Four business principles on talent from the world of puppies

June 13, 2018
Connie Cleveland

By Connie Cleveland


All I ever wanted to be was a dog trainer. Over the years, I helped clients learn about their new puppies and their rescues, coached competitive obedience dogs, trained service dogs for veterans and the disabled, and worked to save the lives of dogs labelled “aggressive.” I worked my way through college and earned an engineering degree while training people’s dogs. I would pick them up in my Pinto station wagon, train them for a week or two, and then return them to their owners. Training dogs was much more lucrative than working in the dormitory cafeteria or tutoring other students. I discovered the freedom of being my own boss. The fact that working with dogs was a 24/7 commitment never dissuaded me. I was doing what I loved.

After graduation, “being a dog trainer” became larger than I could handle — and let’s face it, owning a business is about far more than your core competency. I needed help. Blindly, assuming that an employee would want to learn about dog training with the same passion that I did, I became an employer.

Over the past 30 years I’ve learned that two of the most difficult decisions I make, hiring a new employee and selecting a puppy to be my next competition obedience or field trials dog, involve many of the same considerations.

Take Your Time

Selecting a next competition dog involves researching breeders, studying pedigrees, waiting on pregnancies, then testing which ones might be a fit for the work I do, before a choice is made. Hopefully, that next canine competition partner will work and compete with me for 8-10 years, before enjoying a happy retirement. Choosing the right puppy for the work you need to accomplish is paramount to success and takes time. Further, failed pregnancies or small litters can extend the process. Often a buyer has to resist the panic that a puppy is “needed” right now, and wait longer than expected.

As a small business owner, the same is true when looking for a new hire. As everyone feels the pressure of crowded schedules, more projects, more client service needs, and more administrative duties, the need for additional help can become an emergency before the first ad or online posting for an open position is submitted. Often the first (or second or third) warm body available gets the job.

Just as with choosing the right working puppy for field trials or obedience competition (and for that matter, choosing the right dog from a shelter or rescue for service dog work or other family needs) casting a wide net with the right contacts, careful examination of a candidate’s experience and references, a methodical interview process, all of those things and more are important. Human beings are far more complex and mysterious than puppies and require even more careful thought.

Choosing the wrong puppy for competition and hiring in a hurry can be disastrous. Take your time!

Know Your Core Values

I live with retrievers. They fit my lifestyle. Like me, they enjoy hiking, swimming, and being outdoors. They are cheerful, easygoing, and friendly. We get along. There are other very competitive breeds that simply aren’t right for me. Those that are wary of strangers, devoted to a single owner, aloof and independent, although incredibly successful with other trainers, don’t fit my lifestyle.

Likewise, the person who comes into my business carrying an ice cold drink from a fast food establishment as they apologize for being late, and wearing a T-shirt that says “I’m with stupid” is pretty easy for me to recognize as someone who won’t be the right fit for my company culture.

At a deeper, more substantive level, it’s vital to know your corporate culture and the needs not simply of the position but also of the rest of the staff and the overall organization. So often I’ve seen leaders make the mistake of hiring somebody for the wrong position entirely (and I’ve made that mistake too). That new hire would be successful in another position — his or her gifts and skills and temperament are suited for it. But the same qualities that would make one person great for one position make her wrong for another.

Another new hire might be outstanding for the position but a poor fit with the rest of the staff. Knowing what you need — and not being tempted by great people who fit other positions or companies — is vital.

In my business, personality profile tests have proven helpful in the hiring process, and are not much different than the puppy testing that I do when I visit the long awaited group of seven-week- old puppies searching for my next competitor.

Regardless, some ability for a leader to assess the attributes and skills of prospective hires and discern a match for your core values is important.

Invest Time In Education

I start training my new puppy the day he joins my family. Seven-week-old puppies are enthusiastic and eager to start communicating, and their behavior is easy to shape. That said, they are young, and make tons of errors in basic manners (housebreaking, jumping up, and chewing unwanted items), so patience and an ability to see the time spent as an investment is paramount.

Recently a new puppy owner complained to me that her 5-month-old was just not interested in working yet. But you can’t wait for the puppy to become interested and productive. It’s your responsibility to create an environment where that interest and eagerness occurs. The same is true of the new-hire. The longer you wait for them to discover what it is they should be doing, the more time and money you waste, and the more of their talent and interest you waste.

Frantic to have help, business owners often throw the new hire into a work environment with a bare minimum of instruction, so happy to have someone on whom to offload extra work. Quickly, the new hire is frustrated, struggling, and then blamed for their lack of productivity.

Enthusiasm Begets Enthusiasm

When the right puppy comes into my life, I can’t wait to get up every morning for the next training session. The right puppy is eager and enthusiastic. They are willing to try anything with the right guidance and direction. My enthusiasm is contagious and soon the two of us have formed a partnership and bond that make working together completely satisfying for both of us.

Recently I was standing in the training arena, my newest puppy sitting beside me, looking up expectantly. I stopped training and asked the employee who was helping, “Could you…” and inhaled in order to finish my sentence. Before I could speak, she said, “Yes.”

I looked up and smiled — I hadn’t even finished the question. She didn’t know what it was that I needed or wanted of her but had enthusiastically agreed.

I looked down…There is nothing more engaging than a young dog, looking up, cocking his head as if to say, “What are we going to do next? I’m ready.”

I smiled back at my employee. I had definitely made the right choices.


Connie Cleveland is a nationally-recognized dog trainer recognized for her work with family dogs and dogs involved in obedience and field trial competitions, as well as dogs exhibiting challenging behavioral problems. She is also the owner of the Dog Trainers Workshop, a spacious training and boarding facility for dog lovers featuring an indoor training facility, an outdoor agility ring, and a boarding kennel set on 14 acres with a pond and walking trail. Cleveland’s eleven obedience trial championship dogs include her dog Eli, the first Golden Retriever to earn both field and obedience championships, and her dog Ezra, the only Labrador to have earned an obedience trial championship, a field championship, and an amateur field championship. To learn more about Dog Trainers Workshop or to reach Connie, see or