Have you ever heard a dog trainer say something like, “I hate people. If I could only work with the dog I would be so much happier.”? I have. And it really hurt my feelings. After all, I was, and am, a person who often needs help training my dogs.
I love dogs. And cats. And really all animals. I especially love people. I have always struggled with the moniker, “dog trainer,” because while I do train dogs, mostly what I do is teach humans how to cohabitate with their dogs in ways that makes them, and their dog(s), happy. This is a moving target because every person (and dog) is a beautiful and unique being that has unique needs depending on their time, finances, location, family life, work life, etc, etc. I love taking the time to figure out what works best for every dog team - and that starts with the person. This may make me a slightly different dog trainer than you are used to.
I have been especially blessed because when I started dog training the science was already clear: pain and punishment do not work. I have never taught with choke chains or shock collars. I have never taught “dominance” or “alpha” ideas. Very early on I had the enormous pleasure of working with people like Terry Ryan, Risë VanFleet, and Valli Parthasarathy who laid a foundation of science, kindness, and curiosity for me to build upon. (Look them up - they are amazing!) I stumbled into dog training when I took a therapy dog prep class. The trainer taught in such a way I was mesmerized. She asked her dog if she “wanted to work.” The idea of asking a dog to do something instead of “commanding” the dog blew my mind and touched my heart. I knew almost immediately I wanted to teach others about this “new” way of training animals.
As my dog training skills were being developed so were my Animal Assisted Intervention (therapy dog) skills. My dog, Schatzi, and I became a registered AAI team with Pet Partners. Throughout the years Schatzi and I brought comfort and joy to people in schools, prisons, hospitals, medical clinics, summer events, AAPT workshops, and too many events to count. I applied for a Therapy Dog Title from the AKC and got hooked on striving towards achieving more titles.
Titles in themselves aren’t that important. To me though, a title demonstrates that I’ve worked with my dog in such a way that we excelled at something. All dogs can earn a title or two (even reactive dogs) - it demonstrates the dedication of time between human and dog to learn and communicate the new behaviors. I thoroughly enjoy helping humans instruct their dogs in such a way that they too can earn titles such as CGCs, Trick Dogs, Rally, or anything else they want to strive for.
The dog training community has often struggled with terminology for trainers who do not use pain, fear, or force in their techniques. At the moment we seem to have landed on “LIMA.” LIMA stands for Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive. In a nutshell, LIMA trainers do not hit, choke, or shock dogs. We look for ways to reinforce behaviors with something the animal loves. Maybe I can stop a dog from doing something by yelling, hitting, or scaring her but if I instead teach a dog to do something else instead, with butt scratches or food, both of our hearts and souls will feel better about it. (And the research has shown those behaviors will be longer lasting!) This is often called positive reinforcement training though, scientifically, there’s a whole lot more than just positive reinforcement being used.
Words matters. Most LIMA trainers now use the word “cue” instead of “command.” This reminds us that we are in a relationship with our dog and not a militaristic command structure. I teach that all cues are communication. By now we have all heard someone write or speak about how communication is the key to lasting, loving, relationships. This is true for people and animals! Communicating with someone who doesn’t even speak human can be quite challenging at times - but it can be done. I teach humans how to ask their dogs for consent. I teach humans how to listen for answers to their questions. And I teach humans how accurate communication with their dogs can keep them both safe and have fun together.
Fun and play is HUGE in my training techniques. If either party isn’t having fun it’s a lot like the old joke about never teaching a pig to sing: It wastes your time and annoys the pig. This is true for all training but especially true for fitness training.
The COVID years granted me an enormous amount of time just when online education exploded. I added some new education to my Bible education and became an Animal Chaplain. I became a “CAMadvocate” when I completed a Canine Arthritis Management course for canine professionals. Most excitingly for me in many ways though was when I passed all my tests, and case studies, and became a Certified Canine Fitness Trainer through the University of TN School of Veterinary Medicine. This program taught me canine anatomy & physiology, body mechanics, injury prevention, nutrition, exercises, safe & effective use of fitness equipment, and how to create a fitness program designed specific to each dog team’s needs.
