Interview with Oluademi James-Daniel on Inclusivity in Dog Training

"The general consensus was there’s no inclusion in the dog world at all right now. And how do we fix that?"

Oluademi James-Daniel pictured against some yellow flowers. Interview about inclusivity in dog training

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Oluademi James-Daniel is determined to do something about inclusivity in the dog world, and she has a vision to make a difference. Earlier this year, Oluademi - a dog trainer from Brooklyn - started a Facebook group called Inclusivity in Dog Training. I spoke to her about the group’s aims and what we can all do to increase diversity and inclusivity in dog training. 

Zazie: This year, you started the Inclusivity in Dog Training group, along with fellow admins Ameera Skandarani and Samantha Phi. Why did you decide to start the group?

Oluademi: It was right in the most recent iteration of Black Lives Matter really coming to the forefront again. It’s something that happens all the time, but every time it comes to the forefront like that it’s a very helpless feeling, where it’s like yes, I know this is a problem, I don’t know how to fix it, I don’t think anyone else knows how to fix it. And especially for me as a Black woman it leaves me feeling very like, Okay I don’t know what to do about this. So my feelings were already super raw because of that. And there were a couple of arguments in some separate Facebook groups and the general consensus was there’s no inclusion in the dog world at all right now. And how do we fix that? 

It started originally just as a roundtable idea where it’s me and a couple of colleagues and Facebook dog places. And we were like, yeah let’s start a group and we can chat about what we’re seeing and what changes we can make and so on. And it only started with about 30ish people where we’re going to just have conversations together. And it blew up very very quickly! We have over 2,000 members right now. There’s multiple conversations every day. Some are as mundane-sounding as what some of the Black members in the group do with their hair, and some are as intense as representation of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour] in the dog world throughout history, and cultural appropriation and dogs, and so forth. There’s always a 2-300 comment thread rolling around where people are sharing experiences and trying to learn from each other. 

Zazie: I’m not a very active member but I can see a lot of learning and support happening within the group, which is amazing. What does inclusivity mean?

Oluademi: Generally, what a lot of people think it is, is just being welcoming and saying yeah, anyone can be in this it’s fine. But it’s a step beyond that, where it’s purposely making space for marginalized voices who have not had a chance to be in that space because of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and so on. So inclusivity means we are actively making it as straightforward and easy as possible for people in these marginalized communities to be able to step forward and share their experiences. 

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The primary goal of the group is for people to learn. So that they can see a conversation between people of colour who are neurodivergent and they can see “Wow, these are never things that I thought about. How can I make things easier for some people?” That’s the overarching idea of it, is really making that space available, going out of your way to make sure that people know that space is available and can take advantage of it and supporting them. Because it’s not just in the dog world but in general and you know, BIPOC people don’t get the opportunity. People don’t say hey, I know that this is something you’ve been wanting to do for a while and you don’t have any way to get into the community. How can I help you with that? People don’t ask you that. 

It’s hard for a lot of people to even step forward when the spaces are there, because people think, “it isn’t something I’ve ever thought about” or, “I’m uncomfortable or scared to talk about this.” And so it’s a lot of making sure the right questions are being asked, making sure that this is respectful, that it’s not deconstructive, because the conversations are going to get painful. It’s one of the things that makes the group kind of difficult, because by the nature of it there are going to be conversations that are make you feel like, "oh I don’t like that, this isn’t me, I’ve never done that", and you have to kind of sit with those uncomfortable feelings and unpack what the other people are saying and what that experience is. There’s been conversations in the group that I’ve gone, "oh god, I do that." We have a couple of members who are disabled and have mentioned difficulties that they have had at different dog events and seminars and stuff, where I’ve said oh no, I totally forgot that that’s a thing.  And everyone has that kind of thing.

Zazie: What are some of the ways in which BIPOC may feel excluded or unwelcome in dog training?

Oluademi: It’s a multi-level kind of thing. Before you even get into dog training at all, before you even pick up a clicker or pick up a bag of treats there’s having a dog. Finding a dog that you can work with as a trainer isn’t easy. A lot of people in the community started with the naughty dog, and that’s how we have fallen into it. We had to learn because we had a Max or a Cujo. And we were like, oh god, I’ve gotta figure out this training thing. But once you do want to get involved in the community it’s really important to have a dog that you can work with. Obviously there’s always going to be bumps in the road and hurdles when you’re working with a dog, whether it’s for just basic training as a demo dog for your training classes or sport or disability work. With any of those, there’s always difficulties. But there’s significantly less from getting a well-bred dog from a breeder versus a generic 2 year old mutt from the shelter. So straight off being able to find a reputable breeder who understands that as a BIPOC you don’t have $3,000 for a well-bred puppy, and breeders being comfortable with payment plans or co-owning and things like that. 


