When she was in the second grade, Shanna Hoffer wanted to become a veterinarian.
After completing a high-school co-op placement at a local veterinary office, however, she quickly decided the profession wasn’t for her. She loved animals and as a result there was one side of job she couldn’t handle.
“I didn’t like putting the animals down,” she said. “I started bawling. So I decided I couldn’t do it. I could do anything else except for that.”
Twelve years later, Hoffer is now a certified dog trainer and educator and has started her own business, Pawsitive Canine Connection.
She first became interested in dog training a few years ago when she acquired a golden retriever/shepherd-cross named Ajha. Like many dog owners, Hoffer enrolled in the typical obedience class to try to teach Ajha how to become a well-behaved pet. The one she chose used treats as a reward for good behaviour. Hoffer quickly realized, however, that those classes were not right for her or Ajha, and the constant use of treats was not training Ajha in any meaningful way – other than how to behave long enough to get that cookie.
Her husband, Frank Schuster, suggested she start watching the television show “End of My Leash” by world-renowned Canadian dog trainer Brad Pattison. She was quickly hooked. The show featured Pattison going into people’s homes and helping them change the behaviour of their problematic canine companions, and it changed her entire frame of mind.
First and foremost: no treats.
“Dogs in the wild don’t give other dogs treats,” she said. “They use their body language for respect and (to establish) the alpha of the pack.
“They are animals, but a lot of people are trying to make them more human. Well, they’re not kids. You are putting your emotions on them, which then causes issues with your dog.”
Hoffer enrolled in Pattison’s six-week training program last August in Toronto, and graduated in October.
She offers a wide range of classes and training seminars for pet owners, including group classes that take place in the outside world – not in a classroom – including parks, hiking trails, and other public areas.
“It’s an everyday kind of training. You spend a lot your time outside with your dog, so where should you train your dog? Outside,” she said.
She also offers pre-pet counselling to prospective pet owners who want to get a dog but are unsure of what breed or size of dog would be right for them and their lifestyle, as well as a dog-walking or dog-sitting service. Private training sessions at the owner’s home are also an option.
The group classes run twice per week for eight weeks, and each class is an hour-and-a-half. After the class is complete, however, Hoffer also encourages owners to participate in social get-togethers and hikes as a way of further socializing their pets and getting them out in a group setting.
“It’s an ongoing thing, because if you let up, things start to slowly get back to the way they were, and you do see that,” she said of the importance of continuing the training process even when the classes themselves are done.
The site of the classes also changes every week; they could be training in a nearby park, hiking along a local trail, walking near the Floradale dam, or just going for a walk around the block. It’s important to vary the location of your walks, she says, to avoid boring the dog and boring yourself. She said that her classes can occur anywhere from Guelph to Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge or Elmira.
She charges $500 for the group class, admitting the cost turns some people off, but adding that when compared to other classes owners are certainly getting their money’s worth.
“It’s 24-hours worth of training. If you compare that to any other trainer out there, (mine is) either the same, or cheaper.”
For now she is limiting her group classes to between five and seven dogs, depending on their size, to give her a better opportunity to work with each owner and pet individually.
For the training program Hoffer does not make use of treats, but says that dogs will learn to obey the body language of their owners through minor corrective actions like a tap on the neck.
For the first two weeks the owner does not speak to the dog, and they are attached at the hip by the leash – which Hoffer refers to as the “umbilical” – for two hours a day. The dog will learn the body language of the owner by watching them wherever they go, not relying on verbal commands or snaps or whistles to get their attention.
She encourages owners to use what is called the martingale collar, which looks like a regular collar but also has a chain that provides better control over the dog. She highly discourages the use of choke-collars, which can crush the trachea, she says, or the popular harnesses known as halti’s that fit around the animals head and muzzle, which can cause spinal problems.
She also discourages the more common collars that use buckles, as they can easily slip off.
For Hoffer, one of the most rewarding things is to see an owner come into a class with a disobedient animal that they think has no hope of being trained, and leaving with one that is at least a little more obedient and respectful.
“It’s never a quick-fix, no matter what you want to do. Some dogs have certain issues that will never be fixed,” she noted. “But little things, like getting them to sit and having them look at you with respect, without making them look at you, is amazing to watch.”
For more information visit her website, www.pawsitivecanineconnection.com.