I haven’t always been a dog trainer… nor have I always worked with dogs. My journey to become a dog trainer is relatively recent… but my love for dogs, and other animals, certainly is not. Growing up I loved to train our family dog to do tricks even though I didn’t really know much about dogs… or how they learn… that came later.
Time went on… I bought a condo… started an office job and wanted to add my own dog to my life. My first dog was Wiley, a red merle Australian Shepherd, with a beautiful, full tail (which back then was fairly uncommon)… and ice blue eyes that often had people comment he seemed “scary”… but I loved his eyes!
I found Wiley through a local rescue organization. He was born and started his life on a farm, but I guess too often got into too much trouble with the farmer’s livestock, etc… and the farmer was planning to shoot this young, pretty much feral, dog. When I first met him he wouldn’t look at people… you couldn’t touch him… and he hid as much as possible as far away from anyone and everyone.
Well, jumping ahead, as you might have assumed, I brought Wiley home and we began our life together. It took a while to get him to begin to socialize, but once he figured out he was safe… and could trust me… we became besties and never looked back. Now, at that time I was working full-time in an office so Wiley was alone a good part of the day. Back then, dog walking wasn’t as popular and common place as it is today… you didn’t think about those things.
I contemplated it for a while, but decided that Wiley might benefit from having another dog around the house. I started looking for another Australian Shepherd as by then, I had very much fallen in love with this incredibly intelligent, unique and active breed. Lo and behold I found a breeder with a new born blue merle available… so jumped at that opportunity! I remember thinking how cool it would be to have a red merle… and a blue merle!
The new puppy wasn’t very old at this point so I waited patiently – as did Wiley – eager for when our new family member would come home. At about the 6 week old mark the breeder informed us, at the recommendation of their veterinarian, they were going to try a new vaccination schedule and started vaccines earlier than what was normal. My new puppy – I had chosen the name Cyan – had a severe reaction to the vaccine and unfortunately didn’t live to the end of that day. I was saddened with this news but the breeder offered me another puppy from the litter… a little black tri female… which I decided to welcome to our home. I had really wanted a blue and a red merle… but sometimes life throws you a curve ball right?
So, I brought home this 8 week old Australian Shepherd and she was named Jasper… though she quickly became nicknamed “J.J”. What a little spitfire she was! At a very early age she seemed to have a much stronger herding instinct than Wiley… and he, I thought, already had a pretty strong herding instinct! Wiley and J.J. bonded very quickly and became the best of friends! My thoughts of adding another dog to the mix didn’t really turn out the way I had planned… but what it did do was introduce me to the challenges that can exist having a herding breed as a pet… times TWO!! I was introduced to dog sports… something that I likely wouldn’t have done otherwise. They both loved to do Flyball, play Frisbee and any other activity that involved chasing, catching or running! Both were smart as a whip and also quickly learned every trick under the sun! It was Wiley and J.J., because of their high energy levels, that peaked my interest in learning more about dogs… how they learned… and investigate the activities that many of these dogs often love… giving them the physical and mental stimulation they need.
The office job that I had was with a large consulting firm and I was, after a number of years, downsized and left looking for a new career. Knowing that this was my opportunity to get out of the, what I thought of as mundane, office job… I enrolled in a professional pet grooming course and a few months later graduated and started working in the pet grooming industry.
My first job was with a large pet chain… similar to Pet Smart. I worked for them for a while realizing that I wanted more flexibility on how I worked with the dogs – and some cats – that I groomed. So I ventured off and started my own small salon in the basement of a veterinarian’s office. I now had the opportunity to work at my pace, based on the needs of the dogs. The grooming process at the large pet chain was more of an assembly line process and I could see that not all pets were comfortable… or able to manage… that kind of pace. With my own salon I was able to slow down and focus on the needs of each pet – usually dogs – and allow them to take breaks if needed and just not rush. I loved this job… I set my hours… I set my pace… I worked with dogs… and I was able to take my dogs to work with me if I wanted too! It really was a dream job for me.
A few years down the road, after my son was born, I took a break from grooming to became a stay at home mom. At the age of 4 he was diagnosed with Autism and that changed life – not necessarily in a bad way – just a different way than what may have previously been expected. The realization was that going back to work in the grooming industry at that point was going to have to be put on hold.
At that time the house was missing the pitter patter of paws… at least a dog’s paws. Wiley and J.J. had moved on to Rainbow Bridge, and while I started exploring the world of Autism and different therapies I came across Autism Service Dogs. That sounded amazing to me… not only would it mean that I could add a dog, once again, to the house, but a dog could actually help my son! In my son’s case a service dog would help primarily in two separate areas – safety and self-regulation… but benefits would extend much farther than that.
