The Missing Deli Meat or How I Became a Dog Trainer

April 29, 2021
dog trainer, training dogs, puppy trainer, puppy school

Anyone‌ ‌who‌ ‌has‌ ‌known‌ ‌me‌ ‌for‌ longer ‌than‌ ‌5‌ ‌minutes‌ ‌will‌ ‌know‌ ‌that‌ I don’t love talking about myself (I’d rather talk about YOU and your DOG!), but this needs to be done, so here we go: The Kathy Santo origin story!

Many people ask me how I started in this industry, or “When did you know that you wanted to be a dog trainer?”.  My answer is usually along the lines of  “from the minute I met my dog!”  Which is true.  But more specifically, it all started with some deli meat (sorry, mom!), my childhood Great Pyrenees “Teddy”,  and a six-year-old (me!), wanting desperately to prove my parents wrong!

It’s not an exaggeration to say that after that first dog training experience with Teddy, I knew that it was what I wanted to do forever! I wanted to learn everything I could about dogs so that I could communicate even better with them.  And possibly get my dog to do some even cooler tricks……..

And even though I’d never met a dog trainer (plus I was 6, and you don’t have that big of a friends circle at that point, right?), I still had this burning, never-ending passion for training.  And pretty soon, I announced to anyone who would listen that it’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.  

As I continued my training journey, my attempts at training (and eventually my ‘system’) went through trial and error (more errors than trials in the beginning), but every step of the way was great, because I was doing something I loved. Fortunately, I was blessed with amazing mentors along the way, who *inspired* and *encouraged* me to find my own voice and methodology in the profession. 

So, if you want to learn more about how my career as a dog trainer began and evolved, the infamous deli meat incident (again, sorry mom!), how I went from backyard training to a 16,000 sq ft facility, tune in to this week’s episode now!


How It All Started

Many people ask me how it all started. When did I know I wanted to train dogs? Well, the truth is, it all started when I was six years old. My family had a Great Pyrenees named “Teddy”, and they took her to a training class. 

To say that Teddy was not a stellar student would be an understatement.  Back then she was labeled as ‘stupid’ and ‘willful’.  The instructor said she was a horrible student, would never be trained, and she failed the class! 

I remember the night when my parents got home from that final class.  My dad slammed the metal leash on the counter and said “This dog is untrainable!”  But I loved Teddy so much and knew she was smart, so I wanted to prove them all wrong.  That’s the moment I decided to train her myself!

I started by using deli meat as a reward when I trained her (side note: A few years ago, I learned my mother thought the guys at the deli were shorting her.  She would order 2 lbs., and when she went to make a sandwich, only half that was there.   Decades later, when I was telling her and my father this story, she was so MAD!  She changed delis four times because of that and had given each of them a piece of her mind! She still doesn’t think it’s funny……). In a matter of weeks, Teddy was doing lots of tricks. I even did a performance for my family, and everyone was (begrudgingly) delighted with it.  

So yes, that’s how my story started. Even then, I knew training dogs was my ‘thing’. I was fascinated by them, and having my own dog to work with taught me a LOT of valuable life AND dog lessons. That’s exactly why we tell all our clients to get their children involved in the family dog training.

Fast forward a few years later, when I graduated high school. My family decided I shouldn’t be going to college because I was…..’a woman’. “You should be a secretary,” they said. And so the decision was made for me. 

A few months after my high school graduation, while my friends were beginning their college adventures, I started working as a secretary in a big insurance company in New York City. And as you might have guessed, it wasn’t exactly my dream job. A year into it, I gave my two weeks’ notice, not only to the job, but also to my family. I told them I was leaving, and there was nothing they could do to change my mind. 

Two weeks later, I picked up Eric (my then-boyfriend, now-husband of 35 years!) from the airport, and we drove back down to Georgia where he was attending chiropractic school. That same day, I went to a shelter and adopted a dog, and I started taking him to classes. 

A few months later, I was in the mall and saw a pet store with a “Doberman Puppy ½ Price” sign. He was everything I tell my students to RUN from in a puppy, but I felt so bad for him and decided to buy him. 

It should come as no surprise that ‘Clapton’ didn’t have the best temperament. He was afraid of everything, so the only thing I knew to do to help him was to take him to a formal training class. That’s when I first discovered the world of competition obedience. 

