by Christine Rosenblat
Humans enrolled at The San Francisco SPCA's Academy for Dog Trainers
get a good education. The dogs get a good time.
"It's the best thing I've ever done," exclaims Rose Tang.
"I never knew that there was another way to teach dogs, and
now that I know, I'd never go back. And I've made it my goal to
make sure that everybody knows this alternative way, so dogs won't
have to suffer again."
Tang is referring to the Academy for Dog Trainers, one of the brightest
jewels in the crown of The San Francisco SPCA. She graduated from
the Academy nearly two years ago and has been applying her new knowledge
ever since at the Hong Kong SPCA, teaching dog training classes
and setting up that organization's new Hearing Dog Program.
Founded with the aim of providing comprehensive and innovative
education for dog trainers, behavior counselors and other companion-dog
professionals, the SF/SPCA's Academy is rapidly gaining a reputation
as the "Harvard for dog trainers." Since opening its doors
in 1999, it has bestowed diplomas on nearly 100 graduates from all
over the United States, as well as Hong Kong, Canada and Japan.
There is a six-month waiting list to enroll.
The Dean of the Academy for Dog Trainers -- its conceptual leader
and guiding force -- is renowned dog expert Jean Donaldson. Donaldson
wrote two highly acclaimed books, The Culture Clash and Dogs Are
From Neptune, which have revolutionized the way people look at the
relationship between people and their dogs. The Culture Clash won
the prestigious Maxwell Award of the Dog Writers' Association of
America. In 1999 Donaldson took over the helm of the fledgling Academy;
the next year she was also named Director of The SF/SPCA's Department
of Behavior and Training.
Recruiting someone of Donaldson's caliber was a high priority for
Ed Sayres shortly after he became President of The SF/SPCA. "Behavior
is the number one reason people give up their animals," he
says. "Teaching people how to take care of their dogs' behavior
problems means they won't surrender their pets. And we're unabashedly
ambitious," he adds. "We're trying to knock those numbers
Starting, of course, in San Francisco.
The first animals to feel the Academy's good effects are the homeless
dogs at The San Francisco SPCA because they receive one-on-one quality
time with the Academy's students. These dogs never know they have
behavior problems; the Academy uses positive teaching methods exclusively,
so the dogs just have a good time and bask in all the extra attention
they receive. Molly Wright, one of the dog trainers from the SF/SPCA's
Department of Behavior & Training, has seen the benefits first-hand.
"It makes such a difference to the dogs," she says. "They
really get a lot of attention, and the dogs make incredible progress
in their obedience." And a dog with obedience skills is a more
adoptable dog. As Wright points out, "It's so awesome to be
able to tell an adopter, 'Look at what this dog can do already.'"
As Donaldson sees it, the world of dog training is basically divided
into two camps, the positive reinforcement camp versus the "let's
wallop the dog" camp. She is a passionate advocate of positive,
humane methods of training; this philosophy has attracted many students
to the Academy and has generated much interest within the dog-training
world. Mary Horne, a recent Academy graduate and now a dog trainer
in Connecticut, says: "I had thought about dog training in
the past but could never envision myself using many of the harsh
methods I'd seen trainers employ... I searched for some time for
an organization that offered a solid foundation for positive-reinforcement
trainers and when I heard about the SF/SPCA AcademyÉI immediately
When Donaldson was approached by The SF/SPCA to head the Academy
for Dog Trainers, she leapt at the chance. She had felt for many
years that there needed to be a teaching institution where dog trainers
could get a good formal education. "There really wasn't anything
like that at the time," she recalls, "so it was always
in the back of my mind to do something like that. When The San Francisco
SPCA, with all its great infrastructure and wonderful opportunities,
asked me to develop an academy for dog trainers, I said, 'absolutely!'"
Donaldson taught her first session in October, 1999. One of the
star pupils of that first class was Janis Bradley, who was then
invited to join the faculty, an opportunity she accepted eagerly.
Bradley now shares teaching duties with Donaldson, and brings to
the Academy her rich experience in adult education. "She has
enormous expertise in how to go about getting the human part of
the equation in line," notes Donaldson, emphasizing that this
is another key difference in The SF/SPCA Academy's approach. Traditionally,
Donaldson explains, trainers worked only with the dogs; the guardians
Ð the people who live with the animal -- received short shrift.
"The cliché about dog trainers used to be that 'they're
really good with dogs, but their people skills leave a lot to be
desired!'" Donaldson says, smiling ruefully. "No more.
The next generation of dog trainers is completely different. They
can actually relate to people. In other words, they're in their
profession because they really like solving the human part of the
puzzle. This is completely new."
The San Francisco SPCA's Academy for Dog Trainers offers two separate
programs: a six-day session and a six-week course. The short class
is intended for dog trainers who are looking to upgrade their skills
or who want to become familiar with the Academy's philosophy and
training methods. The long class is suitable for beginners or professionals,
and provides a thorough education in pet dog training and behavior
counseling; graduates are considered "career ready."
The students range in age from teens to baby boomers. While many
of them have had roles in related fields, such as dog sitter, veterinary
technician or groomer, other men and women are leaving the corporate
world to follow their doggy dreams. "These people make wonderful
students because they really know what they want," Donaldson
notes. "They've got terrific people skills, terrific business
skills; they bring all kinds of things to the table. So the next
generation of dog trainers is completely different from what came
before. It's not just in their philosophies and expertise, but in
The six-week program is not for the faint-hearted. The workload
is rigorous. The courses are intensive and comprehensive, with strong
theoretical and practical components. For example, students learn
how animals learn, then the students acquire the applied skill of
clicker training. Other classes focus on troubleshooting particular
canine behavior problems such as aggression, fear and anxiety. There
are even sessions on small business procedures as well as canine
first aid and CPR. And there is an immense amount of hands-on practice
with the dogs at Maddie's Pet Adoption Center.
Classes are held Monday through Friday, and days typically stretch
from early in the morning until late at night, with students spending
every available minute working with their project dogs from Maddie's.
Weekends are also dog days. "Everybody who gets through it
really feels that they've been through some sort of rite of passage,"
Donaldson observes with a wry smile. "I remember one student
who watched a half-hour sitcom one night. She said she felt as though
she'd played hooky."
When course work is completed and examinations have been taken,
it's time for graduation at the Academy for Dog Trainers. Family
members and many SF/SPCA staff gather to celebrate, and honor the
graduates. SF/SPCA President Ed Sayres addresses the assembled guests,
the class valedictorian speaks, and diplomas are presented. Then
it is time say goodbye to good friends, both human and canine. The
moment of parting is bittersweet, but the rewards of the Academy
will reverberate for a lifetime.
"The quality of our graduates is the Academy's best advertisement,"
declares Jean Donaldson, who hopes to create an "army of people"
who will go out into the community and spread the message about
positive methods of dog training. "We're hoping that once we
get enough students out there, it is going to have an actual impact
on how dog training is practiced," she says, "both in
terms of being more humane and technically more proficient -- and
in relinquishment rates to shelters -- as our students leave with
our philosophy and technical expertise."
"Ed Sayres has this great saying," she continues, "that
dog trainers are kind of interpreters or translators between people
and dogs, because we speak both languages. We speak human and we
speak dog, so we're able to facilitate that bond. And the more people
out there doing that, the better the world is for dogs."