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Life & Work with Amy Fitzsimmons

Today we’d like to introduce you to Amy Fitzsimmons.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I’ve always been a crazy dog person, even before I had a dog. It was my constant, never ceasing ask as a child. I attempted to bargain my young life away, writing up contracts of everything I’d do if my mom would just get me a dog. I wished for one every time I blew out birthday candles and on every penny, I threw into fountains up and down the east coast. I tried to find shooting stars in the sky and times when the numbers were the same on clocks and any ridiculous superstition that someone said meant you could make a wish. My senior year of college, I seized my moment and adopted a dog who would become the love of my life. She was also a fearful rottweiler mix who when pushed, would escalate to defensive aggression with both people and dogs.

At the time, I knew nothing about dog behavior and struggled with the same challenges most people face when trying to help the dogs they love with behavior issues. I was overwhelmed by the glut of misinformation on the internet and the advice of an unqualified trainer (two, actually) and the way that advice conflicted with my instincts and what I felt was compassionate, ethical treatment of my dog. I often think of how, if I knew then what I know now, I could have made my dog’s first few years a whole lot smoother and less scary for her. But as the saying goes, when we know better, we do better. She was my gateway to the world of dog behavior and helping dogs and the humans who love them find their best version if possible. I spent the early part of my adult career as a teacher focused on at-risk early childhood education and teen mentoring while volunteering at animal shelters on the side. More and more, I saw the overlap between the two fields and was driven by the same impulses in each: to ensure that there was a path forward for at-risk dogs and humans that meant they didn’t have to be defined by the struggles of their pasts. I imagine those impulses are rooted in my own childhood and the work it’s taken to move past it.

The further I’ve traveled in both education and experience in the behavior field, the more I’ve come to understand that the right interventions and expectations are critical and that they need to come with a big dose of evidence based knowledge and empathy. I’ve since founded behavior programs at two local shelters and started a non-profit with four other like-minded women with the mission of helping shelter dogs with more resource intensive behavior needs before finally moving to the dog behavior field full-time with my business, Dog Possible. Working with behavior cases and with dogs living in shelters can be emotionally challenging, sometimes more than it needs to be where circumstances different. But in over a decade, my passion and love for the work and for the dogs and people it brings me into contact with hasn’t dimmed one bit. I feel incredibly lucky to get to do this for a living and to be consistently inspired by the resilience and humor of dogs and the people who love them. We named our business Dog Possible for a reason and that’s what I continue to believe in; helping dogs and humans find their best version of possible together.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
I think the majority of obstacles that exist within the intersection of people and dogs stem from the foundational issues of inappropriate expectations and misunderstanding of dog behavior. This truly is a field where everyone is wildly overconfident in what they think they know and misinformation abounds. Not only is the field of dog training itself unregulated despite the existence of certification bodies, much of the information that makes it to television and the internet is often surprisingly out of step with the science of behavior, best practices in the field, and consensus of expert opinion and leadership bodies. I think getting good information to the public and to shelters/rescues as well would go such a long way to knocking out a lot of obstacles myself and colleagues run into. What does quality of life look like for dogs and how can we ensure we’re providing it? What does compassionate, evidenced-based behavior modification look like? What do reasonable expectations look like for the dog in front of us and are we ensuring we’re setting the dogs we care about up to succeed? There is an excellent quote from Bob Bailey that says, “Training often fails because people expect way too much of the animal and way too little of themselves.” I think it’s often not just too much but that we truly don’t have a good foundational understanding of what is normal and natural for dogs.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Dog Possible specializes in behavior modification and offers a range of options tailored to both private clients and their canine companions and to dogs currently housed in shelters or foster homes. I partner with the Orange Dot Crew, the volunteer behavior team at our city shelter, Austin Animal Center, and with local non-profit Austin Bulldog Rescue to support their program dogs. My business partner Jen and I are committed to training and care practices that are fun, don’t hurt, and help dogs and their people better understand each other and achieve the best relationship and quality of life possible for everyone. We think it’s important for our qualifications to match the work we do and to that end, we engage in continued education and pursuit of relevant credentials. I am a Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC-KA) through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and Certified Shelter Behavior Consultant (CSBC-D) through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. We also value our local behavior community. I think it’s collaboration and a sense of teamwork among professionals and organizations who embrace a humane and evidence-based approach that has the power to best effect positive change in the field. I feel lucky to have a wonderful group of local colleagues, some of whom are close friends, and that we are able to rely on one another for collaboration. I think there’s a lot of power in embracing one another as a community rather than competition.

Is there any advice you’d like to share with our readers who might just be starting out?
I think the most critical piece of being effective in the dog behavior field and doing justice to the needs of the dogs and humans that rely on you is understanding the importance of *both* in-depth education and experience and how neither is enough on its own. It’s also very important that we all know where our strengths and weaknesses lie and that we don’t allow our own inexperience or ego to cause us to either dramatize or downplay behaviors or to take cases we are not ready or well suited for. Take your time learning and take the responsibility of influencing behavior and impacting the life and care of a sentient species not your own seriously. We owe it to the dogs to ensure we’re genuinely qualified to help them.

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Image Credits
Sarah Jurgenson Throop – personal photo

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