For quite a while now I’ve been gearing up to write this post about Dog Training and some of my best pooches (and acquiring permission from their owners). It’s a little overdue, but here we go!
Most of you probably know that upon moving to Anchorage in 2010, I signed on with PetSmart to put my teaching and animal skills to use as their Dog Trainer. I was sent off to ‘training’ so I would know the PetSmart style and theory, was assessed to be able to teach and handle puppies to adult dogs for basic training and behaviors, then a few weeks later I was starting my own classes. I’ve heard a lot of differing ideas about the education the company uses for its trainers… It’s a great place to take your new puppy or adult dog to bond and learn basic training skills given that the trainer is good. But in my own opinion, if you think that as a potential dog Trainer you will learn how to train dogs and how to teach people to train their dogs… Just from the Petsmart education training, you’re not going to be happy, nor will your dogs or your clients for that matter. You cannot learn in less than two weeks what you need to know about dogs and teaching people of all kinds. Their program is geared towards individuals who already have dog behavior knowledge and want to further their skills.
Luckily for the company, this wasn’t a problem for me and once I found my feet I was on fire. My time with the company was great learning experience and I really enjoyed most of it and working alongside with many of my co-workers. Sadly the other girl in my intro class didn’t fare very well with her own store and moved on to a non-dog related field. Trainers in the corporate world is like teachers in a public Highschool, you can have some truly amazing ones hidden in among the decent ones and often obscured by the awful few. I observed that keeping a good trainer in a corporate pet business is not easy, for multiple reasons; mostly the policy dance that you have to do with your managers, higher-ups and even other employees. Like any company there is a rule and a policy for everything, but as the Trainer you’re not selling dog food – you’re selling yourself in your ability to train. Your ‘merchandise’ is not squeak toys and grooming services, it’s the dogs themselves. And putting a policy on a dog doesn’t work out as smoothly as a lot of people seem to expect. Every dog is different, every owner is different, heck every single class I taught was different. Maintaining a base curriculum was easy, but actually teaching the owners how to deal with their dogs and ensure the dogs were ‘getting it’ was a whole different story.
In my experience with teaching people how to train their horses, the horse was always the easier part of the pair; it was finding the perfect way to get the owner where they wanted to be and, more importantly, where their horse needed them to be that was the real challenge. Dog training certainly follows a similar approach but perhaps with even more emphasis on the human side of the training.
In horses, we have a saying that goes: “Give me your horse for two weeks and he’ll be trained, but the owner who hasn’t changed themselves will undo everything in just two days and they’re back at square one.”
I found out that where dogs are concerned, I could have the dog for one week, and an owner who didn’t change along with his dog could have the dog back to where she was within about a minute. I wish I was exaggerating.
Below: Filson the lovable Chocolate Lab on the day of his Puppy Graduation.
I put my focus into what would stick with the dog no matter where the owner was, and how to get the owner on board. The ideal Petsmart dog is a puppy/adult dog who just needs the basic – Sit. Down. Stay commands; Puppy behaviors, basic socialization, structure and how to type stuff. Not dogs that are in need of rehabilitation or behavior modification. I felt that I could work with the rehabilitation and behavioral modification cases and had many dogs and took many a client who needed a little ‘more’. I didn’t please everyone (if I had, I’d have known I was doing it wrong) but I have a rather long list of very happy dogs, and whom I can only hope are equally happy owners. I retain many fond memories (few photos too) of lovely puppies who ‘graduated’ and turned into wonderful companions for their humans, like Filson (above photo) – who has the silliest grin with the most striking eyes all at the same time! Along with a few ‘rescues’ who were not sent back to the pound or given away because I was able to help them. While puppies are fun and cute, saving the live of older, abused or ‘special’ cases rank among my highlight moments.
I taught 8- and 6-week group classes for dogs and puppies of all ages, breeds, sizes, sexes and levels of training. I also did private sessions with the owner(s) of the dog, as well as one-on-one sessions with just the dog and myself.
Below: Two wonderful Standard Poodle brothers – Zeus & Odin
Below: Oscar Myer & River
They made quite a pair! Always on the same bed or mat, Oscar had to see River do the commands I introduced to him before he would even attempt them! Oscar’s owners often referred to me as his “other Mom,” and River didn’t seem to mind sharing.
