Women & Working Dogs, Part 4: Erin Purgason

erin purgason highland canine

Welcome to the final installment of our ‘Women and Working Dogs’ series here at Highland Canine Training. In four previous articles, we’ve looked at the vital roles some of our female dog trainers perform in activities at Highland Canine, working with amazing dogs to fulfill a number of purposes. If you missed any of them, here’s a short recap to point you in the right direction!

In the first article of this series in December 2019, we sat down with Brandi Wallwork, Director of Service Dog Programs. We spoke with Brandi about her journey to Highland Canine and how her role helps to match fully-trained service dogs with families across the nation.

Our second article featured Shana Parsnow, Manager of Working Dog Operations. Shana spoke about the challenges of training dogs for detection, trailing and patrol purposes, in addition to the rewarding aspects of making a positive difference to communities by taking harmful substances off the nation’s streets.

Another member of our working dog team is Amber Siebsen. Amber was the focus of our third article, where we learned about assessing dogs for working capabilities and how she helped to train a conservation detection dog to locate bees.

To conclude this series, it’s the turn of Erin Purgason – the owner of Highland Canine Training, LLC.

Just over one year ago, Erin outlined a few of her thoughts on the role of women in the working dog industry. In this article, Erin expands on her thoughts and offers a first-person perspective on the future of females in this field.

"There is a shift for women in the working dog industry. People are starting to ask us questions and, more importantly, are actually listening to our answers."

In the course of my life and professional career, I have met several amazing women who have paved the way and provided us with strength and inspiration to forge successful careers. These women continue to do this, showing how to juggle a successful working life alongside other things like raising a family, mentoring the younger generation, giving back to our communities, and also having some fun along the way.  

Our society – alongside many supportive men – is learning that our voice and skills are different than our male counterparts, but if you throw all of our skills together, our achievements have no boundaries.

It has taken dog training – particularly working dog divisions of dog training – a few decades to catch up. Not only have women had to break the glass ceiling, but also, younger trainers (and some of the older ones who have learned new tricks) have needed a chance to show off different styles, methods, and the science behind their skills. 

Just to clarify, when I refer to working dog training, let me give you a list:  

erin purgason

The good news is that there is a shift for women in the working dog industry. People are starting to ask us questions and, more importantly, are actually listening to our answers. It has honestly made me and the girls on my team at Highland uncomfortable. But when I say uncomfortable, I mean that it is actually astonishing when you don’t have to constantly prove that you know what you’re talking about. We are always learning and keep an open mind, but I believe actions speak louder than words. My girls prove this every single day when they come to work.

Some dog training companies are starting to change their tactics and highlight the hard work our women in working dogs are doing on a daily basis. Jason and I realized several years ago that some of these women we have met – whether through our School for Dog Trainers, at seminars, or by traveling the world, are able to work circles around many of the men who have been in the canine industry for decades. We decided to showcase them and give them more of a voice.

I also believe that podcasts like Working Dog Radio have smashed the old platform and opened the K9 world to everyone; they also go out of their way to highlight women involved in working dog training.

There is a group of people in the canine industry – consisting of men and women, and from all backgrounds of canine experience – who unintentionally became tired of the same old, same old when it came to the world of working dogs.  They were fed up of the days where you just had to follow along with the practice of what trainers had been doing for 40 to 50 years.  We were sick of hearing the phrase, ‘The only thing two dog trainers can agree on, is what the third is doing wrong’. The only platform to get your voice heard was at a seminar, which was often political depending on your sponsorships or who you knew. 

This group decided it was okay to hang out with your competitors. It was fine to have different theories and methods of training. In the end, as long as we are all trying our best to put out good dogs and make handlers better, there is no need for politics. 

erin purgason owner highland canine

At Highland Canine we have a great mix of men and women in all divisions of our company. That’s so important to us to keep that balance, if possible. We base our hiring on integrity and strong work ethic, and Jason and I don’t care what that looks like! Our School for Dog Trainers averages about 50/50 male and female – each class is a little different.  

For the future of women in the working dog industry, I think we will continue to see growth. Personally, I would like to see more female handlers come through our police canine handler schools, we currently only average a few a year. I want to see women continue to be uncomfortable, that way we are always changing and improving.  Let’s get out there, mess up, start over, and just get better and better. I love seeing our ladies jumping into those bite suits! 

If we keep changing our platforms and refrain from growing stagnant in the industry, our voices will only become clearer. We will stand beside our male counterparts in the industry as equals. The working dog industry will benefit from that.

– Erin