“Inclusivity means we are actively making it as straightforward and easy as possible for people in these marginalized communities to be able to step forward and share their experiences.”


Once you do have a dog it kind of branches out from there. If it’s dog training as a profession, your credibility comes into question a lot. I myself have gotten a great many, “Where did you go to school? What are your accreditations? What are your degrees? What bureaus are you with?” and so on. I’ve had the classic, “I want to speak to your manager” and I am the manager. There are people who will outright refuse to work with a BIPOC trainer, who will go “No, I’m gonna find someone else. This makes me uncomfortable so I’m going elsewhere”. 

In the show sport world, there’s very, very little representation. And representation is a huge part of inclusivity because if you don’t see yourself in the venue that you want to be a part of, it’s really hard to want to be a part of it. Not everyone is made to be that forerunner, |I will start it and make it easier for everyone else after me". Most people just want to be a part of it. Finding a mentor for that sort of thing is really difficult. Being able to get to those venues if you don’t have a car is nigh impossible. There’s all of the hidden fees when you go to shows like parking, registration, and food. All of those nitty gritty things where if you weren’t expecting it because you didn’t have anyone to teach you about it or to lay down, "Hey, it’s your first show, I’ll meet you there, here’s some stuff that you’re gonna need, I’ll bring some other things too," that’s all really important. 

And then from there, having opportunities to advance are really hard. We have a couple of people in the group who are judges for various things. Both of them are BIPOC, they’re both Black women actually, and they’ve shared parts of their story where it’s been a hell of a struggle for them to get to where they are, whereas they look at other people in their field who are in their early 20s and already doing the same things that they’re doing, where they just see the opportunities are a lot easier for you when you are a young, 20s person, from Virginia, Maryland, kind of a thing. So those are some of the big ones. 


“For people who are in the show and sport world, if you see a BIPOC at the next show that you’re at, say hi.”


Outside of that, it’s intimidating. If you went to a dog show in, say, Senegal, and they don’t speak your language at all and you’re looking round and none of these people look like you, and no-one’s saying anything nasty to you but you can see people kind of looking at you out of the corner of your eye like, “What is she doing here?” and you don’t know what to do, it’s obviously going to be super overwhelming. That’s very much how it feels as a BIPOC stepping into the ring. You’re like, okay, you’re – the phrase my mom always used was the only speck of pepper in the salt shaker. You’re the only one and maybe some day you’ll see one random person across the room and you’re like “Ahhh!” and you dart across the room to them! But otherwise just that general lack of welcome is scary and intimidating and I know it definitely pushes a lot of people away from the sports.

Zazie: I think it must be very hard being the only one, and I think one of the things you’ve done with the group is set up a space where, even if people are the only one locally, they can find others and get support within the group. What kind of thing are you doing with the group, and what are your plans for it? 

Oluademi: So many plans! I am a planner by nature, which also means that I have a thousand unfinished projects! Luckily I have Sam and Ameera to keep me on task. The project that I’m working on right now is a spreadsheet of breeders that I’ve individually contacted about being BIPOC-friendly and inclusive about offering payment plans or co-ownership or whatever financial assistance that they feel they want to give to BIPOC getting their first sport dog. That’s what I’m doing right now. 

Outside of that, there’s so many things we want to do! Obviously having a directory is a really big thing. We want to have a directory of people and various breeds so you can scroll through and say, “hey I really like Borzois but I don’t know anybody in this breed at all” and you can scroll through quickly and see, “Oh, here are six people who are all BIPOC-friendly, who are all allies, one of them is a BIPOC”, and you can go from there. So that resource is available for people. 

Oluademi James-Daniel, co-founder of the Inclusivity dog training group, with her dog

We really want to be able to have a general fund, and this one gets a little more complicated because it blurs into non-profit territory which is very scary waters. But we want to be able to have a fund for BIPOC who are saying, "Hey, I really want to take the CCPDT exam and I don’t have money for that, there’s no way. I can definitely pass it but I can’t afford that." So to have those funds in reserve for people like that so they can do that. 

We want to have a podcast at some point. We were talking about just having an as-it-happens, having guests on and so on. Ameera and I are both very extroverted and so we’re like, talk to all the people! Sam is our planner and so she sits in the back and makes sure everything is running smoothly while Ameera and I talk loudly in front of her. 

Zazie: Sounds like a good team!

Oluademi: Yes, they’re awesome. We really lucked out with each other because it grew into a huge task and so it’s really important to have other admins, obviously other admins who are BIPOC but also other admins who understand the support and the bumps in the road and the difficulty of just running a giant Facebook group, outside of whatever the topic is, much less one that is as easily explosive as the dog world. 


