I have asked a fellow columnist, Susie Davidson Powell, if I could share the insights she had into this field by reprinting one of her columns, and she generously agreed. I’ll share one more piece of vital information after the quote. If you read this before, please read it again — it can’t hurt! (From Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, “Look on the Bright Side — with a Little Positive Reinforcement”)
“Since Felix arrived in our house, it’s been chaotic. You’ve seen Cesar Milan and Victoria Stilwell descend upon suburban neighbourhoods to restore order to the pack with their dog-whispering ways. So when you pick up the telephone and call Charlene Marchand, it means exactly one thing: you need help. Dog help. For some it’s the beginning, an introduction to training for an ebullient puppy; for others it’s nearly the end of the rope for a dog with aggression or behavioural issues, families preparing to part with an unmanageable four-legged friend. Her voicemail sets the tone. With clear enunciation and a warm, firm tone, Charlene instructs you to leave your name with your number, twice. And you do, sitting up straight, tail wagging just a smidge.
This, I’ve discovered, is Charlene’s way with words.
We’ve been down the puppy road before and, having lost two aging Boxers within a year of each other, it was no surprise when family rumblings became regular pleading for a puppy. The trouble with puppies is that they woo you with voodoo. Big watery eyes peer up begging you to take them home. And that’s just in photos. Before I could effectively inoculate myself with memories of chewed suede stilettos, I caved. And Felix, a Boxer puppy, arrived.
Like babies, everyone looks at puppies as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and appear slightly appalled when you moan about their trying behaviour. But they don’t know about the behind scenes chaos: the chewed boots, shredded books, and small toys that are dismembered or hideously mangled beyond recognition. (I mistook an orange lump for hardened Silly Putty only to find it was a miniature horse stripped of its fuzzy hide, decapitated and chewed into something resembling a wad of gum.) Despite my efforts to enforce training rules with a crate, books and a low-budget crate-training video apparently made for people with low IQs, we had a new variable: Small Children.
Every minute after 6:30 a.m. was fraught with battles, nipping, screaming over stolen toys, chewing and indoor accidents. Gates went up around the house until we began to resemble a TSA security screening area. But the greatest problem was that Felix viewed Finn, our 3-year-old, as his peer, routinely barreling into him like a bowling ball into a skittle. I called the vet in despair.
The idea of trying a respected dog behavioralist, felt extreme. And very American. Like going to therapy. Shouldn’t we be able to handle this ourselves? But I put down the pet store store puppy-training schedule, and called Charlene.
Typically, when you initiate a call looking for a product or service, you’re in charge, fielding questions and determining your interest. But when you speak with Charlene, something happens. She asks about your primary issue, validates your concerns and explains her approach. “Is that something that interests you?” she wants to know. You get a date, directions, a little prep homework and hang up the phone feeling — what? — both relieved and somehow managed, as though she has just lead you through a hundred year maze with the promise of ice cream at the end.
Charlene has been dishing positive reinforcement expertise from her North Chatham Taizé Shepherd Kennel and training center since 1975. Having convinced my husband to join me for a 90-minute lesson and armed with my bag of 300 neatly diced cheese treats, (endearingly called ‘Paychecks’), Charlene set to work training us. I mean, our puppy. As the primary trainer, I found myself being encouraged to adopt a happy sing-song voice, asking Felix to “Track it!” or “Sit, good!” without ever using his name. Every jump and play bite was ignored and redirected to a desired behavior with a reward. And with Charlene’s assured style, I found myself willing to “pucker up my kisser” to get his attention, and sashay across the room to get him to follow. When she asked Felix to sit, I almost did.
What you get: The results were rapid. Ninety minutes and a few hundred pieces of cheese later and Felix was keying into key commands and following directions. Who knew a command has to be repeated 1,123 times just to introduce it as something new, and many more times before it’s ingrained as second nature. This stand alone session is a starting point from which the slog of daily home training emanates but Charlene offers a range of group, intermediate and Good Citizen training classes, along with a program in the jail, which may be useful should you ever find yourself inside.
As a booster, we signed up for the local pet store puppy class — an overwhelming sensory overload for humans and canines alike. Two Pit Bulls were frothing at the mouth intent on a Michael Vick-style interaction. One became so enraged it gave itself a nose bleed which, rather than gushing, just oozed out of its pores. The instructor yelled helplessly across the racket about the usage of training clickers. A silent Beagle sat calmly observing the ruckus. The stringy blonde Pit Bull owner repeatedly became entangled in her leash, grabbing at furniture like a life raft, yelling and jabbing her new clicker at her dog like a television remote. Charlene has since told me good trainers in the area estimate 40 to 50 percent of their business is fall out from disastrous pet-store training programs. I can see why.”
Fine words. As I was saying, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Be ever-cautious in whatever training program you decide to enter your puppy into. You can certainly check out Charlene’s web site at www.taizeshepherdkennel.com.”
Charlene Marchand is the chairperson of the Columbia-Greene Humane Society/SPCA Board of Directors. She may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.