After some research I was able to find an organization that would put us on the waitlist… but it was a waitlist… and like all parents of children with Autism… we are all too familiar with waitlists! I was given the opportunity to become a little more involved with the service dog organization in a different way and actually tried fostering a young Golden Retriever to see if she might be able to be a good match as a service dog. She was a beautiful girl and was about a year old when we got her. A wonderful dog, but after a few months it became pretty clear that she wasn’t going to be successful as a service dog as she had some real anxiety issues, but at this point, I couldn’t send her back to the breeder so she became dog number one… otherwise known as Jorga (a.k.a The Paper Shredding, Everything Eating, Goat Princess, Spazmanian Devil Who Eats Lego and Licks Metal – so aptly named by my son). Jorga (pronounced Georgia) really was a beautiful soul that added so much to our daily lives… a true delight. But now, with a Golden Retriever that I wasn’t planning on… I was still waiting and searching for that right match for my son.
Then I tried fostering a young Labrador Retriever named Poppy. Poppy was a delight as well. She and Jorga got along really well, most of the time, but Poppy was comparable to the Energizer Bunny and rarely quit… at least not at the times that Jorga wanted to just chill. Poppy really was a great match for my son. She was so in tune with him and wanted to be wherever he was… even in the bathtub! No, I am not kidding… literally, in the bathtub! He could lie back and rest his head on her as she curled up at the end of the bathtub! Unfortunately, as time went on and Poppy got a little older it became clear that she had a little bit too much energy for being a service dog, and the reality is, she would be much happier some place like a farm… perhaps as a hunting dog. As much as I dislike hunting as a sport… it was what would have made her happy…. and that was what was most important. If I could have kept her too… I would have… however, that would have meant two dogs and still searching for a suitable match for a service dog! That might have made life a little too crazy!
The day we watched Poppy drive away to go to her new home was very sad… but we had another bundle of fur arrive at the house. The two almost literally crossed paths so that didn’t give us a lot of time to grieve our latest loss. The newest arrival was an almost one year old Golden Retriever – a white one at that… which I had never seen before. This young Golden Retriever had been training to become a Diabetes Service Dog but was unsuccessful in that role… so I was very hopeful this could work as a lot of training had already happened. I was excited to try him with my son and see how things went. Well… that was the best decision ever! That was the day that we welcomed Ollie to the family and I would not have changed a thing on that journey. Ollie was a perfect match for my son right from the beginning… and it only got better with time. And… added benefit… he and Jorga got along like an old married couple… so that was perfect too!
During the years I had been involved, to some degree, in dog training with my other dogs and foster dogs. During the process of getting a service dog I went to training classes, the same as the puppy raisers did, and learned as much as I could about dog training. At that time dog training was very different than what I know today. Those were the days that seemed all that was taught was pretty much considered “aversive”. If you had a dog in the same era you would likely be familiar with techniques like… if your dog didn’t walk beside you… you gave them a ‘check’ by pulling… rather, yanking… on the leash while they were wearing a choke chain, to get them to come back to you. I would always do it lightly, but some of the trainers that I had taken dogs to would show me I wasn’t doing it hard enough! Ugh! These kinds of aversive techniques were the “norm” back then and when I look back I cringe at the way that I trained more than one of my dogs. I often shake my head, thinking to myself that I should have known better… but how could I? No animal deserves to be treated in such a manner… but at the time that was what I was taught… and it was all I knew. I think those techniques were likely what everyone was doing! And… truth be told… you can’t do what you don’t know, right?
Fast forward again… it became time to look at getting back into the workforce, but due to an injury I knew that grooming wouldn’t be an option any longer. So, it was at this point that I took the jump to become a dog trainer… and I am so glad that I did.
Learning positive reinforcement training techniques… science-based techniques… has been so enlightening. Aversive techniques have many downsides… they come with so many unintended consequences which include things like increased stress, anxiety, fear and aggression… never mind the fact that they can cause physical harm to your dog. Training a dog shouldn’t mean your dog is made to feel fear, anxiety, pain, discomfort, etc… dog training should be fun… for both you… and your dog! Modern dog training techniques have been proven to be more effective than aversive, or punishment based methods, all while helping to build a stronger, more positive, relationship with your dog.
When I completed my training I vowed that I would share this relationship-based approach to dog training with those around me… and that is my goal. So, this is where I am today! I truthfully am so blessed to have been able to work with the dogs and people that I have over the years… and I look forward to what the future holds with the ability to help humans live a better life with their dog… and their dog to live a happy and fulfilled life in return.
Life is too short… so why not make the best of it… for you… and your dog!