Diane Richards: Knoxville's Canine Coach

Diane Richards, 65, wasn't always a dog-training guru, though you'd never be able to tell by looking at her. The former nurse sits comfortably in her office at Diane's Canine School of Charm wearing a blue vest, jeans, and broken-in sneakers on a chilly morning. Her golden retriever sidekick moves from sitting at her feet to curled under the desk in the corner of the room, though the dog occasionally goes to greet passersby as they walk past Richards' door.

Though she says she enjoyed caring for people as a nurse at Parkwest Medical Center, the day-to-day hustle and bustle started to just wear her out.

"I'd been doing nursing forever. But it got to the point where hypertension [became a problem] and, oh I was on call all the time," she says. "There was one time I was on call, and I was at the hospital for 19 hours straight, and my poor dog was stuck in the house. Once that happened, I decided well, I've got to find something else to do."

The life-long animal lover was working with her dog on obedience training when the facility she practiced at came up for sale.

"I quit Parkwest and I took [some money] from my 401K, borrowed $3,000 from my mom, and $10,000 from a friend of mine and bought this place," she says. That was 17 years ago.

The beginning of Diane's Canine School of Charm wasn't easy. It was a struggle just to make ends meet from week to week, in part because of the unpredictable number of dogs being boarded at the School of Charm. ("I might have 20 boarders one weekend and the next weekend have two," Richards explains.)

Richards started out doing everything herself—from answering phones to teaching classes to mowing the expansive property's grass—for about a year before she began hiring people to help out. And, like with every other aspect of owning a business with no prior experience, Richards had to learn how to manage both money and people on the fly.

"[One] employee I had robbed me blind. Embezzled. I was so naive," she admits.

Though she's technically been a success story as long as she's been in business, Richards says she didn't feel like it until fairly recently.

"I really realized I was a success after the recession because I made it, and a lot of other people didn't," she says.

She figured things out as she went, using a trial and error approach with advice books as her guide, much in the same way she learned to train dogs: going to seminars, reading books, and practicing. But the central principle of her training method is positive reinforcement.

"Dogs are calmer when trained with positive reinforcement because they want to do it, rather than them doing it because they think they have to," she says.

And, to an extent, she applies the same principle to teaching dog owners how to communicate with their pets.

"There's no judgment. You don't judge the dog, you don't judge the people," Richards says. "We're starting from today. Forget yesterday. And the day before that. Start from today."