When I decided I was going to begin a blog it didn’t take me long to figure out what topic I wanted to discuss and who to go to. Katie Roppollo of Playful Pups LLC has been Mugzy’s trainer since he was just months old. In fact, during one of our sessions we began to discuss the homemade treats I had for Mugzy. Katie thought they were great and suggested I sell them. As my gears got turning I thought to myself that I COULD make a small business out of this! From there Mugzy’s Barkery was born. I found it quite fitting to highlight Katie and her business in my first blog post as she was a major influence in this all beginning for me!

I sat down with Katie to chat about the life if a dog trainer and to learn more about her process and methods.

Hi Katie! Thanks so much for sitting down with me today! Can you tell me a little about how you came to be a dog trainer and begin your business, Playful Pups?

My career as a dog trainer started because I adopted a puppy. The day I brought Maggie home I realized I had no idea what to do with her. I didn’t know how to potty train her or how to teach her to sit or even what kind of toys to buy her. I felt a little in over my head so I signed up for training classes. I loved teaching Maggie new things and watching her learn and knew I wanted to do more. I became a dog trainer at PetSmart, continued my education and earned my certification through Animal Behavioral College, then started my own training business, Playful Pups.

What is your favorite part of what you do?

My favorite part of training dogs would have be to when a dog learns how to do something their owners thought impossible. Dog owners tend to underestimate their dogs’ abilities and, for me, there is nothing more fun than showing a dogs’ owner just how smart and capable their dog really is.

What is the most challenging?

The most challenging part of training dogs is actually getting the owners to follow through. Training dogs is actually pretty easy, sometimes there are challenging behavioral problems or dogs that need extra help learning a new cue, but it is the dog owner that who needs to practice with their dog because dogs need to practice a new behavior or cue many times before they truly know it. There is nothing harder for a trainer than knowing that you can help a dog, but the owner just will not put the time in and the dog has to suffer for it.

What training techniques do you use and why?

I am a Force-Free Positive Reinforcement Dog Trainer. Basically this means that I use rewards such as treats, toys, and praise to train dogs and I do not use any physical force to get dogs to do what I want them to do. In fact when I am training a dog, he is rarely on a leash. I use these methods, not just because I think it is kinder to the dog, but also because scientific studies have shown that dogs learn faster and do better when learning this way.

How does this differ from other popular training methods?

Other training methods rely more on force, intimidation, and pain. They force dogs into positions such as sits, or downs. They use Alpha Rolls (forcing a dog onto its back) in order to show the dog that they are dominant. They use choke, prong and shock collars in order to correct the dog when it does something wrong. Many trainers who use these methods also use treats during training, they are often called “Balanced” trainers. These trainers give treats when the dog is right and corrections when it is wrong. This makes sense right? Dog is right he gets treat, dog is wrong he gets corrected. The problem is that the correction hurts.

What is harmful about these other methods?

There are so many reasons that these methods are harmful. The first problem is dominance. At lot of these methods are used based on the idea that you have to show your dog that you are dominant over him. This is redundant because your dog already knows that. Animals need to do three things to survive: eat, sleep and go to the bathroom. The one that controls those three things is the dominant one in the group. So if you control your dog’s food, where he sleeps and where and when he goes to the bathroom then you are dominant over your dog and he knows it. Forcing your dog into a submissive position (an Alpha Roll) is only going to increase your dog’s fear of you because you have basically become a bully and can cause him to become aggressive.

Using choke chains and prongs can have serious physical and psychological side effects. Physically, dogs who wear choke or prong collars are much more likely to develop degenerative arthritis, laryngeal nerve paralysis (which can affect their voice and cause difficultly in swallowing), and have neck instability. There have also been studies showing that the pressure put on the neck also causes pressure in the eyes which can cause glaucoma and corneal lacerations. All of the above injuries are common in working dogs, who often are trained with choke and prong collars. Dogs who wear harnesses are much less likely to develop these conditions.

Psychologically, studies have shown that dogs who are trained using force-based methods are much more likely to become aggressive. This is not surprising when you look at it from the dogs’ point of view. Let’s say you have a dog that gets very excited every time a guest comes to the house. He jumps all over the person, trying to lick their face. The problem is that your dog weighs 70 lbs and has nearly knocked people over. Your trainer tells you to get him to stop just use a prong or shock collar and every time he jumps, give him a correction or a shock. So now, when guests come to your house, your dog gets a painful correction or shock and has associated pain with strangers. If you had a friend who one day just started to punch you in the arm every time he saw you, you would probably end the friendship pretty quickly and try to avoid that friend and if he came near you, you may even hit him before he has the chance to hit you. You dog is going to have the same reaction, he will try to avoid any guests and if they try to force the dog to say hi, he may even bite them.

