Open Eye: Opening up

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Sally Sanford's childhood ambition was to work with animals, but she ended up in banking. However, an Open University degree, specialising in psychology, helped set her on the road to professional recognition as an animal behaviourist and the owner of the first full-time dog-training centre in southern England. She holds "clinics" for dogs with behavioural problems.

What was your family background?

My mum was a teacher and my dad a careers officer. I grew up with animals. We always had pets.

What was your earliest ambition?

As long as I can remember I wanted to work with animals, but at the age of 14 I made a conscious decision not to become a vet because I couldn't bear the thought of having to put an animal down. Animal behaviour wasn't a degree option in those days, so I decided to become a farmer.

How were your school years?

I came out with three A-levels, so I did OK. But I think I might have done something more academic if there had been more encouragement. I went to a comprehensive school where there was a lack of awareness of brighter children's needs. And in my peer group it wasn't the thing to work too hard.

What was your first job?

I dropped out of agricultural college after two years, when I realised that, as a 20-year-old woman with no money or family farming connections I wasn't going to get anywhere except by marrying a farmer. Farming was very male-oriented in those days. I joined the Co-operative Bank as a very junior clerk because they offered to put me on a management development scheme. By the time I left, 10 years later, I had reached assistant manager level. And the job gave me the financial independence to pursue my own spare-time interests.

What made you start studying with the OU?

Professional credibility. I had started dog training one day and one evening a week and wanted to make it a full-time business. The problem was the lack of a professional structure. Anyone can call themselves an animal trainer or behaviourist, and, as a result, it is treated with a fair degree of cynicism by other professionals, such as vets. I felt an OU degree would give me academic recognition. And because I had 240 credit points to transfer from my previous studies in agriculture and banking, I only needed to do two courses to get my BSc. I did the closest to my interests - introduction to psychology, followed by biology: brain and behaviour

What difference has the OU made?

It's been very important. I now feel confident in dealing with other professionals - virtually all my clients come through vets or through personal recommendation. Your credibility in the field is enhanced if you can say you that have specialised in psychology at the OU. Also, a grounding in human as well as animal psychology is very beneficial to my work, especially in behaviour clinics. I am training humans as well as dogs. They always come as a pair, and each combination is unique.

What does your current job involve?

I own and run the Chats Centre, the first full-time, multi-purpose dog- training centre open to the public in southern England. We have classes in obedience, agility - which I call "show jumping for dogs" - puppy handling and flyball, a dogs' team sport. It's been tremendously successful - we now get around 200 dogs and handlers a week.

How did you get it?

I started off training my own dogs and competing in agility classes - agility is one of the fastest-growing activities with dogs in the country, with something like 10,000 dogs registered and more than that actually participating. Then I began getting requests to take classes, and it developed from there. Eventually, I went into part-time work so I could build up the business. While I was studying with the OU, I also did a diploma in companion animal behaviour, the only one of its kind, with Southampton University. The two studies complemented one another.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The satisfaction of being able to improve the quality of life for dogs and humans.

And least?

Phone calls at 11.30 at night. That's what you get for running your own business.

Would you do more OU study?

Research. I'm hoping to do a part-time PhD through the OU looking at some aspects of dog training.

To what do your attribute your success?

It's all about credibility and confidence in yourself, especially when you're becoming self-employed and taking on a lot of responsibility and risk.

What do you most regret?

I don't regret anything. It's given me a wealth of experience in different directions.

What are your goals for the future?

To develop my business so I can spare enough time to see a bit more of my husband.