“It’s about inviting and making sure you’re giving the space as opposed to just reminding them that they can take the space if they want to.”


So those are some of the plans we have right now. I know Ameera’s planning doing something for immigrant/first generation kids and mixed kids especially. She is mixed and it’s a different experience from someone who’s just Black because then it’s, okay am I Black, am I white? Am I this, am I that? It’s that weird grey area where it’s even harder to find a community because then if I identify with this will people believe me because it’s so much finer. It’s not really a part of community that I really know about, but she does, and that’s something she’s super passionate about. So I know she’s really working on finding resources and availability for stuff like that.

Zazie: Thank you for sharing all those plans with me! There’s something you do in the group which is to have Mondays and Fridays for BIPOC only. Do you want to say something about why that is such an important thing to do?

Oluademi: Yeah, from the simple level, it’s easier to admin the group on those days so it gives us two days off. But also a super-well-meaning white voice can still do harm and so it’s very much, okay if you want to talk and you want to include white voices in this tomorrow, then you can open up the thread. If you only want BIPOC voices on this, that’s fine, and it will continue like that as far as they want. It’s a slightly bigger soapbox to be able to talk about super mundane things like, hey guys I don’t feel great today I’m pretty bummed out, or I had this experience at a show that I went to last weekend let me talk to you guys about it. So it’s a much more intimate discussion but it gives all the white allies in the group a chance to be able to see these conversations without being a part of them. And that’s really hard and uncomfortable. The idea of social media is that you participate in conversations, so to be able to say no you aren’t a part of this conversation is, like, ack. People will comment and then message me and say “oh my gosh I’m so sorry, I forgot it was Monday.” It’s a learning process. We’re actually considering doing one, maybe two more days for BIPOC voices. We’re trying to figure out which days are easier. A), so it’s not like oh my god I’ve got to wait three more days to post about this, but b), also to help elevate those voices because one of the things that is difficult, that I struggle with a lot, is that you can only spread yourself but so thin. And I want to make sure that literally every marginalized person in the dog world gets everything they ever wanted. But that’s not…

Zazie: That’s not possible… 

Oluademi: In trying to help everyone, it means that efforts I might make specifically for BIPOC in one tiny subset, say it’s autistic Black people in conformation, I couldn’t hyper-focus on that if I’m trying to take care of everyone else too. And so we’re trying to streamline where our focus will be going forward. We definitely want to spend a lot of time focusing on intersectionality where yes, being a BIPOC is hard but there’s also a lot of other parts of it that are also hard. I’m a Black Queer woman and so that is a lot of things that are various subsets of marginalization. So dealing with all of those, talking about them, and having people feel comfortable expressing that part of themselves. Something I see a lot in most BIPOC communities, within the actual community, is it’s hard to be in an additional marginalized community. You know, if you’re a trans Asian woman, okay, you’re going to have a really hard time finding support in your community and that sucks. And that’s super unfair. So I want to be able to support people like that. That’s definitely something we want to try to figure out going forward. Which roads are we going to go down, which roads are we going to say, hey if someone else wants to take this road, let me know, we will super help you with a group that just focusses on disability in the dog community, we will be sister groups, we can share all the things together, but we can’t do both. 


“Representation is a huge part of inclusivity because if you don’t see yourself in the venue that you want to be a part of, it’s really hard to want to be a part of it.”


Zazie: Yeah. I think what you are doing is transformational. So for people reading this who want to bring about change, from your experience of running this group, do you have any suggestions for them?

Oluademi: There’s a couple depending on the level that people want to get involved. I think one of the things that intimidates people who want to offer help and want to offer allyship is like, okay but I can’t do all of the rallies and I can’t support all the organizations. And it’s okay, there’s smaller things. Honestly the biggest thing that helps is making sure that representation is forefront, so sharing the blogs and Facebook posts and Youtubes of BIPOC working in dog things. If you see someone who titled their dog in Schutzhund this weekend, share that post. Even if it’s not even remotely in your usual jurisdiction of dog stuff, share it, comment on it, say “oh my god this is awesome”. Even if you see it and you say, "hmm, I see things that I would like to help this person fix", because that’s human nature, when you see something and you think oh if you can shift that a little and change that. But finding the thing that is, “Wow, you did a great job. You redirected him when he got distracted, that’s amazing. I could not have done that with a Malinois.” Definitely things like that. 

For people who are in the show and sport world, if you see a BIPOC at the next show that you’re at, say hi. It’s one of the biggest things that people said in the group, and it was nice but also a little sad that that was the number 1 thing where people said, just say hi. Say “hey, I haven’t seen you around here, is this your first show in this area?” Strike up small talk. It doesn’t have to be something super nuanced or critiquing the person. Offer support when dogs do dumb things at the show. That person already feels super alienated so when their Boxer decides to run circles around the A-frame instead of actually doing the A-frame, say, “You got him back on track really well! I probably would have just had a tantrum and left!” Little things like that. Really offering support to people who look like they are saying, “Hey, I’m having a really hard time with this.”

