There are a lot of things that Phylis Muthoni answers with a smile. Two she raves about: Zayn, her three-year-old son, and animals, especially dogs. But today the conversation is about the dogs – his love for them, his desire to make sure they live a good life and to make that happen.
“I love dogs because they are incomparable to other animals. They are loyal and intelligent. As great companions, dogs provide psychological support as they ward off loneliness and the stresses of life,” she says.
Ms. Muthoni is a dog trainer working specifically with companion dogs. His job is to train, walk and groom these beloved four-legged animals, affectionately known as “man’s best friend”. His passion for dogs overflows.
For this interview, we are in his office – a small playground in Riverside, Nairobi. Today is play day for Tulip, one of his clients’ dogs. A cross between Springer Spaniel and Boykin Spaniel, she tells me.
Born 32 years ago, Ms. Muthoni grew up surrounded by dogs. “Unlike today’s dogs who have names and live in luxury, ours didn’t have names. He ate what we ate and slept outside, which kept us safe,” she recalls .
But this unnamed male dog was in her company as she lived her best life as a child running around their house and perching on the trees. He also aroused in her an interest in everything related to dogs because through him she knew “the beauty of dogs”.
The mother of one has a dog called Oreo, a cross between a Black Shepherd and a Golden Retriever, who is her son’s favorite playmate. She describes Oreo as playful and loyal.
As she strokes, claws and cuddles Tulip, runs and jumps with her, the bond between them is one of affection.
Is this the work environment she had imagined?
“Yes,” she replies. “But I went ahead and studied pharmaceutical technology. After all, dog training wasn’t a practical career choice back then.
But neither does Pharmaceutical Technology, since it has never darkened the door of a potential employer.
“Discouraged, I took a short training course in hospitality and immediately got a job. My love for footed animals remained buried, only to be discovered when I was a volunteer with the Kenya Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (KSPCA). My plan was to work smart, hoping someone would notice and give me a job. 18 months later, nothing,” says the dog lover.
Her breakthrough came from a beef burger and a gin and tonic at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress.
She continues: “During a conversation, I talked about me and my dogs. You can imagine my surprise when the client said he had a canine facility and extended an invite.
What was supposed to be an hour visit lasted a day. A day shaping destiny is what she calls it because the life she wanted became entirely possible, and the owner was there to start it ever since he offered her a job. From then on, his life became sunshine and rainbows.
“I looked forward to Mondays. In the two years I worked there, I honed the skills I learned at KSPCA and added dog grooming to my list of deliverables,” she shares.
In 2022, she finished wrapping herself in cotton and ventured out on her own. So far she has trained seven dogs and has a steady stream of clients whose dogs she regularly walks and grooms. Most of them come through referrals.
For the 32-year-old, training dogs isn’t just about teaching them how to behave properly and how to pee and poop.
“I train with the future in mind. Having a dog is beautiful but it can be stressful. I want the dog and its owner to enjoy life together,” she notes, adding that the best time to train a dog is when they are puppies. Adults can also be trained, but this will take longer than the average eight weeks. Less time, if the dog is smart.
The mother of one of them did not escape dog bites, but bravely endured them and proudly bore the resulting scars.
“I embrace scars because I love dogs. It’s embracing pleasure and pain. Also, dogs don’t bite for no reason. They’re either provoked or untrained.
To date, she has yet to meet another dog trainer. “When I was volunteering at KSPCA in 2015, the majority of the volunteers were men. I was the only black woman. The other women were white and Indian,” she reveals, sharing some thoughts on why which this might be the case.
Being a dog trainer was not and still is not considered an ideal career. In fact, she still finds herself explaining, especially to locals, what a dog trainer does and why it’s important. Fortunately, this is changing as more and more Kenyans adjust to pet ownership.
Second, it’s a dirty job. The job description includes washing dirty and smelly dogs and picking them up. Most women prefer to avoid this. However, she sees herself as someone who holds the door for many women to follow.
“If you really love dogs, give it a try. It’s a well-paying job and looking to the future, the opportunity is huge. Plus, women are more likely to be better dog trainers than company than men because we are naturally nurturers and dogs are like children but with four legs. Men can train security dogs,” she laughs.
The training of security dogs is not his part. “The dogs are huge and heavy. Definitely heavier than me and the training is aggressive. I will probably feel sorry for them.
So what does it take to be a dog trainer, and since it’s a predominantly male field, does a woman have to work harder to prove her worth?
“No. The training offered is similar. What is different is the approach. We add a soft touch and are warm. However, to be successful, you have to be willing to get dirty, love animals, not just dogs , be a keen observer to know how dogs communicate and know how to approach dogs since each dog has a different personality.