WEST BROOKFIELD, MASS. — It's the first day of school and Max, Charlie, Inky, and Scirocco, like typical students, are checking each other out.
Judging from their body language, no one is suffering from first-day jitters. But then, this is a classroom where it's OK to stick your tongue out at classmates.
Welcome to Respectable Rover, Danielle Puduski's dog obedience school. Dogs and owners will meet here every Saturday for the next eight weeks.
But this isn't the usual sit, heel, and stay class. It's "mutual respect and trust" training - a method where dogs not only learn commands, but owners learn how to relate to their pets through gentle discipline, kindness, and mutual respect.
"It's a nurturing, practical, humane way of training," says Ms. Puduski, who has been training dogs since 1990 and is one of only a handful of people in the US using this method.
Without training aides (other than a collar and leash), the method relies on establishing expectations and teaching commands through patient repetition. "To have an animal you can trust, you have to develop a relationship, build a solid foundation," says Puduski. "You can't punish respect into an animal."
Sounds good. But it sure looks like a quick snap of the leash or cuff to the snout might be needed with this group.
When Puduski calls out "heel," bedlam follows. Inky dives between his owner's legs, Max zig zags, and Scirocco nearly topples his petite owner. One wonders if eight weeks will be enough.
But Puduski doesn't waver. Mutual respect means no harsh correction, forcing, or yelling. Teaching a dog to sit, for example, involves only pushing on the dog's hind quarters gently while saying "sit" until he responds, praising him calmly, walking forward, and doing it again. The only trick is in not becoming impatient. It might take several tries - or several days - before a dog understands. But, perhaps more important, the method means establishing some rules as well: no sleeping in the bed, no riding in the front seat, and no free run of the house.
"In the beginning, you want to establish physical and behavioral boundaries," Puduski says. "You have to establish your dog's disciplined mind." She emphasizes that owners do no favors by allowing their dogs to rule their lives.
Therein lies the method's biggest catch: retraining the owner. Many tend to humanize their dogs - transferring human emotions and needs onto the dogs and caving to their every whim.
Such spoiling runs counter to a dog's nature, says Puduski. A dog's original purpose was to work - hunt, herd, and guard - occupations they're largely deprived of now. Dogs are happier when they aren't couch potatoes, says Puduski.
This notion comes into sharp focus with Max and owner Martha Williams. She has given Max, an American bulldog, "people status." He has broad freedoms and goes everywhere with her. The lack of discipline shows. Max drags Ms. Williams all over the yard. When asked to heel, he sits, refusing to budge.
"I had this ethic of free spirit and I thought he did too," says Williams. But Max became increasingly unmanageable and territorial.
Three weeks later, however, Max is a different dog. He's responding to commands like it's more fun than gnawing on a dog biscuit.
What did Williams do? She changed her relationship with Max. She set boundaries; she stopped letting him go everywhere in the car; she stopped indulging him.
And she worked with him every day on commands. Williams readily admits the transformation has been hardest on her. "The shock of my life was to realize it was my fault," says Williams. "I'd cultivated a real free spirit."
She's encouraged by Max's progress. The early morning barking has subsided. "One of the biggest successes was when he looked up at me and wagged his tail."
But developing a "proper" relationship doesn't mean you can't have fun with your pooch. Puduski says her own dogs have free range of the house (except the bedroom) and she plays with them like any other owner.
"Just discipline their minds first so the freedom doesn't change them," she says.
Puduski admits that her method takes patience and effort. In that sense, it runs counter to the growing use of medications like Prozac and dominant training techniques such as pinch collars to control unruly dogs. These methods are popular because they're quick fixes, Puduski says. And, she argues, none effectively solve all behavior problems.
"With dominant training, you're punishing the dog into working for you," she says. "It's fear conditioning when the dog submits."
She cites communities that prohibit dogs from certain public spaces and increased media attention on dog attacks and "aggressive" breeds as indicators that these methods can fail.
"'He that complies against his will, Is of his own opinion still,'" she quotes poet Samuel Butler. Such dominant training "doesn't change how the dog thinks."