For Abhilasha Sharma, dogs aren’t just pets; they are friend, family, companion and protector. But–like with most animals, including humans–they need to be trained. And Sharma, one of Kathmandu’s most popular dog trainers, is the one to do it.
“Most people don’t realise that dog training is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” says Sharma, a 26-year-old self-employed dog trainer and behaviourist. “For a dog and human to share a healthy relationship, it’s necessary that they understand each other–and this understanding takes time and work.”
Humans and dogs share a history that goes back millennia. Dogs were the first animals that humans domesticated, and there are scientists who argue that humans are the way we are now because of our affinity to dogs. Dogs and humans co-evolved and so, we share a bond that is hardwired into both our species’ genes.
Even Hindu mythology has tapped into the bond that we share with canines. There is a tale in the Mahabharat, towards the end, where Yudhisthir refuses heaven for his dog. Then, there is the celebrated true story of Hachiko, a Japanese dog who continued to wait for his dead human for over nine years before dying himself.
It is this relation that Sharma attempts to give some structure to. In 2014, she quit a well-paying chartered accountancy job to take up her rather unconventional career as a dog behaviourist. Now, she’s one of Kathmandu’s top dog trainers–the first name that comes up when you google ‘dog trainer in Kathmandu’.
From CA to dog trainer
Growing up in India, Sharma was always surrounded by animals–even donkeys and camels. “My mother was an animal lover, and she taught me a great deal about respecting animals and knowing the boundaries,” says Sharma. “I learned at a very young age the difference between loving someone and hurting them.” So, it was only natural that Sharma would develop a special affinity towards animals.
As a teenager, Sharma had a pomeranian that she effectively trained on her own, going on to invest her spare time in training her neighbours’ dogs, pro bono. It was in the tenth grade that she got her first paid job.
“I was paid Rs 2,000 to train a dog,” says Sharma. “I have to admit, my first paid job was also the worst. I mean, it worked out in the end but it was not easy.”
However, she never thought that she would pursue a career as a dog trainer and behaviourist. She studied chartered accountancy and worked for organisations such as Barclays. But despite hopping from one job to another, she learnt soon that she was not cut out for a nine-to-five job.
In 2014, Sharma came to Kathmandu as a tourist and fell in love. But the condition of the city’s dogs moved her and she decided to help. she knew it would take her a while to start making any money. Fortunately, she had enough savings to help her survive in the years she would work ceaselessly to become who she is today.
“The first three years of my dog training career were a pure learning experience. It was not about the money. I couldn’t afford to make it about the money,” she says. It was during this time that Sharma learnt one of the most valuable lessons–“once you figure out what you want in life and work in that direction, you get through the hardships.”
Every dog is special
Sharma’s specialty lies in providing customised service as per the dog’s issues and the owner’s necessities. Over the last few years, she has worked with over 150 dogs and dog owners. For some dogs, two classes will suffice while for others, it might range from six weeks to six months.
Every dog comes with its own aptitude and characteristics, and it’s important to pick up on them. She learnt this during her 20-day training with John Rogerson, an acclaimed British dog trainer and behaviourist whose techniques have become standard practice in dog behaviour therapy and training across the world.
“His method of teaching was interesting,” says Sharma. “He never told me what to do. Instead, he asked me to understand, communicate and connect with each dog that he trained me with.”
While Rogerson’s training might have helped Sharma learn the ropes, today, she applies her own tried and tested methods to her work. “It’s a very practical job and there’s no such thing as going by the books,” says Sharma. “You have to learn on the job. No matter what career you pursue, you have to keep learning and evolving and implementing new skills.”
From proactively looking for clients to building an organic client base that grows by word-of-mouth, Sharma has come a long way. Today, she doesn’t just provide door-to-door service but also has a cage-free space of her own where she can accommodate up to 18 dogs as part of her kennel-boarding service.
Sharma attributes this success to a vision that she has stayed true to–of building an educated, healthy community that thrives on knowledge and not on myth or trends. When owners adopt lifestyles that are not beneficial to their pets, they end up failing their dogs. Sharma wants to knock some sense into these kinds of owner through her services. She is stern when it comes to her values.
“We love dogs, alright, but we are also miseducated. People in my industry are misleading dog owners,” says Sharma. “We are seeing Huskies and St Bernards in Nepal. They try, but do not always succeed in acclimating. By buying such breeds, we are basically tying them down to a long life of suffering. How is this love?”
I only work with humans
For Sharma, the secret of her success is that she doesn’t just train dogs, but also their owners. With the right techniques, she can train a dog in five days’ time; it’s the dog owners who take a lot more time.
“Dogs look up to their owners and are greatly affected by their human’s patterns and habits. As long as humans don’t change their patterns, neither will the dogs,” she says.
So often, Sharma has to confront dog owners about their bad habits to make the training reap solid results.
“Communicating with the owners is as important as communicating with the dogs,” she says. “I need to connect with them to understand how I can connect with the dogs. Only when the owners are disciplined will the dogs be too.”
Perhaps, this is why she always comes with good recommendations.
As good as it gets
In Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, British professor John Bradshaw writes, “The capacity for love that makes dogs such rewarding companions has a flip-side: They find it difficult to cope without us. Since we humans programmed this vulnerability, it’s our responsibility to ensure that our dogs do not suffer as a result.”
When talking to Sharma, one can see that she works in this vein. She has no plans of changing her career anytime soon, because she not only loves what she does but it also serves a purpose for her. While her family is still coming to terms with her career choice, she says they have started to acknowledge her success. Awards such as the CMO Asia Nepal Leadership Award, which Abhilasha received for her work last year, help in this validation.
“My job is tougher than it seems, but it’s also more rewarding than one can imagine. It comes with great satisfaction,” she says.
“I meet a variety of people and a variety of dogs every day, and when I am lucky, I also get to learn a new language through my clients,” says Sharma. “The fact that I don’t have to stick to a nine-to-five job that confines me to an office is already a plus point. But the best part about my job is that I encounter kindness, love and friendship, every day.”