From The Mind Of A Dog Trainer…An Interview With Tonia Whilden, Houston Dog Ranch

The more dog owners can learn about training and socializing their pet to reduce behavior issues, the less number of dogs will be turned into shelters. For that reason, Houston PetTalk highlights training information on a regular basis. We recently sat down with Tonia Whilden, Owner of Houston Dog Ranch, an impressive new pet resort in Spring Branch replete with a bone shaped pool. Tonia’s background includes 10 years experience in companion dog training, obedience, agility and search & rescue. She attended Triple Crown Academy For Dog Training, she is a member of  APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) and the IACP (International Association of Canine Professionals.

HPT: Many people have “training issues” with their pet such as pulling on leash, not coming when called, food aggression and so forth. However, these are symptoms of the problem. What would you say are some of the main underlying reasons for training issues with dogs?
Tonia: Most problems are a result of inconsistency at home, inadvertent reinforcement of undesired behaviors, lack of understanding of the canine species, lack of exercise, and lack of dedicated training.
HPT: What advice would you offer a pet owner that is contemplating getting a puppy that would help them start out on the right “training” foot?
Tonia: It’s so important not to bring a puppy home before 8 weeks of age.  Breeders allow and sometimes encourage owners to do so, but it is not in the best interest of the puppy.  A puppy needs to stay in the litter so he can learn to accept discipline from the mother, pack hierarchy, bite inhibition and how to play and relate to littermates.  Many social and emotional problems have been linked to removing a puppy from the litter too soon.  Some problems I deal with as a result are excessive jumping, severe nipping, difficulties house training, and separation anxiety.

HPT: Why is socialization so important to training and why do the experts say that between the ages of 9 to 13 weeks is so critical for socializing puppies?
Tonia: The first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life are by far the most important of his life. His basic temperament, feelings about other dogs and humans, and response to fears are all developed during this time.  Socialization should start the moment you bring a pup home and continue the rest of his life.  Experts believe that between 9 and 13 weeks is when puppies are able to learn about the world and accept new experiences.  At this point a puppy has no frame of reference so what you show him is how he views the world.  If he has positive experiences with the people, dogs, and situations he comes in contact with, he is apt to view those things positively when he encounters them in the future.

HPT: If lack of socialization is the basis for behavior problems with an older dog, how do you approach behavior modification in that situation given that you cannot go back in time?
Tonia: Once that period is gone we have to look to the present.  Even very serious behavior problems can be overcome. Depending on the problem, behavior modification can take a long time and can be very stressful for both the owner and the dog.  Really, you have to go back to the basics.  You start slow and try to string together as many positive experiences with the stimulus that is triggering stress in the dog. Generally, we start with the stimulus in visual sight, but far enough away not to trigger stress.  The goal is to change the way the body and brain reacts to the stimulus.  Eventually, reconditioning the voluntary and involuntary reflexes and reshaping those responses so the dog looks forward to the stimulus.

HPT: Do you find that a lot of people have unrealistic expectations for training and want a “quick fix” to their dog’s problems?
Tonia: I always prefer that owners train their own dogs.  It helps build a bond, helps the owner learn the intricacies of how their dog learns, and enhances communication between the two.  I tell everyone the same thing.  You get out of it what you put into it.  For basic training, I suggest for the first six months of training that owners train a minimum of 30 minutes per day.  We meet more frequently in the beginning, then only when I’m needed.  Once per week for two weeks is typical, then every other week and so on.  The cost of training can vary depending on how adept and dedicated the client is.  Owners can expect to pay from $300 to $1500 for basic training depending on the trainer you work with and the type of training program that works best for you and your dog.

HPT: In recent years, there has been much more attention paid to canine nutrition as evidenced by the plethora of new premium foods and raw diet protocols. Does nutrition play a role in causing or exacerbating training issues? Has the pet community learned anything new in this regard in the last few years?
Tonia: Nutrition and general health are hugely important to the behavior of dogs.  There is a direct observable link between poor nutrition and behavior problems, not to mention skin, coat and health problems.  Have you ever seen a child on a sugar high? Do you want to spend the afternoon with that child?  Now imagine your dog on a permanent sugar high. If you feed your dog a food full of preservatives and fillers you are essentially feeding them junk food.  They don’t get what their brain or body needs to function normally.  My advice is to buy dog food at independently owned pet stores rather than grocery stores.  Staff at these types of stores tend to have more knowledge about nutrition and can help you find a food that is right for your dog.  You may pay more per bag, but it’s worth it.

HPT: What’s the number one piece of advice you would give a new puppy owner?
Tonia: Socialize your puppy right away.  Get your puppy out into the world.  Be smart and be safe.  Don’t put your puppy in an uncomfortable situation.  Don’t force, but don’t coddle.  Use balance and common sense in every thing you do with your puppy.  Be fair, but firm.  Set boundaries and rules, but have fun. Exercise and good nutrition are important.