This blog post was written by Erin Purgason, Owner of Highland Canine, LLC. Erin formed Highland Canine with her husband, Jason in 2005. This post tackles the demanding world of women in the working dog industry and how to find success as a female working dog professional.
Recently, there has been a notable transformation in a number of industry leaders. Rebranding, modernization, variations in public image and a sudden interest in corporate responsibility have all started bubbling to the surface of trending industry topics.
This evolution is reaching the police K9 industry, and a number of exciting changes are transpiring – one of which includes an increasing number of women defying gender stereotypes by entering the K9 force.
For years, this particular profession has been saturated almost entirely with male handlers, decoys and trainers. Although there have been plenty of women over the years who were interested in developing a career in this industry, it has been an intimidating and unfeasible option for most until now.
The women who used to simply watch from the sidelines are finally stepping out of their comfort zones for the purpose of pursuing their passion. This has resulted in more women than ever being involved in numerous facets of working dog training; from everything to protection to competition, to detection and full patrol duty, women are creating a positive impact on the police canine industry.
An important disclaimer
The following paragraphs do not include an impassioned rant about male police K9 trainers, a battle of the sexes or an argument generalizing the training techniques of men vs. women. Without the men who have led this industry through all that has been accomplished to this day, and the incredible teachers and mentors who have revolutionized the police K9 throughout the years, women would have not have the opportunity to help refine it further.
This message is for the women who have watched police K9s in action, dreamed about getting involved but couldn’t find their in. Like starting in any industry, the key is to just do it. It may be a learning curve and you may feel embarrassed or discouraged at times, but eventually you will succeed and it will be worth it. Try not to let doubt get in your way, and remember that there are plenty of excellent male working dog mentors who understand the value of female handlers and will be happy to teach you how to thrive within the industry.
Although working with police K9s as a trainer, handler or decoy is now a very viable option for women, the nature of this profession requires that women work even harder than their male counterparts to succeed. In any male dominated profession, women will need to put in more effort to be respected. They will need to be in excellent physical condition in order to effectively handle strong, high energy working dogs. The law enforcement and/or military environments associated with working dogs can result in quite a culture shock for those who have never been exposed to them before.
There is a great deal of responsibility placed upon police/military K9 units to maintain a good public image, both through the media and in society – a factor requiring handlers to develop a strong bond with their fellow soldiers or brothers and sisters in blue. The ability to take a joke, as well as making them, is vital in this field; however, it is also important to develop discretion when a joke is taken too far, and there will likely be an instance where you will have to stand up for yourself.
I entered the law enforcement field at 22 years of age after graduating college with a Bachelor’s degree. When I started, my colleagues had no respect for me as a police officer. At the time, it was frustrating, but I later realized that they were right to feel the way that they did. I was a rookie with no appreciation for what this career truly meant.
I didn’t want my team to cringe when I pulled up as their back up officer on a traffic stop or a hot call, so I made a decision: I wanted to prove that I would go down with them, even if it meant that we ended up in a not- so-ideal situation. I worked extra hard, studied case law, worked out and took classes that the police department wouldn’t pay for to learn so that I could be good at and respected in my job.
When my husband and I started this dog training business nearly 15 years ago, we ended up in the same position I had been in after becoming an officer. We were in our late twenties and no one wanted to listen to Jason (or me). We did not generate immediate respect from potential clients because our name wasn’t well known and Jason still had a baby face (sorry Jason!).
After realizing that we needed something more, we began studying, taking online classes, reading books, traveling and learning from a variety of people who helped us transform into better dog trainers. Like anything worth doing in life, this process was not easy, but it helped us attain the respect needed to help our clients. Sure, we failed a lot, messed up desired outcomes and gained experience the hard way, but guess what… We got better.
Two cents on the topic
It can be easy to boast about one’s success in any industry, especially if you find success as a female K9 handler in a male dominated industry. What is truly worth it, however, is sneaking up like a ninja, training a badass working dog and letting your results speak for themselves.
My favorite tactic, regardless of if I am hanging around a new class of police/military handlers, students at our academy or clients on a service dog delivery, is to not say anything about my position. I do not introduce myself as the owner or gloat about my resume, I take a back seat and let my trainers do their job. I will typically ask questions or answer questions when asked, but most are pleasantly surprised when they realize who I am. Taking a modest approach to success typically renders significantly better results than broadcasting your accomplishments to the world.
I have several female trainers on my staff who have been labeled ‘bubble gum’ dog trainers solely because of their gender. No – my girls don’t have long beards, dress in tactical black or sport full sleeve tattoos (which are awesome, by the way). These women do not hail from special forces backgrounds with cool sniper stories; however, they know dogs. These trainers understand canines inside and out, understand the science behind odor and know how to start a dog from nothing and train it to be a rockstar working dog.
These women know how to effectively teach handlers and do not demean them when they don’t understand. They have patience, fierce work ethic and – above all – integrity.
More women than ever are entering the police K9 industry. Although the path to succeeding as a female working dog handler, trainer or decoy is still a bewildering maze of uncertainty, it is a journey that is 100% worth the challenge. I have lived this journey, from beginning to end, and can share the secret of success with you right here:
Achieving success and a rewarding career in the working dog industry is not about gender. Succeeding in the working dog industry is about who you are. The aforementioned personality traits are what distinguishes my female trainers and handlers from everyone else – they are the same traits which help any working dog professional navigate this incredible field, the elements which allow them to succeed.