Jeze Santiago and Michelle O’Neill dog trainers

Jeze Santiago and Michelle O’Neill dog trainers at the Barking Dog in Scottsdale. O’Neill is one of 15 dog trainers from across the United States vying for Greatmats’ fifth-annual award, the 2019 Greatmats National Dog Trainer of the Year.

Michelle O’Neill may be relatively new to the Scottsdale community, but she’s already making waves in the dog training world.

A dog trainer at The Barking Dog, located just a stone’s throw from the newly opened White Castle, O’Neill is one of 15 dog trainers from across the United States vying for Greatmats’ fifth-annual award: the 2019 Greatmats National Dog Trainer of the Year.

“That was quite a shock,” O’Neill said.

The award honors trainers who have made a positive impact in the lives of their clients and communities.

This marks O’Neill’s first time nominated for the award, and she’s in the lead, too, by thousands of votes – more than 6,500.

“I have a great following,” she said.

O’Neill was nominated by a former client in Michigan, where O’Neill grew up and spent 16 years as a dog trainer.

“I had no clue. She stayed anonymous for a while,” O’Neill said of her nominator. “A lot of my clients I’ve formed relationships with, and we just become good friends.”

O’Neill moved to Scottsdale part-time in October 2018 and began working at the Barking Dog in January of this year.

“I hate the cold,” O’Neill admitted with a laugh. “It was Christmas of [20]17. We came out here to Scottsdale and fell in love with it.”

O’Neill’s career started in the auto industry; she was an automotive designer for 20 years. “Really!” she said. “For 20 years, I sat behind a desk and designed parts of vehicles.”

But O’Neill knew she wanted to do something with dogs.

O’Neill started as a dog walker and eventually quit her job as a designer to walk dogs full-time.

It wasn’t until she and her husband adopted a dog and she took the dog to get trained that she fell in love with dog training.

O’Neill started as an assistant trainer, teaching her an agility class. Over time, she climbed the ranks, eventually managing the training facility. 

“I love what I do. It’s not even a job,” she said.

What O’Neill loves most about being a dog trainer are both her clients and, of course, the dogs.

“Watching a puppy learn: There’s nothing more fascinating than when you get a puppy and you see the behavior starting to change on them,” she said. “Even older dogs, there’s no such thing as, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new trick.’”

O’Neill prides herself on being a positive trainer.

“I try to motivate with food and toys. You can pretty much get a dog to do anything if you find what makes them tick,” she explained.

When O’Neill started at the Barking Dog, she introduced the facility and its other trainers to new obedience classes, including Obedience with a Twist.

Obedience with a Twist is a class combining agility, tricks, and obedience and incorporates tunnels, platform training, tricks, recalls, loose leash walking, and games.

“If you know anything about dog obedience, it can get very boring for people. So, I did a lot of research to find different games to play with our obedience. I incorporated the utility tunnels for control work — things people could really relate to and have fun with their dog and still want to continue training their dog,” O’Neill said.

According to the Barking Dog Manager Lissy Schuster, O’Neill was a “breath of fresh air.”

“She’s teaching us. [She has] broadened our horizon as far as training,” Schuster said.

Schuster added O’Neill was a “blessing” from the moment she joined the Barking Dog team.

“Her philosophy is it’s all about the dog, as far as I’m concerned. She will tell it to a pet parent exactly how it needs to be said. She tells them exactly what they should hear instead of what they want to hear,” Schuster said.

The Barking Dog is based out of New Hampshire and expanded into Scottsdale in 2015.

If O’Neill wins the Greatmats award, this would be her first award recognizing her dog training skills.

A member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator since 2007, O’Neill has, however, won awards with her soft-coated Wheaten Terrier in AKC Obedience and Nose-work competitions.

In fact, she’s won more than 20 dog competition awards.

“I competitively compete with AKC and UKC, and if you know anything about terriers, they’re not competition dogs,” O’Neill said.

The rest of the 2019 Greatmats National Dog Trainer of the Year nominees are based out of Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Voting closes on Dec. 1, and the two trainers with the most votes will be named finalists. 

Greatmats, a Wisconsin-based company selling dog training, agility and day care flooring products made from recycled and renewable resources, will then choose the winner based on the finalist’s demonstration of service and community impact, integrity, and quality of instruction. 

The winner will be announced on Dec. 13 on Greatmats’ website and will receive either $250 in Greatmats products for the training facility or $150 cash.

O’Neill said if she won, she’d opt for the cash.

“I would only take the cash option because all of our floors are mat here and they’re great floors. So, for me, I would do the cash, and I would buy products for the facility for training,” O’Neill said.

More than 41,800 votes have been cast in the first four years of the Greatmats National Dog Trainer of the Year Contest.

Cast your vote at greatmats.com.