I worked with quite a few Dachshunds (mainly due to River showing off) and on most Wednesdays you could find 3 or 4 running around. Oscar (Pictured above) was a long time one-on-one session that I worked with. His owners said that he could only do training every week if River was with him too. Dachshunds tend to love other Dachshunds and they had a blast together. Oscar, who barely sat on command when he first came in, learned all the basics and then some. Other classes thought River and Oscar were both MY dogs and didn’t see much difference in their level of training, which always caused Oscar to puff out his chest in pride!
Below: Pete the smooth-haired Border Collie ~ My pride and joy!
I met Pete when he was barely 4 months old. He was boarding while his owners were traveling, and I was asked to work with him during his stay. He was super smart and a quick learner. He had a major tendency to jump up and pull on the leash along with other basic puppy behaviors. After his week was up, he went home and the next day I got a phone call from his owners. Fearing the worst, I met with his ‘dad,’ Mr. H (we called the owners ‘pet parents’). I was already preparing the “it was only a week” speech, as I’d had to recite it with a few more extreme owners in the past who wanted a robot and not a dog. Before I could even begin, Mr. H walked up and shook my hand saying how impressed he was with Pete and me. Slightly taken aback I thanked him, fawned over Pete and we immediately came up with the next plan of training, since Pete is a high energy dog who needed a job.
Below: Pete & fellow Border Collie friend – Denali
Over the next year and a half I worked with Pete and sometimes his dad. Pete advanced to becoming the star of the training classes and I began to use him with other dogs for social and training exercises. Pete complemented River, who also worked with other training dogs, as he is larger and more energetic. Rather than playing in camp with the other dogs, Pete grew to be more and more in favor of being out working or waiting around for me to be done with paperwork. He held himself to the same level as River who got a free pass to just about anywhere in the store, and often ‘hung out’ in the training room on her bed instead of in camp.
Once 2 o’clock rolled around Pete would start looking for me, and no longer wanted to play with his Conch or Frisbee.
Below: The four hellions… Kathy & Dave G. Dogs, 3 Beagles and a Beagle/Shepherd mix – all rescues.
Okay, only one was actually a hellion but still… ever heard more than two Beagles baying at a time, indoors? …You’re now deaf.
Each dog had their own unique set of issues, and the youngest being 6 years old meant that their habits were well ingrained. The old guy out of the bunch was about 12ish years during our training, I believe — but progress was still made!
Below: Beagle girl Blondie
Doesn’t she look cute? Just so hug-able, sweet and cuddly.. I think not! Okay, she is now… but that is beside the point!
I’m convinced that all Beagles come with over-sized puppy eyes, floppy ears, and those adorable faces for one reason only — to keep their poor unsuspecting owners from murdering them. Whomever gets a Beagle thinking he is going to be Shiloh (book turned movie) all over again, and be a great pet for their city life… needs to visit a few Beagle rescues to get a true feel for what they are getting into. A house dog who is content to hang around and ‘behave’ most Beagles are certainly NOT, nor are they usually family or first dog material. In fact, if you have kids, get a Lab! Seems like most people are under the impression that Beagles are pets or at worst, a hunting dog – just like a Lab, right?
But no, Labs are BIRD dogs. They don’t actually hunt (at least not on purpose), they retrieve – i.e follow our commands.
Labs enjoy taking orders from people. Beagles are flush hunting dogs, i.e. Rabbit dogs — they chase, we follow. End of story. No commands included.
Thankfully, Kathy and Dave are well aware of the Rabbit sniffing Beagle’s true nature and took poor Blondie in from a family who thought Beagles were indeed good pets for kids and simply couldn’t care for her. Having had Beagles all her life, the motley four were Kathy’s second set of rescues. I know she is either crazy or a super big-hearted human being.
Fast forward to around March – April of last year (2011), with Kathy standing in the dog collar isle trying to figure out all the different gadgets and if any would actually help the Beagle dogsled team with her who liked trying to drag her around. I wandered up while putting items back on the shelves to ask if she needed any assistance. I got a brush off of ‘No I’m good, thanks’ with an undertone of “Get the H*** away from me!” — sadly common these days from people used to companies not quite getting what good customer service is and making their employees shove store policies down the poor customer’s throats.
