There are many things to which Phylis Muthoni responds with a smile. Two over which she gushes: Zayn, her three-year-old son and animals, especially dogs. But today, the conversation is about dogs – her love for them, her desire to ensure they live a good life and making this happen.
“I love dogs because they‘re incomparable to other animals. They’re loyal and intelligent. As excellent companions, dogs offer psychological support since they ward off loneliness and life's stresses,” she says.
Ms. Muthoni is a dog trainer working specifically with pet dogs. Her work entails training, walking and grooming these beloved four-legged animals, fondly referred to as ‘man’s best friend’. Her passion for dogs overflows.
For this interview, we’re at her office – a small playground in Riverside, Nairobi. Today is play day for Tulip, one of her clients’ dogs. A cross of Springer Spaniel and a Boykin Spaniel, she tells me.
Born 32 years ago, Ms. Muthoni grew up around dogs. “Unlike today’s dogs that have names and live in luxury, ours didn’t have a name. It ate what we ate and slept outside, providing security for us,” she recalls.
But that nameless male dog was in her company as she lived her best life as a child running around their home and perching herself on trees. He also sparked in her an interest for everything dogs as through him she experienced “the beauty of dogs”.
The mother of one has a dog called Oreo, a cross of a Black Shepherd and a Golden Retriever, who’s her son’s favourite playmate. She describes Oreo as playful and loyal.
As she pets, scratches and cuddles Tulip, runs and jumps with her, the bond between them is one of affection.
Is this the work environment she had envisioned for herself?
“Yes,” she replies. “But I went ahead and studied Pharmaceutical Technology. After all, dog training wasn’t a practical career choice then.”
But neither was Pharmaceutical Technology since she never darkened the door of a potential employer.
“Disheartened, I did a short course in hospitality, landing a job immediately. My love for the pawed animals remained buried, only to be unearthed when I was a volunteer at 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,” the dog lover says.
Her breakthrough came over a beef burger, and a gin and tonic, at the restaurant she was working as a waitress.
She continues: “Over a conversation, I mentioned about me and my dogs. You can imagine my surprise when the client said he owned a dog facility and extended an invitation.”
What was to be an hour’s visit, lasted a day. A destiny-shaping day is what she calls it because the life she wanted became very possible, and the owner was on hand to start her off since he offered her a job. From then on, her life became sunshine and rainbows.
“I looked forward to Mondays. During the two years I worked there, I perfected the skills I had gained at KSPCA, and added dog grooming to my list of deliverables,” she shares.
In 2022, she was done wrapping herself in cotton wool and ventured out on her own. So far, she’s trained seven dogs and has a steady stream of clients whose dogs she walks and grooms regularly. Most of them come through referrals.
To the 32-year-old, dog training is more than teaching them how to behave properly and where to pee and poop.
“I train with the future in mind. Having a dog is beautiful but it can be nerve-racking. 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’re puppies. Adults can be trained too, but it will take longer than the average eight weeks. Lesser time, if the dog is intelligent.
The mother of one hasn’t escaped dog bites but has borne them bravely and worn the resulting scars proudly.
“I embrace scars because I love the dogs. It’s embracing the pleasure and the pain. Plus, dogs don’t just bite for no reason. They’re either provoked or untrained.”
To date, she’s yet to meet another female dog trainer. “When I was volunteering at KSPCA in 2015, majority of the volunteers were men. I was the only black woman. The other women were white and Indian,” she reveals, sharing a few thoughts on why this could be the case.
Being a dog trainer was not, and still isn’t viewed as an ideal career. In fact, she still finds herself explaining, especially to locals, what a dog trainer does and why it’s important. Thankfully, this is changing as more of Kenyans adapt to having pets.
Secondly, it’s a dirty job. The job description includes washing dirty and smelly dogs and picking after them. Most ladies would rather avoid this. However, she sees herself as one holding the door for many women to follow after her.
“If you genuinely love dogs, give it a try. It’s a well-paying job and looking at the future, the opportunity is enormous. Also, women are more likely to be better pet dog trainers than men because we’re naturally nurturers, and dogs are like children but with four legs. Men can train security dogs,” she says and laughs.
Training security dogs is not her portion. “The dogs are huge and heavy. Definitely heavier than me and the training is aggressive. I’ll most likely feel sorry for them.”
So what does it take to be a dog trainer and since it’s mostly a male-dominated field, does a woman have to work harder to prove her worth?
“No. The training offered is similar. What’s different is the approach. We add a gentle touch and are warm. However, to be successful, you must agree 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.”