As a young lad, my fascination with dogs began when my father got me an Encyclopedia Britannica (remember those?). One section that stood out for me was the ‘dog’ section. This section was about five pages long and featured virtually every dog breed under the sun. Mind you, our family never owned a dog and there were very few in our neighborhood so my exposure to canines was few and far between to say the least. None-the less, I studied the dog breeds and their images arduously and in a short time, could recognize just about every dog breed I’d see on the street.
It goes without saying that just recognizing dog breeds alone wasn’t enough. I wanted to connect with them, pet them and get to know them intimately. And that’s precisely what I did. I would set out from my house and go on walks just to find dogs to pet and show off my knowledge of their breed to their owners. If I couldn’t recognize the breed, I would anxiously ask the owners what breed they were.
My first dog
This passion naturally evolved into me begging my parents for a dog of our own. My request was met with stubborn resistance until on my 10th birthday, my stepfather finally succumbed to my demand. But there was a caveat. I had to sign contract pledging to walk, feed and train the dog on a daily basis. I couldn’t have signed the first contract in my entire life any faster. We took a trip to the local pound where we sifted through tens of dogs-all with sad faces. One was especially friendly towards us-Gizmo. Gizmo was an adorable wheaten terrier mix who was especially affectionate. But the pound staff warned us-Gizmo had a dark side. He was returned twice to the pound for running away. As a confident ten-year old, I would certainly make sure Gizmo never saw the inside of the pound again. That was a mistake.
When we got home, I took him on his first walk-and like a disappearing magic act-he ran away. I don’t know how but we must have bought the most defective leashes because Gizmo had an incredible knack for magically freeing himself from the leash and running away. It seemed as though at least twice a week for his first year with us, he would somehow run away and I’d spend hours searching for him. This was my first experience as a dog trainer. I tried a wide array of methods to prevent his running away including releasing him within the confines of a fenced in tennis court while giving him commands. Nothing seemed to work. (I now realize that if I had an electric collar and the knowledge to use it, I could have saved a lot of wasted time and heartbreak). Eventually, the running away subsided. I didn’t know if it was a my training or him getting older (now I realize it was a bit of both) but the community at the dog park seemed impressed enough to hire me as a dog walker. (I also credit my grandmother who bought me my first dog training book).
Training army dogs
When I was twenty-years old, I moved to Israel and was inducted into the Israeli Defense Forces. They have a unit called Oketz which is a crack team of K-9 handlers and trainers who specialize in recognisance, detection and tracking. Naturally, I put my name in the hat to get into that unit. During the testing process, We were thrown into a fenced in area and told to take either a ball, a sausage or a piece of cheese and call a military trained Belgian Malinois to us. Since my Hebrew wasn’t perfect (and the fact that I have ADD), all I heard was to ‘call the dog to me’. So I didn’t take any of the enticing rewards and instead knelt down and opened my arms calling the dog in a high-pitched voice. (This was a technique I learned as a kid training Gizmo in the tennis courts). The evaluators were very impressed that I did not require any food or toys to call the dog and subsequently granted my entrance into Oketz. In that unit, following a rigorous basic and advanced training, we were finally assigned to our dogs. My dog, ‘Linda’, was an explosive detection K-9. In my service. This meant that she could search an entire area and locate any explosive material in the vicinity. Without getting into it with too much detail, the training for these dogs was highly intense and complex. That being said, I discovered a whole new dimension of dog training. Dogs were no longer these cute fuzzy creatures we use for companionship but a mammal whose advanced olfactory senses are exploited in a diligent manner to save people’s lives.
We learned the principle of prey drive and how wolves who are naturally prone to hunt rabbits have evolved into shepherds whose same instinct can be used to hunt people (more specifically-terrorists). I learned that a dog, whose olfactory sense is hundreds of times more sophisticated than a human being’s can be taught to comb an entire field in search land-mines or IEDs, and once found, can sit beside them signaling to his master exactly where they are. We learned that anyone who illegally crosses a border, or flees a border, can be tracked down by Bloodhounds by following the quarry’s trail of microscopic skin rafts he left behind during their escape. This was a whole new level of dog training that made the ‘Big 5’ commands (sit, down, heel, stay, come) seem like the minor leagues.(Needless to say, these dogs had the big 5 commands down pat). My military service lasted roughly two and a half years. During this time, I developed skills and knowledge that most regular dog trainers wouldn’t even consider.
Civilian dog training
Following my release, I returned to Boston. Some random guy somehow caught wind that I was a combat K-9 trainer in Israel and the next thing I knew, I had a class of ten dog owners hoping that I could help them solve their dog problems. And although I was light years ahead of the other local dog trainers, I was hit with problems we never prepared for in the trenches. We were never trained to deal with Mary’s poodle who kept having accidents in the house. No one trained us to stop a dog from jumping up on people. This was actually encouraged in the military so not to put a dent in the dog’s confidence.
