My parents’ laid back approach to dog ownership meant that none of the dogs I grew up with had received any training. This let them be themselves, for better or for worse. Our black and tan hound dog Molly, who otherwise had the demeanor of a Xanaxed school librarian, cherished a passionate hatred for garter snakes which she expressed by decapitating them in droves. Max, a heap of a German Shepherd who thought nothing of once attacking a bear, was so terrified of little girls that he ceased to be able to function whenever he met one. Had our home ever been invaded by little girls they’d have been able to make off with whatever they liked. Their current dog, Lily, a lesser heap of a German Shepherd, is sweet as sugar to people, but is also of sound belief that any dog who isn’t her deserves only to be bitten as hard as she can bite.
Had my parents known Kish Hilmert, then countless beheadings, bites, and traumatic Girl Scout encounters could have been prevented. The Virginia native studied to become a veterinary technician at NDSU, but only became interested in dog training when the rescue mutt she adopted had to be taught to tolerate a leash. Kish discovered that she enjoyed training dogs far more than she did inserting catheters into them, so she founded Down Dog Studio in Fargo where she now instructs the creatures full-time.
“When you want an animal to learn a new behavior, you first have to let them choose to do that action all on their own,” said Kish. “It’s the trainer’s job to see that the outcome of that action is rewarding to the animal. This is the fundamental rule of positive reinforcement, a system which utilizes what best motivates an animal — which in a dog’s case is unsurprisingly treats — to exhibit the behaviors we want them to, without creating anxiety.
“If you went to work and only heard ‘NO!’ all day long, you’d either start aimlessly doing whatever you think is right, or you’d just disengage entirely. Now put yourself in your dog’s shoes: If the only input they receive is angry shouting, they become just as confused or apathetic. Great training puts a dog in an environment where they can predict how their actions will be rewarded, which makes them instinctively want to repeat those positive behaviors again. It’s more important to catch them being good than it is to catch them being bad!
“That’s not to say you should ignore your dog when they are acting out, but you have to go about it in a way that promotes learning. When a puppy sees a shoe, they automatically think ‘shoe, therefore chew’ — you can’t get mad at a puppy for doing what only comes naturally to them. If you catch your puppy chewing a shoe, a gentle interruption like ‘Hey puppy!’ should be all it takes to make them stop. Once you’ve distracted them, immediately reward them with a treat and affection for giving you their attention. Then engage them in an activity you’d rather see them enjoying, and reward them again for doing that. Remove the shoe to create an environment that they can do less wrong in, and they’ll make the connection quickly.
“This model of learning holds true for any dog, no matter their age — the old adage about old dogs and new tricks just isn’t true. I once had a client who adopted a ten year old dog that had never lived in a house before, let alone receive any training. We started out with him just like we would any puppy, slowly breaking down his behavior into things we wanted and things we didn’t in a way that he could understand, and rewarding him the whole time. It wasn’t long at all until he became a gentleman. I recently had another client whose older dog had a nasty habit of jumping all over anyone who came through the door. Within days we trained the dog to sit on a mat in the hall until her polite greeting was called for.
“I love seeing the light bulb going on in dogs’ heads when they figure out what’s expected of them. I love the human aspect too — helping people to connect with their dogs so they can make progress together, as a team. Building close relationships and helping dogs understand how to best enjoy their lives is what training should be all about!”
If you would like to teach your newest family member good manners, or help your longtime companion to forget some of the less desirable quirks they’ve picked up over their lifetime, then Kish is standing by with a fist full of dog treats and everything else you need to achieve your pup goals. Visit fmdowndog.com to find out more!
By David Scheller