Many local parents of young kids spend January and February studiously attending preschool open houses, comparing the pros and cons of learning approaches, facilities, and materials. Though it was six years ago for me, I still remember the deposit deadlines, the waiting lists, the indecision, and the stress of wanting to be sure my child's education started off right.
I didn't think to do this for my dogâ€"at least initially.
I have since discovered there are a number of local choices for pet education, from puppy preschool to advanced agility. Teaching a dog to sit and stay is just the tip of the iceberg.
"Every time your dog learns something, you are creating new neuropathways in their brain," said Jamie Damato, sounding a bit like pediatrician and author T. Berry Brazelton.
Damato started AnimalSense in Oak Park six years ago with the idea of helping people to understand dogs. She had previously founded and operated Out-U-Go Pet Care Services in the village and worked in veterinary clinics and in other roles focused on animal behavior.
"What I always found intriguing was this idea that you can't change stuff," she said. "People would make excuses for their dogs ... [but] the issues are really around a lack of understanding."
Damato said she started with the typical classesâ€""sit, stay-down, come-heel classes because that's what people think of"â€"but tried to infuse the ideas of creating a bond between the owner and dog, and that training is a lifelong endeavor.
"Dogs are meant to work. Dogs are meant to be problem-solving," she said. "Mental exercise is just as important as physical exercise."
Damato now has seven staff members, offering a large variety of classes in an alley-accessed space behind Pet Vets Animal Hospital, on Harrison Street, as well as classes in the South Loop. Offerings for the current six-week session include "Puppy Preschool," "Puppy First Step," "Clicks, Tricks & Games," "Middle Management," "Leash and Recall," and even "Bowser & Baby." (Full disclosure: My seven-month-old puppy is a graduate of "Puppy Preschool" and "Puppy First Step.")
Park district classes
Does every Bowser really need the equivalent of canine college? Clearly the answer depends on who you askâ€"as well as on Bowser and his owner.
Bill Casey, a Hinsdale resident who grew up in Oak Park, has been offering dog training classes through the Park District of Oak Park for more than 30 years. The current eight-week session, beginning Jan. 21, offers Puppy Obedience, Dog Obedience for Beginners, and Continuing Dog Obedience.
"I very much sell the continuing course. For most people, the second eight-week period is immensely helpful. They're just barely getting their foot in the door," he said. "We are spending so much time training the ownersâ€"even they can only process so much in the span of eight weeks."
Beyond "the basics of control" in the beginning classes, Casey addresses problems in daily life, such as housebreaking, jumping on people, yard behavior, barking, digging, chasing, and chewing. He tries to allow time for owners to raise concerns and to allow the dogs to socialize.
"We're trying to pack so much into this eight-week period, and you can only talk so much because you've got this puppy sitting here that's tugging on its leash and distracting you," he said.
Casey uses the continuing course to help owners expand their base of control, i.e. "the dog coming across an open field instead of the dog coming across the room," or "hand signals to encourage the dogs to focus more of their attention."
Dave Wieczorek, founder of Wet Nose obedience and behavior training and a 28-year dog-training veteran, offers four levels of classes through the River Forest Community Center and other park districts: a four-week Puppy Training class and eight-week sessions on Obedience & Behavior Training, Intermediate Obedience & Agility Training, and Advanced Obedience & Agility Training. Beginner and intermediate classes are running in the current River Forest session, which began Jan. 5.
The quantity of training needed "depends on the individual, breed, and dog," Wieczorek noted. "Every dog we agree should be trained. The best approach would be as soon as possible. If you don't train them immediately, they'll end up becoming a leader in your home."
Wieczorek's classes focus on developing a leadership role for the owner and a follower role for the dogâ€""basically a dog that respects your space. Once you get all the basic training exercises down, we start expanding them and combining them," he said.
Accentuate the positive
Damato, Casey, and Wieczorek all stress using positive reinforcement methods to promote desired behavior, such as verbal praise, touch, and treats.
Dog training methods have changed quite a bit since he started, Casey observed.
"They were very heavily dependent upon negative reinforcement. Today in the 2000s, it's almost the opposite," he said. "The goal is to control and shape behaviors to enable us to live more comfortably with the dogsâ€"kind of a base of communication that ultimately helps build the long-term bond."
Casey, who also trains animals for work in movies, pointed out that dogs come from varied backgrounds and don't always respond to the same techniques.
Damato sees dog training as "a combination of art and science," one reason AnimalSense staff members bring different ideas and approaches to the classroom.
Beyond the style of the instructors, local dog classes vary in size and cost. The Oak Park park district catalog lists a maximum of 15 or 20 dogs (plus owners) for Casey's classes, which run for 45 minutes over eight weeks and cost $95 for residents and $138 for nonresidents. An assistant or two joins him, depending on enrollment.
Wieczorek charges $80 for his eight-week sessions. Each class runs for one hour, and class size can sometimes exceed 10 dogs, though Wieczorek also adds sessions to accommodate enrollment.
