How to Handle Criticism of Your Training (Even When It's Hard)

As dog trainers and handlers, we are bound to be critiqued. It can be by your teacher or, more importantly, by a judge at a competition.

If you are in the business of dog training, as perfect as you strive to be, you'll eventually get a student that didn't like your services. Maybe they had a rough day and were already trigger-stacked. Maybe you didn't find a way to connect with them. Maybe they simply didn't like your style.

All of these things are normal, and it's important not to take them too personally.

Easier said than done, right?!

I have to admit, I have a hard time taking criticism. I'm not the best at it. It's a constant struggle for me, because I subconsciously don't allow myself to fall short. I'm sure a lot of you can relate. We've all had difficulties with criticism at some point. No one wants to let the others down.

However, that doesn't mean I don't try as hard as I can to improve how I respond to criticism.

Critics are hard, but remember that both our pride and our need to explain can get in the way of learning how to be a better version of ourselves when someone points out our shortcomings (in a delicate or not-so-delicate manner).

So how can you take criticism the "right way"?  

Take a Deep Breath

I could give you the ideal step-by-step on how to respond to criticism, but there is no way you'd be able to do it if you're in a negative state of mind. I know that because I'm exactly the same! We're all humans after all. So, the first thing you need to do, is take a deep breath.

The one thing you must absolutely never do is lash out and attack the person. That may be obvious when the criticism comes from a judge or a teacher, but I've seen people respond in an unkind manner to a particularly rude review on their business page.

As we're all sensible people here, I'm pretty sure everyone agrees that even if some critics are just impolite and their criticism undeserved, we need to be "the better person" and handle it with grace... Even if we want to scream.


Taking a deep breath will allow you to clear your mind to be able to do that. (We'll get into more details on how to respond to public complaints in my Pet Professionals Program workshop on how to handle difficult communications with clients).

The second thing you might be tempted to do is explain yourself. Boy do I struggle with this one... I'm right there with you. In the moment, we just want to justify our actions, why we made the decisions we did, where we are coming from, etc. The best thing to do, though, is to take a deep breath, thank the person, and take a moment to reflect on what just happened.

If it's your teacher, you could always explain later, if you feel like you still need to; if it's a judge, explaining probably won't change your score. If it's a client calling or emailing you, tell them you noted their concerns and will get right back to them. Of course, you'll need to write or call them in a timely manner, but replying this way initially will allow you to think and evaluate with a clear mind, rather than reacting on the spot.

If you own a dog training business, I suggest you write your "thank you for letting us know" email right now, while you are in a neutral state of mind... That means you won't end up writing it when you're emotional and probably feeling defensive. Your template email will be the best version it can be, and you will be able to send it fast and get it over with when you need it.

Without overthinking it or having each word cost you as much.

Actually, if you do own a business, it's best if someone else handles the criticism. Because they are a neutral person, it'll be easier for you to tell them your version and easier for the client to explain why they are not happy. The third person will be able to find a middle ground and solve the problem with the least amount of emotional turmoil possible. I understand that's not always possible, but if you can do that, I strongly suggest you do.

Take the Time to Reflect and Calm Yourself

Allow yourself to be angry if you need to. Sometimes criticism is just unfair. It happens. We need to process our emotions. I have worked in sales and customer services for almost 15 years and I have encountered my share of eeerrmm… special clients?

We all have bad days. Tell your friends if you need to, but then move on. Your negative emotions, like a river, need to flow rather than pool and fester.

Then it's time to think and ponder. Criticism allows you to get better, even if it is uncomfortable. Even if the teacher, judge, or client was rude or impolite, ask yourself if there is something that can be learned from their comment or suggestion.

If you need to answer to them, try to respond in the most neutral way possible. Again, thank them for taking the time to write to you, say that you have taken note of all their comments and, if need be, tell them the changes you made to help prevent the situation or solve their issue (ideally both).

If it's a teacher, remember that you are paying them to make you better. Try their suggestion and, if it doesn't work, show them with your dog and ask them how they would do it. If it's a judge, well, I don't think there is anything you can do except try and get better for the next competition.

The main question is, "What can you learn from this critic?"

Not how wrong the person giving it was or how poorly they phrased it. Even if they could have handled it better, what were they trying to say that will help you? 

Remember Why You're There

Remember that you are there for you and your dog (or, if you're a trainer, for you and your students). 

Some people are just never pleased. So focus on what is important.

If you are uncomfortable with your teacher's suggestion, like if they suggest you hurt or intimidate your dog, it's okay to just be polite and never come back. You don't need to follow their advice. Never coming back and ceasing the relationship is acceptable. If you get the occasional troll writing lies in a public review, you can just act naive and say your records don't match with their name, but you would like to solve their issue if they provide additional information. The readers can read between the lines, and you'll still have kept your polite and professional persona.

Remember that you are there for your dogs. To have fun with them. Or with your students, that want to do their homework, like your teaching, and will be great ambassadors for your business. If the critics are wrong and there is nothing to be improved, then just let it go and concentrate your energy on what matters.

You'll Never Be Perfect, So Don't Try To Be

You'll make yourself sick with pressure if you try to be perfect for everyone in every situation. It's just not possible.

Criticism is normal; you can't please everyone.

People will always have ideas to suggest. People will always have preferences. We all have our own personal tastes. No matter how hard you try, you'll never please everyone, so you might as well be yourself and find your tribe.

The key is to try and be the best person you can, but to also be realistic. It'll never be possible to avoid criticism completely.

Feedback and criticism drive improvement.

They will always be present.

How you react will show how you let it define you. 

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