From my earliest memory I've loved animals, especially dogs. Growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I spent many hours with our Miniature Poodle, Pierre, and our big gray cat, Hubie, hanging out with them and teaching them all sorts of tricks. I've always enjoyed teaching my dogs tricks - what I discovered as I learned more about dog training and behavior is that learning tricks and fun things really helps my dogs "learn how to learn" and respond to me, and the obedience exercises come very easily for them.
My first dog of my own as an adult was Spencer, a Shetland Sheepdog. We lost Spencer on May 10, 2005 - just 6 weeks before his 17th birthday. What a guy, he kept his keen spirit up until the last day! I was a single gal when I got Spencer in 1988; he was 11 weeks old. I spent all of my free time with him, took him everywhere with me, and socialized him really well without even realizing how crucial that is for dogs. I taught him lots of behaviors and tricks (including getting a beer from the fridge, which he did until age 16) using treats, repetition, and what I now know are techniques called luring and physical prompting.
A year after getting married and buying a house, my husband Dave and I decided to get another Sheltie, we named him Nigel. This was 1994 and Spencer was six years old. Out of ignorance, besides house training we didn't do much about training Nigel. It seemed like Spencer was showing him what he needed to know (he was even lifting his leg to pee at 8 weeks old!). He never got properly socialized to people and other dogs, and became especially fearful of children because our next door neighbor's kids were quite awful to him and I didn't know how to handle it. Very stressful life for a dog! When I finally tried to do some training with him at age three, he completely shut down.
In the fall of 1998, I decided to take time to pursue my interest in dogs and learn more about them. I had a busy schedule playing cello full-time with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, teaching private lessons and playing gigs, but I signed up for a dog training class. It was a traditional punishment-based training class; at the time I didn't know anything else existed. I took Nigel (then 4 years old) to the class. Although he thrived on the outings to class and the individual attention and we did learn a few things, he was very solemn and withdrawn doing the behaviors we were working on, and it killed me to be jerking on that little guy's leash all the time. I finished that class feeling as though I wasn't nearly as good at this dog training stuff as I had always believed I was.
The following spring I went to our local SPCA one day with a friend of ours who wanted to get a dog. As we looked through the photo book of dogs waiting to be adopted, I was taken with a picture of a 3-month-old Border Collie/Sheltie mix puppy. He and his two brothers had been dropped off at 2 weeks of age; their mother had been hit by a car and killed. Apparently they had quite a struggle and almost died a couple of times, but the staff there pulled them through. When they brought out little "Larry" I totally fell for him (they had called the puppies Larry, Darryl and Darryl after the three brothers on the "Bob Newhart Show"). He was the last of the three to be adopted and it was obvious how attached the staff had become to him. I went home and got Dave to go back over there with me. After meeting little Larry, Dave agreed we should take him home with us. (We were planning to get a third dog one year later, either a Border Collie or another Sheltie, so to find a mix of the two was great!) We adopted Larry and changed his name to Fergus.
Fergus is 13 years old now and remains one of the smartest, sweetest, most special dogs I've ever known. He's been trained exclusively with a marker signal and positive reinforcement, and loves to do obedience "tricks" just as much as he loves to turn the television on and off or put his toys away. He also gets a beer from the fridge, taking over for his old friend Spencer. In June, 2006, Fergus and I became a Therapy Dog team. We spent one year participating in a reading program at one of our local library branches where Fergus would "listen" to children read, and after that he became a regular at an assisted living facility near us where he enjoys doing tricks and entertaining a wonderful group of elderly people. He brings smiles and laughter to many people at every visit.
Soon after we got Fergus I wanted to try more training classes - from what I had heard having a Border Collie meant lots of training and activity, which I was totally up for. I called around our area and found Gary Hensley, who had just been to Purdue University's "Dogs!" course, and he described to me the new way he was training using positive reinforcement. I took his beginning obedience class with both Nigel and Fergus, during which he introduced us to the clicker. After that, since I couldn't find any actual "clicker classes" (training using a marker signal and positive reinforcement), I went through his recommended reading list and bought many books and videos to learn as much as I could about this fabulous training method. I discovered all these wonderful people telling me that I could be nice to my dogs and still have them be responsive and obedient! All three dogs responded wonderfully to clicker training, even Spencer who didn't start until age 11. It was the best thing in the world for Nigel, who came to love training more than almost anything (except maybe going to the park!). Nigel was the one who really made me realize how willing dogs are to change if we as the owners learn a better way to communicate with them. We had to let Nigel go on February 22, 2007, he was just shy of 13 years. We miss Nigel very much, and although I feel bad about how many mistakes we made with him, we at least know that his life got better and better as he aged.
In November of 2000, I had just retired from a 20-year career as a full-time professional musician when I attended a seminar in Ohio presented by Turid Rugaas, the wonderful Norwegian woman who has taught us all about "Calming Signals" . (Besides positive reinforcement training, learning about the "calming signals" that dogs use has made our dogs happier, more relaxed, and much more confident than they used to be. The dogs and the humans in our home are a lot less stressed out now that we humans can understand a little more of what our dogs trying to communicate to us. I highly recommend learning about it!) At the seminar I met Judy Archer-Dick and her husband Charles. After chatting on breaks and realizing that we lived in the same area, Judy and I often got together on weekends to let our dogs socialize, and for us to compare dog-training notes. In July of 2001, Judy let me know about a clicker class that was being taught by Pam Mahlie and Janet Bernier at the St. Joe Center Veterinary Hospital, which we both attended. We enjoyed the class very much, and both took a second class. After that, Judy and I were lured into teaching a clicker class of our own (once a teacher, always a teacher!). Over the years since then, we have continued to expand our knowledge of dog training and behavior, and now offer a wide range of classes and a variety of options for private and in-home training and behavior consulting.
In June, 2005 Dave and I welcomed a new little lad to our group. His name is Eddie and he is a Pekapoo/Maltese mix. He is a joy to us and is very smart. He learns everything fast, and really makes the most of watching the other dogs to see how things work (he does live with herding dogs - a lot to keep up with)! Eddie and I became a Therapy dog team in March 2007. He does his visits at the same assisted living facility as Fergus, and while he doesn't do as many tricks as Fergus, he brings lots of love and cuddles to those he visits. Eddie is a funny, entertaining little guy - who would have thought all that personality could be in one tiny dog!
After spending more than a year without a Sheltie in our life I found Joni (named after the singer Joni Mitchell) in May 2008. She is a sweet, smart little girl with lots of love to give to everyone she meets, and tons of spunk and joy for life. Joni and I became a Therapy Dog team in July 2011, so she has joined her brothers in bringing love and smiles to others.
I am a member of APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) and a graduate of Purdue University's DOGS! Course : Principles and Techniques of Behavior Modification.