It is often said that you cannot change aggressive behavior with cookies. This can not be further from the truth, in fact the best and most effective way to rehabilitate a dog is by using food and toys. When you use force, all you are doing is suppressing the behavior. Your dog is still aggressive, he just is not showing it. Yes, it is good that he is not acting out and biting people, but that may not last. Dogs who are trained this way are much more likely to snap because the trainer has not changed how the dog feels about the situation. Ninety percent of aggressive behavior is because of fear, not, as many people think, dominance. If you do not teach the dog to be comfortable with the thing he is afraid of, then he is never going to stop being aggressive.

Can you give me an example of your greatest success story/proudest moment as a trainer?

This is hard to answer because I am always so proud of the dogs I work with, but the first dog that comes to mind is a dog I’ll call Bella. She was adopted from the South by a wonderful couple who are completely devoted to her. Bella is a Treeing Walker Coon Hound Mix, very sweet but fearful of new people and especially men. She was very frightened of her dad and would often cower when he came near her, but was okay with her mom. She showed signs of being hit and did a lot of tail tucking and cowering and was even unsure about taking treats from my hand. She was not crate trained so the owners had to leave her out when they were not home and the first time they did, she got into everything. Garbage was everywhere, pillow stuffing was all over the floor, and she basically had a good time while they were away.

Bella’s owners worked with her a lot and in just a few weeks she started making huge improvements. She began trusting her dad, she loved training, she even took treats from strangers who came to the house. Today she is confident around men, she no longer tears the house apart when her owners are gone and both she and her owners are very happy.

In your opinion, are there ever dogs who are considered "untrainable" or are not able to be rehabilitated behaviorally?

Sadly, there are dogs that cannot be trained or rehabilitated, though it is rare and is usually because of a physical or neurological problem. One of my own dogs has neurological damage which makes training very difficult for him. It can take months for him to learn something that most dogs learn in just days. That said, rehabilitating a dog with a major behavioral problem often takes months or even years and that is only if the owner is 100% dedicated to the dogs’ rehab and works with the dog multiple times a day, every day. Sometimes it simply is not worth the work because the dog can have a very happy life anyway.
One example is a dog I worked with a few years ago who has possession aggression toward other dogs. This basically means he does not like to share his stuff with dogs. He would attack any dog that tried to play with anything he felt was his, even the sticks on the ground. With people, however, he had absolutely no aggression and any person could take his toys from him. Because this dog was the only pet and his owners had no plans of getting any other animals, his owners and I decided not to work on his possession aggression. Today he is a very happy dog with a full life.

What would you say is the most important thing for pet parents to do when searching for a trainer? What kinds of questions should they ask, etc?

When searching for a dog trainer, one of the first things you should do is ask what kind of methods they use. If the trainer says they are a Balanced Trainer or says they use whatever works, then they are not Positive only trainers. Some will say they use Positive Reinforcement but ask if they ever recommend using a prong or choke collar, if they say yes then they are not positive trainers. Also, if they have group classes, ask if you can observe a class. When I taught group classes I only had one person ask if they could observe first and I was thrilled. I wish everyone did that before they signed-up for classes. If the trainer says no, then I would be hesitant about working with them, trainers should be very open about their training process.

What should pet parents do at home to reinforce the training sessions you have with them and their dogs?

Practice, practice, practice. You do not have to have a long training session every time. Reinforcing a new behavior or cue at home can take seconds, especially if you just add it into your every life. Add training into playtime too. Playtime is the perfect time to train.

What is your average training process (length of time, # of sessions, etc.)?

For people who want to do basic training it takes six weeks, one hour a week. If you have a dog with a behavioral problem, that can take six weeks or even a year, it depends on the dog and the problem.

What are the most common areas/issues people hire you to address?

Most people hire me for basic training but I also get a lot of calls for help with small behavioral issues, such as jumping up on people, potty training or nuisance barking.

 If someone wanted to book a consultation and/or training package from you what areas do you service and how do they go about setting this up?

I do all in-home training from Albany to Kinderhook. You can call or email me to set-up an evaluation.

Is there anything else you would like to say, info you feel is important for people to know, etc.?

I think it’s important for people to remember to be patient with their dogs. There are no quick fixes, despite what you see on TV. You can have a fantastic dog if you give them the chance.

WOW! Thank you so much for all of this valuable info! It was great chatting and thank you for all you have done for Mugzy and I!

Katie Roppollo