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Academy Rewards
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 down nationwide."

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 applied."

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 their well-roundedness."

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."

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Wag This Way, Proprietor Nicole Corson, CTC, CPDT (Certified Pet Dog Trainer)
Positive Reinforcement Dog Training
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