to spring back in your mind the next day, the next week, or even the next year!

When is anxiety not Imposter Syndrome?

Are you trying to tackle tasks that require skills you haven’t had the chance to learn? If so, it’s no wonder you feel anxious! Running a dog training business involves business technology and training techniques that are constantly being updated. Even the most experienced dog trainers can find it a challenge to keep up. You certainly aren’t alone in that.

Sometimes anxiety over expertise isn’t because you doubt your actual capabilities. It might be because you are facing a very real gap in knowledge. If you genuinely need to learn, the most straightforward way to put that nervousness to rest is to take a course or call an expert for help. It’s absolutely normal to have to grow your own expertise as your profession makes new discoveries.

Getting promoted, launching your own business or expanding your services can toss lots of new responsibilities your way. But you don’t need to freeze in fear at each career step. There are courses, conferences, workshops, and mentorship opportunities available to help you dispel anxiety over your growing business or the changing industry. In fact, coursework can be both challenging and fun. You get to learn alongside like-minded dog lovers who have made your profession their passion, too. 

Learning is a great way to transform anxiety into excitement.

Education is the first step to confidence.

At VSA, we absolutely get the mental and emotional challenges you face as a dog trainer, and we want to help you conquer them. Our instructors have walked the same dog trainer journey you are on now, and they are committed to helping you change your life as part of a truly supportive, welcoming family. They are dedicated to giving you the very best education on everything related to running a dog training business. 

We know that to feel relaxed and fulfilled in this profession, you’ll need to have a solid grasp of more than canine cognition and behavior. After all, you’ll be teaching owners as well as their dogs, marketing your services, and managing your business as well. Our online Dog Trainer Course is designed to guide you through the full business of dog training, as well as the joy of working with dogs.

If face-to-face teaching is the way you learn best, the In Person Track includes the personal guidance of an expert trainer near you. And for a yearly boost of inspiration and the very latest science in dog training and behavior, Victoria hosts an annual Dog Behavior Conference with world-class presenters. You’ll never need to feel like your profession is getting ahead of you.

If you want to move forward as a dog trainer but uncertainty is still yanking at your leash, we’re here to answer your questions. Let us help you take the next step and put those imposter-like feelings behind you.

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