Kelley McAtee Devotes Her Time to Helping 'Misunderstood' Animals Behave Better

Words by Anna Connole • 09/13/2017

Understanding why dogs misbehave is McAtee's first step in working to train them.

Kelley McAtee has fostered a passion for animal studies and animal wellness since she was in college nearly two decades ago. Her path began with volunteering for local animal rescue groups and starting a nonprofit focused on animal welfare. 

But when her own dogs had behavior issues that needed serious attention, she looked for help and found a damaged system that failed to meet her needs. McAtee took that frustration and built her own business where she has helped thousands of dogs. Dharma Dog Training is based out of McAtee's home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, but she also travels to clients' homes, and even to their cities, to take the dogs on the adventure of being trained.

Find Your Grind spoke to McAtee about her love for helping animals, finding and following her passions and what it’s like working with dogs for a living.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What does being a dog trainer entail?

My job entails teaching dog owners new ways to communicate with their dogs and teaching them what their dogs are trying to say to them. Many of the dogs we work with are misunderstood and have not had guidance in their life. They end of making really bad decisions that will get them into trouble because of this. We empower people with the tools they need to help their dogs with their behavior issues.

How and when did you first learn about training?

I have been studying pets in society since college in 2000, but this style of training did not exist in our community. I tried working in all pet-related businesses that did exist, such as vet offices and humane societies, but found I had to create my own business. It started as pet sitting and then evolved into a dog training company teaching people.

What kind of training or experience led to you starting your own business?

I got my degree in sociology studying pets in society. I was in the social work field after graduation and volunteered with animals all the while wanting to work full time. Every job I had gave me the skills and experience necessary for this job. I worked with families and seniors in social work. I also worked as a counselor at an assisted living community, which gave me the skills to help people work through life transitions. Then, I worked as a dog walker and pet sitter, giving me over 10,000 hours at the end of the leash.

What's the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome to become the founder of a successful dog training company?

The path I have chosen has definitely not been easy. Nothing like this existed before I created it, which means I had to figure a lot out on my own and make a lot of mistakes along the way. But that also means I have created a path that others can follow, and more dogs will be helped because of it. For that, I am grateful.

What advice would you give a high school student?

I didn't know what I wanted to do when I graduated high school, but I got an opportunity to go to college. It’s important to seize opportunities. I still didn't know what I wanted to do, so I took basic courses and learned about what was happening to pets in our society and pet overpopulation. It wasn't until then that I really found a cause to be passionate about and something I wanted to fight to change. It’s never too late to keep searching for what you love. My advice is to not give up until you find something that lights a fire in you. Once you find this, work for it like your life depends on it.

What was the most valuable class you’ve ever taken?

There were a few that had a big impact on me. I took an anthropology course in college where I had to study apes at the zoo, and I cried because I realized they had feelings. Then, I had a psychology course where I learned about animal testing and how people are still allowed to test on them based on the idea that they don't have feelings. I then learned about factory farming and how raising animals for food has changed. 

Finally, when I learned about pet overpopulation, I found my cause and what I knew I wanted to spend my life doing—figuring out how to change what was happening to our pets. 

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your high school self?

I would have told myself to stop wasting so much time trying to fit in with others, to study more and to not rebel so much against authority. I wouldn't say it was wasted time because my rebellious youth is why I understand what these dogs are going through now and why they are making such bad decisions. Everything that happened in my life is an important part of my story. 

Who did you look up to most growing up, and why?

When I was young and still to this day, I look up to my mother. She has had to figure things out along the way, changing careers, earning an honorary bachelor's degree and becoming the first female vice president of MidAmerican Energy. She did all of this while being a single mom and dealing with my sister and me. She has always been the driving force behind me, rooting for me and telling me, “You can do it” and “you will figure it out.” If I had not had her along the way, I would not have gotten this far.

What does it mean to you to Find Your Grind? Why is it important?

Find Your Grind means finding your passion in life. It means finding the thing that lights a fire in you and gives you the motivation to get up every day and be the best you that you can possibly be.

-photo courtesy of Kelley McAtee

About the Author

Anna Connole

A Northern Virginia native, Anna looks forward to studying communications at James Madison University. Her main interests are photography, journalism and supporting the Washington Nationals.