Walking into her house, you wouldn’t know that Jill Morstad is the owner of two large Belgian Shepherds.
There was no barking, no jumping, no licking and the dogs were nowhere to be seen. It’s not that Jill doesn’t love her dogs or is compelled to keep her house in a perpetually manicured state, actually it’s the opposite – her dogs have boundaries, because she loves them.
This is a distinction that she’s careful to make, and it comes from her more than 30 years of teaching people to train their dogs. Offering classes at dog clubs, in private homes, animal shelters and vet clinics, Jill has a broad understanding of the communication between dogs and owners. But really, she said, her job is about listening to stories.
“Everybody’s pet is a story,” she said.
And while it might sound a little strange to talk about dog training in terms of stories, Jill said people have so many preconceptions about training and even owning a dog based on their personal experiences. Things like their childhood pet, a recently deceased animal or even a neighbor’s dog can color a story very quickly, she said, and that’s natural.
But her job is to hear those stories, understand their origin and articulate their impact. She does this with her clients, and she’s done this since she was an 8-year-old who owned her first dog.
Like a lot of kids, Jill started asking for a dog as soon as she could find the words. She was fascinated by the dog books at the school library, checking them out one by one and reading them cover to cover. These books brought the dog-owning experience to life for her until her family was given a dog by a family member who couldn’t care for it any more.
Little 8-year-old Jill and her dad took the dog to a local training class where the instructor was an AKC judge. It didn’t take long before Jill was immersed in the dog training world – connecting with local trainers, reading any training book she could get her hands on and researching local dog shows to attend. It suddenly became her whole world.
As she got older, Jill said she realized why she loved training so much. It was more than just shaping an animal or making it do what she wanted, it was about communication, about understanding the void between humans and dogs and figuring out how to bridge that gap. There was something highly natural, yet philosophical about the process and Jill loved that.
When she went off to college, she studied journalism because of her fascination with communication and went on to work at a small publishing company shortly after graduation. Within a year of graduating, Jill owned a dog and started training it for competitions. In her free time she traveled around the Midwest taking her dog to obedience competitions and connecting with other area trainers.
Eventually Jill moved to Missouri to pursue her graduate degree in folklore and language and then came to Lincoln in the early 90s to work on her PhD. She taught at UNL and is now an English and writing professor at Union College.
She often asks her students, “What would you read about or think about if it was left entirely up to you?”
For Jill, the answer to that question is dog training. It’s where her passion and purpose collide and it’s a way that she feels like she can train people in Lincoln to care well for their dogs to better individual homes, neighborhoods and the community as a whole.
Jill’s days are spent vacillating between teaching English, training dog owners, hosting a weekly radio show about dog ownership, preparing for dog shows and keeping up with her own dogs during her morning run.
Communication has been a consistent part of her story.
Her two jobs are centered on using communication to relay a message and create order. For dogs, this happens through verbal commands and non-verbal signals, and with her students, she’s realized that even with the perfectly chosen words, not even the English language can be articulated 100 percent accurately.
Whether it’s the way she’s introducing a concept to her college students or how she’s working with a dog and its owner, there’s a high level of intentionality in all of Jill’s work.
Her entire story has been one of learning and sharing. It’s been about more than just a love of animals or a love of words, but a union between these two seemingly separate disciplines.