/Army veteran becomes dog trainer after puppy eased PTSD

Army veteran becomes dog trainer after puppy eased PTSD

  • Dave Shade is a former paratrooper who now owns a dog-training company, At Attention Dog Training.
  • Shade’s career began when he was fostering dogs and couldn’t pay for the training, so he learned how to do it himself.
  • This is what Shade’s job is like, as told to freelance writer Susan Johnston Taylor.

Dave Shade is a former paratrooper who now owns a dog-training school, At Attention Dog Training. This is his story, as told to freelance writer Susan Johnston Taylor.

I always wanted a dog, but my mom didn’t think I’d take care of it. 

At 19, I was serving in Afghanistan and our lead vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. Usually, I drove that vehicle. But on that day, a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” decided that my crew would go for hot chow and a shower instead. The guy who was in my seat — my friend Private Jordan Goode — died from his wounds.

Another time, our platoon got ambushed and a rocket-propelled grenade went screaming across my vehicle. We got hit with improvised explosive devices several more times. I blew out my knees and bit the sides of my tongue off.  

After serving for four years, I came home to Pennsylvania with a Purple Heart — and a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The army trains us not to have empathy. Numbing myself made me an effective fighter, but it came at a cost. PTSD feels like you’re in a dead dark pit with no one to talk to and no lifelines. 

Dave Shade and his dog.

Dave Shade.

At Attention Dog Training


Now that I was grown up and living in an apartment by myself, I finally got a dog. Lulu was a boxer puppy, maybe 10 weeks old at the time. The very first night, I woke up to the smell of puppy poop, and I was on my knees cleaning it up. But a bond formed between us. Lulu taught me to control my anger. She taught me how to live again, how to love again, how to feel again. 

A few months later, my then-girlfriend (future wife) moved in, and we volunteered at an animal shelter. I was going to school for environmental biology, which I thought I’d do for a while before pivoting to do something with dogs, maybe in my 50s. 

We were fostering dogs, and I wanted to help the dogs with behavioral issues but I didn’t know what I was doing. We reached out to all these different dog trainers in our area, but I didn’t have much money and was left on my own. 

When we adopted a second dog named Sammy from a shelter, I started researching how to become a dog trainer and start my own training business. I was so sold on the idea, in fact, that I dropped out of my senior year of college to pursue it.

Dave and Lesley Shade with their dogs.

Dave and Lesley Shade.

At Attention Dog Training


US animal shelters are overcrowded, and roughly 390,000 dogs are euthanized each year. I want to take a sledgehammer to that number. For about half of the dogs that get re-homed, it’s due to problems like unexpected health conditions, aggression, or other behavior issues. 

That’s why I became a dog trainer, and since 2015, At Attention Dog Training has trained more than 5,000 dogs. With nine employees, it’s still going strong. 

I discovered I’m limited by about a 30-minute driving circumference and an inability to realistically franchise, which made it hard to scale, so I decided to take our training online with a second company, PupCamp — something I’d come to appreciate when the pandemic hit.

When that happened, we used our facility to film lessons. One of my employees had just gotten a puppy named Gemma, so we filmed 60 puppy lessons with Gemma as the star. We soon added other content to keep customers around after the initial training — videos on how to solve common behavioral problems, a veterinary behaviorist talking about separation anxiety, and a 30-lesson first aid course. 

We now have more than 100 lessons, and I have to keep time for myself and my own dogs as we grow.

A puppy.



At Attention Dog Training


I usually get up around 7 a.m and take the dogs for their quick morning walk. It’s one of my favorite times of the day because I get to spend one-on-one with each of my three dogs: Otis, Sam, and Sarge. It’s quiet and provides time for me to think about business and my team members. 

As a professional dog trainer, it’s hard to find time to train my own dogs. So, lately I try to set aside 5 to 10 minutes a day working with my own dogs to keep their skills fresh!

I also carry a notepad around with me at all times, because I’m not the most organized person but moments of creativity — and ideas for new courses — happen all the time. 

I spend a lot of my time now doing meetings, especially on

Zoom
, talking with different experts or investors. I also spend time creating partnerships so we can offer subscriber exclusive discounts with a toy company, an insurance company, and a food company. I spend time talking with PR people and filming new courses. We use my dogs and clients’ dogs for the videos. 

Lesley Shade training a dog.

Lesley Shade.

At Attention Dog Training


Lulu died last year when we were filming, but her work lives on in the work I do. When I was in the army, there was always a mission we were accomplishing. Lulu gave me a mission again. 

Keeping track of the next walk, meal, or potty break added structure to my life. The bond that developed between us was powerful, and it helped me recover from PTSD. I believe dogs have the power to heal us from trauma through their friendship and guardianship.

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