Used to such reactions, I meandered off but stayed within sight in case she should change her mind. A few moments later, Kathy noticed (her words as she told me the story months later) that my shirt is a different color blue than the other employees and that mine also has ‘Dog Trainer’ across the back. Deciding that I didn’t seem overly pushy or suave sales like, she chanced a question about collars and I helped the best I could, explaining what the different gadgets are good for. I tried to keep things short and not ramble so it didn’t feel like I was just trying to sell her something she didn’t want. She hesitantly asked about the training that I did and I gave her the brief overview and explain some of my background with teaching, plus where she could find more info if she didn’t want to talk to anyone since she had that ‘I’m not a fan of box stores’ vibe. She said she had all she needed for now, so I gave my name should she have more questions and forgot about her within a day or two of work figuring I’d never see her again.
Below: Beagle boy #1 and Beagle boy #2 = R.b + Boogey.
So you can imagine my surprise when a month after meeting in the collar isle, out of the blue I have the two females of the Beagle crew along with Kathy and Dave in a fairly full Wednesday evening class. I later found out that Kathy got a ‘feeling’ about me that day in the collar isle which never quite went away so she decided to give me a shot. According to her ~ best thing she could have done!
Over the next year, Blondie (Beagle girl) became a regular in my personal sessions along with Pete, Oscar and quite a few others. I eventually worked with all four of Kathy and Dave’s dogs in group classes, one-on-ones, and personal training with just me and the dogs.
Below, Pete, Blondie and River on the ‘Jungle Gym’ holding a wait command.
Kathy’s dream goal was to be able to walk all four dogs together on leash without issues, i.e lounging, barking, tangling each other up and such. She didn’t think it was really possible, but mentioned it as her ‘Holy Grail.’ I just smiled and said that actually, four dogs on a leash would be easy; it was all the ‘other’ stuff that might be hard. Of course she thought I was joking.
See, Kathy wasn’t new to training classes, different types of training or anything that goes with it. Like many other people, she thought (particularly with rescue dogs) you could make major headway, but always have a few things you just couldn’t change. After all, these weren’t puppies or simple re-homed dogs. Every single Beagle (and Beagle mix ~ Miss Cassidy) were rescues.
Neglected, often abused and abandoned dogs are very different to retrain, more often than not. Treats won’t cut it, nor will simple praise and punishment. Kathy hung in with me and was able to stomach hard-to-hear truths about dealing with animals — that the kinds of things you might learn from your elders, and which everyone tends to agree is the right way, is actually not actually going to work at all — and we ultimately prevailed. Kathy likes to blame me for her success but I think most of the credit should be hers and Dave’s.
Below: Dave with his pack of four calm Beagles in wait by the small live critters (a Beagle owner’s nightmare).
You could usually hear whenever Blondie was in range — she howled and bayed and quickly would get the other dogs into a pack frenzy of scents and sights. A simple sit was next to impossible unless one wanted a wrestling match with a snarling, blood-curdling little fiend. To say most people would rather just drag Blondie away from the excitement instead of trying to calm her down and reason with her was an understatement.
Cassidy was EXTREMELY shy in public, R.b usually refrained from moving his cute paws at all, and Boogey tended to follow Blondie’s lead with the barking. Each dog had a closet full of behaviors from their past that reared its many heads at less than ideal moments.
To say I’m proud of my adopted pack is falling quite short. I’m also impressed with how much Kathy and Dave grew with their dogs (its really not easy to change a couple of decades of training). On the last official day of their training, both Dave and Kathy calmly walked their 4 dogs, all at the same time, all around the store. No choke chains, no prong collars, no yanking leashes or dragging dogs. Simple calm, collected, controlled and relaxed dogs (and owners!).
Below: Cassidy playing with River
Cassidy bloomed into a young, confident girl who could boldly strut around without hiding from children, even allowing them to pet her. Overall, she is relaxed and visibly happy with a Shepherd’s grin on her muzzle if she thinks you’re not staring.
Camping trips, vet visits and home life are a completely different animal these days, according to Kathy. Dog fights and bullying are gone and peace can be found even with 3 1/2 Beagles (I can attest to this fact as I house sit the hellions occasionally). The pack loves River, and hate to see us leave them when the Parents are back.
