Moses Njathi loved dogs ever since he could remember. Never in his wildest dreams, though, did he imagine that he would end up making a career from this fondness for canines.
He grew up in Muongoiya, near Ruaka town, Kiambu County. He grew up around dogs. “I would tell my dad that we needed to keep real dogs.” The dogs they had were breeds mostly trained and used by law enforcement for security, such as the Great Dane and German Shepherd. Moses considered “real dogs” purebred pedigree.
After completing high School, Moses decided to take up an internship to get a feel of what it was like to be a doctor, since his dream was to practice medicine. He interned for a few months at Dr Dan Gikonyo’s clinic (Dr Gikonyo is a cardiologist and founder of Karen Hospital) an experience he enjoyed and one that convinced him that medicine was his calling.
Unfortunately, when he received his International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) A –Level results, his math grade cut short his chances of studying medicine.
He instead joined Makerere University in Uganda, where he studied biomedical science. After graduation in 2008, he returned home, hoping to get a job. At the time though, the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentist Board (KMPDB) was not registering medical students who had studied in Uganda - he was required to sit for some additional local exams to get a license that would make it possible to be hired locally.
After a few months of trying to get a job in vain, Moses decided to give dog training a shot. He approached the dog master at Bob Morgan (BM) security and explained what he had in mind.
“He was receptive, and I must say that it was a good learning experience.”
He did a two-month training course with them, and once done, he spent a year researching some more in books, DVDs and online tutorials, and then visit BM Security to practice his new-found knowledge.
“Initially when I started, my plan was to sell trained dogs.”
He was also particular about the kind of breed he wanted to solely work with, the Italian Mastiff, a large dog breed. “I just love big dogs,” he says.
It did not work as he had envisioned though. In late 2009, Moses got his first training job.
“I was very excited, he was a German Shepherd, and the owner wanted him trained in protection – I would later learn that I grossly under-quoted that first job, but I was just happy to get started.”
He charged the owner Sh10,000 for six weeks of training, yet should have charged at least Sh40,000 at the time.
Once in a while, he encounters clients who do not appreciate the value of the work he does, explaining that the Kenyan mindset still has a lot to do with, “It’s just a dog.”
“Many people for instance get shocked when I tell them that I feed my nine dogs chicken, they think this is too extravagant. They also don’t believe it when I disclose how much one of them goes for,” he says, adding that during a recent trip to a dog exhibition in Meru, the people there, though in awe at how big his dogs were, were aghast when they learnt how much they cost. One even wondered why they would cost as much as a cow.
Most of Moses’ clients are expats, who understand the value of their dogs and their breeds. He says that 2010 – 2013 were the best years of business, where he got to train at least three to four dogs a month.
Depending on the type of training job, Moses begins his day at 7am. He catches up on the dog’s progress from the dog owner, the dog’s diet and its response to previous sessions as they walk the dog. He then conducts a 10–15 minute training based on the need. Since it is a purely repetitive process for conditioning purposes, it cannot be done for long since the dog tires and gets bored and uncooperative.
What exactly is dog training?
There are many definitions, but I believe that dog training is more about how human beings relate with their dogs. The reason I term what I do dog behaviourism, and not just dog training, is because I train you, the owner, on how to train your dog.
How do you market your business?
I wasn’t doing much advertising initially, which was a mistake on my part. Now I attend exhibitions with the Kenya Livestock Producers Association. I showcase my dogs from county to county. I was in Meru a few weeks ago. I try to go to nearby places, because long car rides also tire the dogs. I have also started a newsletter and also attend networking forums. I also have a Facebook page, K9 Training.
What kind of challenges did your business face other than marketing and pricing?
Especially in the protection training, the biggest challenge is finding someone who understands dogs like you. Some dog handlers pass themselves off as skilled dog trainers. They watch the trainers and think they can do it - the result is that you have many people who say that they are professional dog trainers, yet don’t know enough about dogs.
Is there an ideal dog diet?
Dog meal is made up of byproducts of grains such as wheat, sunflower, maize, with a little omena to cheat the dog that it is eating meat. Dogs do better on a raw meat diet. I feed my dogs on rejected chicken, (underweight, and therefore not fit for selling) bought from trusted farmers. As long as it is good raw meat, your dogs will thrive.
What are some of the myths out there about dogs?
Dogs that are fed raw meat are poisoned easily. No. That is not true. Poison-proofing is training on its own. That takes some time, but it can be done.
What kinds of training do you do?
House training for one. I emphasise to my clients that mine is only to help, because with house training, you have to do it yourself. Dogs’ bowel movements are predictable; they go after they wake up, when they eat and after playing. You have to get the timing right. If yours is a house dog, you have to be on board, you have to be hands on.