The First Steps 

Clapton was my first experience with a dog that had behavioral issues. Back then, information wasn’t as widely available as it is now. I mean, these were the pre-internet days. If you needed dog training tips, you had to figure things out yourself.

Someone at the training club told me I had to make sure Clapton wasn’t aggressive. They told me to put my hand in his food bowl, which I did. Clapton didn’t like that, so he bit me in the face. Yeah, it wasn’t a fun day. 

Blood was running down my face, and Eric was panicking. 

“OMG!! Did Clapton do this to you!!?” 

“Yes,” I answered calmly, “but I’ll fix it.”

I wasn’t ready to give up on Clapton, so I took him to the training club the next day and told them what happened. They told me I’d either have to get rid of him, put him to sleep, or beat him into obedience. Horrified by their answers, I decided not to do any of that.

Instead, I started working with him by myselfI used all kinds of methods that I read about, and went through a LOT of trial and error. But after a while (a really really long while), it worked! After months of training, we could finally live in peace together.

At that same time, I got a new puppy, ‘Opal’. She was a beautiful Golden Retriever puppy, and wanted to train her for competition obedience. But, I didn’t want to use the trainers in Georgia. 

So, I reached out to a trainer in New York, and she started helping me train via phone calls and with videotapes. With training, Opal went from a novice dog to competing and winning an Obedience Championship and a National Tournament.

Teaching Others

A few years later, I moved to Florida and decided to train dogs professionally. I’d won enough trials that other competitors wanted to train with me. That was a totally unique experience. I was training dogs, and being paid, but I was also learning a lot! 

While in Florida, I also trained a few dogs in agility, and somehow made it to national competitions with a novice dog. But, I knew fairly quickly that agility competitions weren’t really for me. Competition obedience was my true calling.

That’s also when I started working with more clients. The shelter in my city asked me to come in and temperament-test their dogs to see if they were fit for adoption. Working with those dogs was a completely different experience. It helped me gain so much insight into body language and how to tune into a dog to understand who he or she is.

Fast forward, and a few months later, and I started a therapy dog program. At this point, between working with the shelter, competition students, pet owners, and my own dogs, I was getting very, very busy (and unbeknownst to me at the time, this would be a recurring theme in my life!).

In 1995, I sold my dog training school in Florida, and we moved back to New Jersey, and I purchased a Border Collie named Trigger. My husband is a chiropractor and had/has a home office, so some of his patients would see me training Trigger in the backyard. 

They would ask me to train their dogs, and I would give them my phone number. Within two months of our move, I was running training classes again, and as busy as ever.

At that point, I’d moved away from teaching competition obedience clients (although I was still competing with Trigger) and solely working with pet owners who needed help with basic training and behavioral issues. It was a significant change for me, and it came with its own set of challenges. 

A Whole New World

Once word got out that I was the new dog trainer in town, I started getting more and more clients. At one point, I had a company producing DVD’s of my dog training, and one of the film crew asked if I would train their dog.  I didn’t have availability, but I did give her some typed out lesson sheets that I’d written.  (“Some” = 50-60 pages!) 

That’s when things got crazy. She liked what I wrote so much she convinced me to turn it into a book. She even helped me get in touch with one of her friends who worked in publishing. They loved it, and that’s how my book came to life!

Random House/Knopf sent me on a two-week book tour, and it was a whole new world. The book brought me into the media spotlight that I ended up signing on as a columnist/contributing editor to House Beautiful, doing a column for AKC (which I still write!), TV and radio appearances as a regular guest with Martha Stewart, Today Show, Fox and Friends, and so many others.  It was amazing.  

But what I realized was that although the publicity was great, it didn’t allow me to do what I really LOVED: Training dogs!  I didn’t want to talk about training them. I wanted to actually train dogs. So I made the decision to go back to focusing on training dogs instead of putting so much time into being a media personality. It was the right choice, because my training school really took off after that.

Fast forward to opening my first small school, outgrowing it, opening up a new facility, and all the lessons learned from those experiences. And that’s where we are today! 

Conclusion

And that’s the story to date. It all started with having a passion for dogs, following my instincts, believing that “No” really meant “Maybe”, and never, ever letting anyone cause me to lose sight of what I wanted to do more than anything: Train dogs AND their families to have a happy and harmonious life together.

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