AnimalSense limits enrollment to eight dogs per class, usually has two trainers present, and charges $240 for a six-week session of one-hour classes. (Continuing students get a $25 discount, and dogs from rescue organizations get $40 off.)
All three trainers also offer private training/behavioral counseling at varying hourly rates.
The average AnimalSense client takes between two and four classes, Damato said, though she calls some clients "AnimalSense lifers." Among the most popular continuing classes are "Dog Gone Issues" and "Middle Management," when dogs "are expressing themselves" between 8 and 18 months.
"Everyone kind of comes and commiserates," she said. "A lot of dog owners when they're finding problems, they're embarrassed. They feel guilty. They feel isolated. [These classes] provide an outlet."
Practice makes perfect
Regardless of whether owners are starting with a puppy or an adopted, older dog, Damato advises clients to keep up a training schedule as often as possible for the first year. Wieczorek suggests that dogs need more training than owners might initially expect.
"I don't expect people to spend hours and hours every day training. I [do] expect them to constantly shape their dog throughout the day when they're with them," he said. "The more a dog practices a behavior, the better they get it."
Wieczorek's observation gets at a feeling I have about my personal need for continuing dog training. My eight-pound bichon and my family could probably live happily together using what we've already learnedâ€"if we practiced. Taking another class might make that practice more likely.
"I think the gist of obedience classes is that you are really teaching the owner," said Oak Park dog owner Karla Oberholtzer. "Going to additional classes ... the class itself isn't really going to make the dog obedient. It's the owner that is going to make the dog obedient."
Oberholtzer remembered taking two classes through the park district in 1998 with her dog, Katrina, a boxer who died last year. She found the training helpful, but both she and a friend later agreed that "we really could have taken just that first class." Oberholtzer recently tried AnimalSense with her new dog, Cecilia.
"It kind of refreshed my ideas," she said, "[but] I already knew how to train a dog."
Oberholtzer reiterates the point that practice is key. "It's a waste of money if you don't reinforce what you've learned."
She laughs about a busy friend who is learning that lesson now. She adopted a "perfectly trained" black lab just over a year ago. "They didn't reinforce it. ... That dog will take whole loaves of bread off the counter and eat it. The dog grabbed a grocery bag off my counter! I have never seen such an ill-behaved dog."
Oak Parker Elvira Colmenero, whose family brought home a yellow Labrador puppy on Labor Day last year, is looking forward to taking Casey's continuing obedience class. She found the beginning class helpful, particularly in getting answers to questions like what kind of leash to get and how many hours to crate her dog, Luke. She regularly practices with Luke about 20 minutes a day.
The dog can now sit and stay, but "he needs to refine what he already knows," she said. "Sometimes he comes. Sometimes he doesn't come. I hope he gets more consistent about it."
Melissa Buoscio is on her way to being one of those AnimalSense "lifers." Three years ago, she adopted a husky mix, Roscoe, from the Oak Park Animal Care League.
At the time, Damato and Kelly Elvin, another AnimalSense trainer, were volunteering at the ACL. When Buoscio learned about their classes, she immediately plunged in with Roscoe. She hadn't had a dog since childhood, and that one was a significantly smaller cocker spaniel. Roscoe is now 75 pounds.
"Everything I had learned with the cocker spaniel and the choke chain and the obedience classes, I knew it was out of date. For the first two years, I attended every session that they offered," she said. "It was so helpful, just simple things, like they helped me find a collar. ... I learned that different things work for different dogs."
Buoscio took a class on canine communication, focused primarily on helping dog owners read signals their dogs give off. She also tried a class called Rally-O, in which dogs work through an obstacle course.
"You kind of get past the leash manners thing ... learn where his capacity is," she said. "Dogs that need to improve their confidence and become more secure really need jobs like that to do."
Buoscio eventually took a Canine Good Citizen class with Roscoe, part of the recommended preparation for owners seeking to certify their dogs for pet therapy. Buoscio is a dietitian who used to work with patients in a hospital setting and missed that one-on-one contact. She now takes Roscoe to hospitals, nursing homes, and to visit learning-disabled kids.
"He's so funny, and he's so sweet. I just wanted to share him with other people," she said. "The relationship I have with my dog now is so rewarding. ... He trusts me. It's really a special relationship, and I think a lot of people these days want that with their pets."
Diane Carter, an Oak Parker who owns three black labs, has also taken classes on a regular basis at AnimalSense. She started with a focus on basic obedience for her youngest dog, Sarah, but "the more I got into it, the more I liked it."
"It makes such a difference when you're out in the world, and you have control of your dog," said Carter, who now regularly takes two of her dogs to classes. She hopes to use one in pet therapy.
"They get so excited when we're driving there," she said. "They just love going to dog school."
What to expect if you're expecting
For prospective dog owners who have not yet welcomed a furry family member, AnimalSense is offering a free seminar the first Wednesday of every month: "Ready, Set, DOG?" Attendees will learn how much a dog really costs, what kind of dog might be best for their family, and questions to ask a prospective breeder or rescue organization.
"A lot of the problems people experience could have been avoided or at least expected if there was some preliminary information shared," said Damato.