I also offer obedience training. This involves teaching a dog commands, and getting it to listen to those commands even under heavy distraction. I also offer protection training. Certain dog breeds, such as the German Shepherd, Italian Mastiff, Bullmastiff, and Russian Mountain dog have innately strong guarding instincts, what they don’t know is how to bite and latch on until commanded to release.
I harness the dog’s innate drive and build it to the point where it can attack and release on command. I also teach tracking – this involves training dogs to pick up a scent on a track. This is different from what sniffer dogs do, though.
Sniffer dogs are mostly trained to pick up the scent of narcotics and explosives. You also have cadaver dogs, which are trained to detect dead bodies. I am not skilled in this kind of training, because one needs to train using the actual objects.
I also do behaviour modification/correction. For instance, if you have a dog that has an annoying habit whose cause you are unable to figure out, I assess and observe the dog and then give the owner feedback, and what he or she needs to do to change it.
I also offer consultation to people who want or have a dog, but don’t know anything about them. I also offer consultation for those interested in dog breeding, besides doing lots of work with security firms, which I help to source dogs, as well as train othem, besides, designing custom-made Kennels for their different dog breeds.
How much do you charge for these services?
Basic consultation to help prospective dog owners figure out the dog they want, and guiding them through the process of finding a dog, I charge Sh5,000. For obedience training, the average cost is Sh40,000, while protection training costs Sh80,000. Some dogs grasp the training fast, while others are slower, which affects the duration of time it takes to learn.
Obedience training takes about three weeks. Protection training works best when it is started from eight weeks old. It is true that old dogs can’t learn new tricks, so the younger the dog is, the better.
What kinds of training methods are unhealthy for dogs?
Some trainers will use fear and intimidation, for instance, if your dog poops in the house, you stick their nose in it or whack its behind. What happens is that your dog will keep doing it, but not in your presence. Dogs respond when you reward good behaviour immediately, or when you apply negative reinforcement there and then; this is a model in psychology called operant conditioning, a type of learning in which the strength of a behaviour is modified by its consequences.
How can you spot a good dog?
Where you get your dog from really matters; a great place to start is the East African Kennel club. Never buy a puppy as a standalone, make sure you see its mother and father. The parents will tell you what kind of character the puppies will have. For example, if you find a very huge dog that is scared or overly aggressive, you expect the same traits in its puppies.
It’s not all about the size of the dog; it’s also about the temperament of the dog. Don’t buy the puppies you see being hawked because they tend to be dehydrated, may be malnourished and are poorly socialised, which affects their development. It’s best to go to a good breeder who can talk to you about the dog’s pedigree.
What are some of the toughest situations you have been in when training dogs?
Every dog is unique, some dogs, like people, have aggressive personalities and will bite you. I have quite a number of dog bites. The South African Boerboel tends to be overly aggressive for instance. It is also hard to train an unmotivated dog. Every dog is different; the tactics you use to train one are not the same ones you will use to train the next.
What does it take to be a dog behaviourist such as yourself?
In Kenya, we don’t have accredited courses on dog behaviourism, the closest place you can study this is in South Africa. You need to have passion and love for dogs. You also need to find a security company with dogs that have a good history, such as Bob Morgan (BM); their dogs compete at the annual East African Kennel obedience trials.
Get a good training mentor, and get as much experience as you can. There are many resources online, many free and some at a cost that can help you learn and understand dogs. And finally, keep practicing what you learn.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT DOGS
Anything you teach your dog from eight weeks is training, they become accustomed to it.
If your dog is going to live outside, then from day one, it stays outside, and vice versa.
Dogs need boundaries
Dogs pick up on your energy, that’s why when you are sad, they will move close to you and brush themselves against you; it is their way of consoling you.
When holding a dog on a leash, it knows whether you are confident or scared.
Your dog can love you, but not necessarily respect you.
You have to change many things if you are a first-time dog owner. You have to make room and time for the dog, walk it, feed it consistently, and potty train it.
There are no bad dogs, it’s all about how you socialise and train them.
Dogs need structure and leadership.
Old dogs really can’t be taught new tricks. By age five, it is hard to teach them anything new.
Dogs don’t like being patted on the head, they prefer being stroked gently on the side. And a stroking under their chin soothes them.
A great way to show your dog praise is to lower yourself to a less intimidating height and rub its chest from the side.
Name: Moses Njathi
University: Makerere, Uganda
Course: Biomedical science
Career: Dog trainer
Firm: K9 Training