Below: A Beagle Graduation! All our hard work comes together ~ the dogs just wanted their snack and a nap.
As often as I could, I worked with my training dogs together to help further their social skills, focus, and ability to differentiate their command from the other dog’s commands; to encourage friendly competition, a natural “pack” feel, self-control during excitement, stress and food; and to just provide overall fun for the dogs (and me!).
Below: “Wait on your bed” 4 Beagles – Blondie, R.b, Boogey and Cassidy, River and Pete.
Below: Another on your bed, with Pete, River and Denali.
Denali is a ‘rough’ coat Border Collie and a bit more dainty then Pete. Otherwise, both are fine purebred Borders. And yes, Pete’s ear is always like that – it’s part of his charm!
Below: During camp (where dogs just play in large rooms with a caretaker) I went in to help a young Heeler mix calm down so she wouldn’t have to have a time out.
I was often called to help the Hotel with a dog or two. One of the main reasons people sought me out for training was to get their dog relaxed or social enough to be around other dogs while remaining calm. As you can see in this picture, even during playtime my ‘regulars’ tended to gather around me and just be with me. Pete often requested that he be glued to my hip and aid me with whatever I had going on that day.
Below: Pete and I taking a lunch break back in the hotel.
As you can see from his serene face, Pete was exactly where he wanted to be. Next to his ‘dad,’ I was Pete’s preferred person.
Quite a few pet owners and employees would asked me if Pete was looking for someone to bond with since he was so attached to me. The staff had a running joke for the last oh, eight months I worked there that Pete was in love with me, was my boyfriend and all sorts of other silliness. But to address any concerns; Pete’s Dad is his human, and they have an amazing relationship.
Due to his owner/Dad’s work, Pete needed a job; all Border Collies MUST have a purpose outside of the usual companion/pack relationship they have with their person. Sometimes it is not possible for the owner to ensure that extra purpose bit themselves, and another can take that role without hurting their bond. So I became Pete’s purpose, and job. Think like a mentor in a karate film. Needless to say I love him like my own, and if Pete didn’t already have a great family, I’d have begged and pleaded to take him with me.
Below: River ‘working’. My training cart moved with me from playroom to playroom and all the dogs knew that they couldn’t rob it without permission. River rode around on it like a boss!
Like River, Pete took his role in the training of people and other dogs seriously and viewed it very much as his job alongside me. My associates came to expect that whenever I was making calls, doing paper work or some other mindless task I would have a dog or three nearby, either simply waiting for me (Pete or River) or practicing their control and focus on stay. It may look like all ‘treats and toys’ in the pictures, but I asked a lot out of my two best dogs and keeping a command for over an hour with temptations around and my own focus on other things was a regular occurrence.
My last day with my dogs was quite heartbreaking as I said goodbye to people and dogs (the dogs were the hardest ~ sorry fellow humans). The worst part was that the dogs knew something was up, but I couldn’t explain to them that I was moving, and that to them I would just suddenly disappear. Most of the dogs were quieter or more shy than usual; Pete in particular was suddenly not bouncing around with his favorite stuffed dragon, but just leaning next to me while I worked the week leading up to my last day.
Pete & Joannie
I was told that for weeks after, dogs who were used to seeing me all the time moped around… and Pete was looking for me through doors and windows for months 😦 Quickest way to make me tear up for sure.
The Beagle pack also went through the River & Joannie withdrawal, and interestingly enough Blondie was the one who searched my room and claimed River’s bed. Luckily I get to visit and see my extended four-legged family very soon! I very much doubt that my dog days are over, and am in fact looking to expand my client list in the areas I visit often and live. But mostly I just want to see happy, healthy dogs with owners who enjoy their companionship. Both in Anchorage and Seattle!
To list all the dogs and put up all the great photos along with their stories and how far they have come would be a whole book. I have not purposely left anyone out, and all the dogs are dear to my heart. Many thanks to the owners of my furry friends who gave me permission to photograph and write about their dogs. All photos are property of Joannie Miller & the Owners. This is by no means a review of Petsmart Inc. and only reflects my personal experience. The Trainers within the company are like any other public teaching institute and include some truly gifted individuals.