All of that education solidified in my mind and heart the desire to, “help animals live as long as possible, in as little pain as possible.” Animals hurt, and get hurt, from time to time. Love in the Bible is an action, a verb, not an emotion or word to say. I believe we DO love. In this context it means we provide the best veterinary medicine for our pets, it means we practice healthy/fitness behaviors in our day to day lives, and it means, in the end, providing a, “good death,” when the time comes to say good-bye.
When I first started working with my therapy dog at the hospital I discovered many people wanted to talk with me about their pets who had died. At the time these conversations were very difficult for me. I didn’t want to hear “dead dog stories.” When we started working at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility I heard many similar stories with a twist. The adults in custody would often speak to me about losing their pets because they had been taken away to jail and eventually prison. The feelings of loss were the same though.
As a person of faith it is easy for me to look back and see YHWH/the Universe preparing me for the work I completely enjoy and feel comfortable doing now: Helping people understand and cope with the loss of their animal companions. There’s never an easy straight forward plan with grief. Grief is as unique as each of us. I am truly honored when someone includes me on their grief journey.
When it came time for me to create a formal business with my somewhat unique ideas I knew from the start I wanted to create a nonprofit. All of us DO love our animals, but in today’s world money can be tight, to say the least. The most frustrating thing for me when I was working for others was the fact that I was not empowered to offer discounts on the classes I was teaching. (No judgement! Those folks needed to pay their bills too.) I knew I wanted to create not just a dog training business, I wanted to create a community where I could serve, could minister, to those in need.
Assembly of the Wandering Shepherd was created in such a way I can serve, help, people and animals, often those most in need. On the dog training side I volunteer for AWS which allows us to keep our prices low. We provide scholarships for foster dogs, newly adopted dogs, disabled dogs, and senior dogs. These dogs and their humans are often the most in need of guidance and fun things to do together.
I have created a unique Olfactory Fun program that provides the opportunity for dog-reactive dogs to get into a classroom (all by themselves) and be the glorious dogs they are. Too many dog-reactive dogs and their humans do not get the opportunity to attend dog classes. This is a fun class where dogs learn about being dogs and the humans learn how to support their dogs. This is also a great class for dogs who have retired from sports. Sometimes the human of a retired canine athlete can feel sad and alone when they no longer have trials to attend. This class provides for, and cares about, the human and the dog as they navigate some of life’s challenges.
I want people to start thinking about the death of their dogs as soon as possible. Society had taught us that this is impolite conversation. Sadly this has left most of us with the inability to navigate the tough decisions that need to be made as our animal companions inch closer to “the great mystery” called death. In my classes death and dying are a part of life and by talking about it we can incorporate more life into our living days.
I don’t just talk about death in classes. I am available to talk about this tough subject in personal, face-to-face gatherings. We can discuss the details of physical death or the more ethereal thoughts that we all ponder. I can help those all-important humans find ways to celebrate the life lost. We have infrastructure for this with humans but it is harder to find for our pets. (For some of us this is important for wild critters too! “Roadkill” is often the butt of jokes but for some of us we prefer to offer some kind of ceremony or prayer for those lost lives.)
Because providing grief services is something I will never charge for, the nonprofit corporation structure, including the tax rules, was the logical decision. I have been blessed with donations that help pay for continuing education for me and others and it provides for those scholarships I mentioned earlier. In many ways this donation based system has helped create the community I was aiming for. One example of this: Two students and myself will be attending Animal Death Doula school through the University of Vermont in the fall.
I am truly blessed to have traveled my amazing journey. I continue to improve upon my skills and education. As a result the services I provide are always growing. I call myself a “dog trainer” but please know - I love the human half of animal guardianship just as much as the animal half. I know if I teach the human to have a loving relationship filled with communication with their animal, that will not only benefit their current pet, but all the pets to come. And despite the pain we all feel when a cherished pet dies, I hope each of us continues to bring animals into our homes. I can think of nothing more rewarding than sharing my home with animals and basking in the love they receive and provide in turn.
I believe in science and I believe in love. Love and science working together can accomplish the greatest of things.
Robynn Harris, ODMN, CCFT