It was at that point I decided to sign up for an online correspondence course at Animal Behavior College. During this course, I was required to take an hours long exam as well as intern with another local professional dog trainer for six months. I realized that I knew a lot more than my mentor about dog training but for the most part, I gritted my teeth in silence when she made
mistakes or gave the students bad information. I wasn’t there to interrupt her class, I just wanted to complete the course in peace, do my time and boost my resume. However, my mentor was an agility expert so I did make a concerted effort to suck up the knowledge with regards to agility training. I firmly believe that one can learn from every dog trainer-even those with less experience and knowledge than you.
Following my certification as a dog trainer from Animal Behavior College, I was awarded as a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) evaluator by the American Kennel Club. At this point I felt fully equipped to handle any dog problem-from housebreaking to running away to general disobedience. (The only problem they didn’t prepare me for was aggression which we’ll get to later). At this point, my business expanded. My website was getting good traffic and I was going to house-calls throughout the greater Boston area virtually everyday. I operated two separate dog training schools in two separate sections of Boston helping a diverse group of dog owners turn their dog from misbehaved monsters into well-behaved gentlemen.
Police K9 Training
Most people don’t realize that in America (and most of the world for that matter), the field of professional dog training is completely unregulated. This means that although I chose to get my certifications as a dog trainer, I didn’t need to. Anyone can design a website and call themselves a dog trainer (many actually do). In the eyes of the law, they would be just as legitimate as someone like myself who has three different certifications. This also means that there is no system of continuing education that professional dog trainers are required to go through. But this never stopped me from attending additional courses, lectures and seminars. One of the more significant courses I took was that of the Eastern States Working Dog association. This was an organization of retired police K-9 operatives from New Jersey who would sell, train and certify working K9s to police officers, mainly in North Carolina. In this course, I was shown how the Americans train patrol dogs (a more legally friendly term for an attack dog). This course also covered narcotics detection (something I had no experience with) as well as tracking using bloodhounds (a breed only recently integrated in the Israeli Defense Forces). To get certified as a patrol dog handler, I had to train my Belgian Malinois, ‘Colonel’, to attack on command. I also had to train him to release his ‘victim’ on command as well as call off the attack. This means that if I sent the dog to attack a perpetrator, I need to be able to tell him to abort, about-face and return to me on a dime. This was no easy task to request of a dog who is all hyped up to sink his teeth into the quarry. I passed my police trial and was subsequently certified in police patrol training by the Eastern States Working Dog association.
I also had to train Colonel to track people over a mile’s distance to receive certification in police K9 tracking. This also required a half year’s worth of rigorous training in all types of weather conditions and all types of natural terrain surfaces. Since then I have moved back to Israel and taken my skills. I have lectured the Israeli police on advanced patrol K9 techniques. I also worked as a trainer for a new dog hotel called ‘Kelevland’. At this ‘doggy resort’, I used the agility course to train dogs in agility training and the swimming pool to train dogs to perform water rescue training. I regularly consult with the Israeli Dog Unit (IDU), a private organization that trains patrol dogs. I have also been working independently as a professional dog trainer and an author/blogger helping dog owners in need throughout the world without access to a professional dog trainer. In this framework, I help dog owners with just about any breed, any age and any size overcome their obedience issues be it not pulling on a leash, aggression and everything in between.
I have learned just about every technique under the sun. This includes clicker training as well as the more compulsive ‘yank and crank’ training. I know positive and negative training. I’ve tried and tested the results of food rewards, tug rewards and affection rewards. I’ve come to the conclusion that each dog is wired differently. Therefore, what may work on one dog may not work on another.
By in large, I consider myself to be a ‘balanced’ trainer. This means that when a dog is expressing a behavioral problem, I will begin by using positive methods to attempt to solve the problem. But if positive training doesn’t work, I will resort to plan B. This can include a wide array of tools and methods that make many positive trainers and owners cringe. These can include prong collars, choke collars or electronic collars. And although many disagree with these methods, my objective is to help dogs learn to behave and nothing less. I am results oriented and therefore I will do what works. That’s because I realize that rewarding a dog with food, does not directly address many behavioral problems such as jumping up on people or leg-humping. On the other hand, compulsive dog training methods aren’t appropriate in many instances like training puppies or dogs demonstrating fear-based aggression. My belief is that the more you know the dog, the more equipped you are to train them. And nobody knows your dog better than you. That’s why my philosophy has always been to empower the owner to train their dog. My role is to provide owners with the tools to complete the puzzle. This provides you., the owner, with a happy, well-rounded dog.