Obviously a big part of the dog community is Facebook groups and communities so if you see a BIPOC post and raise their hands, even if they’re in Canada and you’re in California, shoot them a message and say “I don’t have exact experience with this thing, but I know it’s super frustrating and I’ve got a couple of resources if that’s something you’re interested in. I can help you or I can just be here for you to vent at.” 

Those are really the biggest things, being friendly, being supportive. But definitely, when you see people who are new in that area of sports and rings and stuff, push to say “Hey, there’s other events in this area, I hope I see you there.” It’s about inviting and making sure you’re giving the space as opposed to just reminding them that they can take the space if they want to. 

In dog training itself, one of the really big things that I have heard from a lot of people is just straight up accessibility from both the trainer and the client end. So having a couple of resources that are in Spanish as well, even if it’s just a little booklet that’s about simple dog tricks, if you have something. If you’re feeling super motivated, getting some tiny basic Spanish skills so at least you can say “Hey, I will do the best that I can, and if you can have someone translate this for me we can figure something out together, language bumps and all.” 

On the training side, it’s the same as sports stuff, sharing things that you see, videos that you see, giving that additional support. And through all of those things, trying to be as humble as possible, understanding that that person is already way, way, way out of their comfort zone. And even meaning well you may still say something that’s going to be offensive, and if that person says “Hey, I really super appreciate you offering support but you said this thing and it was really offensive for me,” that’s going to suck to hear, and you’re going to be like, “But I’m trying!”. Being present in moments like those and understanding is important. Honestly of the conversations I’ve had with people, the ones where someone said something offensive and I told them it was and they apologized and then tried to get better, hands down I would rather have that conversation than someone who’s gung ho, “oh my god tell me all the things, I can help, I’m super excited.” That changing from an uncomfortable place is an event that you’re going to remember, and you’re going to think about that the next time you see a BIPOC on a video or on a blog or something like that. 


“Honestly the biggest thing that helps is making sure that representation is forefront, so sharing the blogs and Facebook posts and Youtubes of BIPOC working in dog things.”


Those are some of the more basic things. There’s a lot of things that tons of organizations are talking about and having panels on. I know the IAABC is having a big panel coming up, the aggression seminar that Michael Shikashio is doing. He’s very motivated and he’s given out a ton of scholarships to BIPOC. Being aware of those organizations and supporting them is important, even if it’s something as simple as emailing them and saying, “I can see a little more representation when you have panels on puppy socialization.” Those kinds of things, even if it may not necessarily be you send a letter to CCPDT and then a week later they have a giant panel. The more seeds you can plant the better. 

Zazie: That’s a lot of really helpful advice, thank you. Is there anything else that you want to say?

Oluademi: Gosh, how long do we have?!! You had really good questions. I’m emphasizing really that understanding of being in that uncomfortable place. It’s human instinct to want to be defensive, of course. That’s just how we’re built. It’s straight up survival as a social species. So to ask someone to do the opposite of that, it’s hard. Just sitting in that moment is super helpful. Of course there’s always going to be dumpster fires to put out! One of the things that’s really difficult and frustrating for me is that I am blindly, recklessly optimistic. So it’s like, I want everyone to get along and why won’t they?!! But trying to practice thinking outside of yourself and your own community, “this thing that I read, I don’t like the way that it’s phrased and I think it might be hurtful for the community that I’m in.” Which it very well maybe. Take a second to think about why it is and why it’s upsetting you and how you can mend it as opposed to severing ties. Those are really the biggest things that I would say.

Zazie: Great. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me!

The Inclusivity in Dog Training group can be found on Facebook.    

Oluademi James-Daniel, pictured outside. Interview on inclusivity in dog training


Oluademi James-Daniel was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She's been a dog lover her whole life,  Her professional dog life began in the NYC rescue community. From there, she moved upstate and started working at a dog daycare. This is where Oluademi's personal dog life began, as well: the first dog she owned came with a suitcase of health and behavioral problems. So she did what any dog nerd would do: she researched and learned and evolved! Today, Oluademi's dog journey has brought her to an interesting fork in the road. She leaves behind a 7+ year managerial position at a dog daycare to open her own training business. She is also spearheading the Inclusivity in Dog Training Facebook group, where - with the assistance of her amazing co-admin - she is hoping to change the dog world into the beacon of diversity she has always hoped and dreamed it could be.

This interview has been lightly edited for style and content.

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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