Over the coming months, we will be publishing a series of articles exploring the stories behind our female dog trainers at Highland Canine. Our trainers provide canines for a multitude of purposes, including service dogs for autistic children, police dogs for detection and apprehension, and most recently, conservation detection dogs to protect and preserve our environment.
In the first article of the series, we spoke with Brandi Wallwork – our Director of Service Dog Programs. We discussed Brandi’s experiences with dogs prior to joining Highland Canine, what prompted her to start a career training service dogs, and how she handles finding the perfect match for families across the country.
As Director of Service Dog Programs at Highland Canine, Brandi Wallwork has a job which is both demanding and rewarding. Providing autism service dogs for children, or mobility service dogs for those who struggle to move freely, requires incredible knowledge and deep understanding – as well as the ability to connect with clients on a very personal level.
Often dealing with families who have tried several options and feel like a service dog may be their last hope or option, Brandi’s patient, personalized approach is vital in matching the right dog with the right family.
Her journey to leading Highland’s Service Dog division included a stint managing a dog daycare and boarding facility, and graduating from Highland Canine’s School for Dog Trainers. But before that, as is the case for many of us, Brandi’s love affair with dogs started at home as a child, as she explains.
“For as long as I can remember, my family has owned dogs. I grew up loving all dogs in general, as our family owned everything from a German Shepherd to a Rat Terrier throughout the years.
As a teen, I did not follow the stereotypical wish for a car, as my heart was set on the idea of having my very own dog. And, when my 16th birthday came, my parents made my wish come true. I picked out a Pembroke Welsh Corgi puppy and gave her the unique name Mynkus.
We quickly learned that, though “small and cute”, this breed was extremely smart and even more energetic. Without much experience in the world of herding breeds, Mynkus grew up with a lack of structure, proper socialization, and training. Though there was no short supply of love and confusion on our parts. We had owned many dogs but never came across one like Mynkus.”
The decision to become a dog trainer
As time went by, Mynkus started to behave aggressively and had to be separated from the other dogs in Brandi’s home. It became impossible to take her out in public. Brandi eagerly tried to find solutions to the problems Mynkus was causing – yet her investigations didn’t always yield success.
“The information out there was vast, confusing, and often conflicting. Even after speaking with several professional dog trainers, I found no one who could give me answers to her extreme aggression. I realized that there must be tons of other dog owners facing similar situations and heartache. I could see the amazing potential in Mynkus but had no idea how to unlock it.
Finally, I decided I would become a professional dog trainer so I could begin answering those questions myself.”
In her quest to help Mynkus – and other dogs and families in a similar position – Brandi started to save up for a course at the School for Dog Trainers. She also spent three years managing a dog daycare and boarding facility, which gave her additional perspectives on common miscommunication in the human-canine relationship.
“During my time managing the dog daycare and boarding facility, I noticed a large amount of dog owners that could not read their dog’s behaviors and would often misinterpret their meanings. At that point, we typically had 60 dogs at the facility per day and in various play groups.
I became familiar with some of the dog language. I already had an interest in behavior problems but my time at the daycare also fueled an interest in learning how to educate dog owners and handlers about their dog’s body language and behaviors.”
Learning at the School for Dog Trainers
The majority of dog trainers Brandi had spoken with were self-taught and had no formal education in canine behavior. Upon attending the School for Dog Trainers, Brandi realized she had made the right decision – perhaps even quicker than she’d anticipated.
“I was blown away with the amount of information and experience I was given. The first week of my class proved my decision was worth every penny. With the foundational knowledge of psychology as it relates to dogs and then the enormous amount of real life experience offered, I felt comfortable entering the dog training career immediately after graduation.”
Brandi’s time at the School for Dog Trainers had a significant impact on the direction her dog training career would take, as she explains.
“During my time as a student, I became extremely interested in the aspect of service dog training. I was amazed at all the things dogs could learn and effectively use in helpful and sometimes even lifesaving ways.
I began working with the service dogs in 2014 after graduating from Highland Canine and found a passion in it. Though I have always been interested in behavior analysis and modification, service dog training was an interest that surfaced once I learned of it during my time in school. I worked closely with both dogs in training and the families who had applied for service dogs.
As my time and experience in the service dog industry grew, I began my position as the Director of Service Dog Programs and have been able to offer even more toward our service dog program.”
Working closely with families requiring a service dog
As the Director of Service Dog Programs, Brandi has worked very closely with several families and individuals who are seeking the addition of a service dog. She plays a pivotal role at all stages of the application process, from initial discussions, all the way to the final delivery of the service dog themselves.
Developing a connection and providing support on a personal level is imperative in her work, as Brandi explains.
“Throughout my years as a service dog trainer and now the Director, I have worked very closely with countless families and individuals seeking the addition of a service dog. Many of these people have struggled with specific things about their disabilities for years and I have heard many times from several families that applying for a service dog feels like their last hope or option.
The majority of our clients end up feeling just like family to me so I make it a priority to give them as much support and personalized care as possible. I have laughed and cried with clients. I’ve become close friends with many. The pressure to seek out the perfect match and train the dog to meet all of their needs can feel daunting at times but I’ve found that the key is to simply connect with people on a personal level.
By essentially offering clients a new member of their family, it’s only natural that the trainers would want to be a part of the family’s lives. It’s amazing to see how everyone grows after the addition of their service dog and how helpful they can be in the lives of their new family and handler.”
A day in the life...
With so many varied responsibilities at all parts of the process, is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ week for Brandi? What does her day-to-day work look like?
“One of the best things about my job is that there is no “typical”. Every day is different. Every week is different.
As the Director of Service Dog Programs, I spend a lot of time speaking with people who are just starting the process, troubleshooting problems that families may be having with their current service dog, working with the dogs, testing puppies for the program, developing web content and articles to help with service dog education, and more.
As the lead service dog instructor for the School for Dog Trainers, I also develop lectures, teach and assist students, grade practicals, lead outings, and more.”
And finally – almost a decade after deciding to enter the field of dog training, and with several years as Director of Service Dog Programs under her belt – how does Brandi summarize her time at Highland so far?
“I have felt truly blessed for the opportunity of building my dog training career at Highland. I have seen this organization grow immensely and I am still in awe of everything it offers. I’m proud to be a part of the team.”