Every week last winter, Lillie Balinova and Ida Tulip took a taxi from their home on New York's Upper East Side to a school about 10 blocks away. But it was always a struggle to get a ride. Perhaps that's because Ida happens to be a dog.
Cab drivers are not exactly welcoming to canine customers, Ms. Balinova discovered. But 11-pound Ida, a bright red Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, couldn't walk all the way to her "kindergarten" training class because of high snowdrifts. So Balinova tried scrunching Ida under her arm, even hiding her in a paper bag, but Ida would always squirm out, and approaching cab drivers would suddenly step on the gas.
Despite the weekly ordeal, Balinova's efforts paid off. Ida had been extremely shy since the day Balinova spotted her at a Philadelphia breeder's home. Her lessons, conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, gave both dog and owner a huge boost of confidence.
There, Ida went nose to nose with pit bulls, German shepherds, and other larger, fiercer breeds. It's the socialization aspect that pleased Balinova. And the fact that the trainer, Jacque Schultz, accepted the dog for who she was. "Even though Ida was disruptive, often crawling over to other dogs and kissing them, [the trainer] appreciated her spunk," says Balinova. "I would always look for a trainer who doesn't attempt to repress a dog's personality."
This is key, according to expert trainer Matthew Margolis, better known as Uncle Matty on his public-television show.
His popularity and that of dog trainers in general has taken a jump in recent years. Childless people or empty nesters desire companions that behave well, just as they would expect a child to do. Hectic schedules and new laws for leashing and cleaning up after pets have also contributed to rising demand for training. People can no longer let Fido run free all day to return only for dinner. And with all the demands of work and home life, they don't have time to correct his antics.
Despite increased interest, only 20 percent of dogs in America receive some type of formal training, and 80 percent of dogs that are relinquished to shelters are there because of behavioral problems, according to Hilleary Kehrli of PETsMART, one of the largest pet-service companies in the US.
Mr. Margolis is determined to help turn these figures around. His initial session as a private trainer always begins with a personality test. He explains that responses to training will differ depending, for example, on whether the dog is timid, intelligent, or aggressive.
Because there is such a range of dog temperaments, Margolis strongly favors private, one-on-one training instead of classes. "In classes, all breeds, temperaments, and ages are taught together," he explains. "How can a trainer possibly accommodate the individual needs of each dog and owner? There's a 50- to 75-percent dropout rate in classes, because most owners spend the hour just trying to get their dogs to stop barking at each other."
Margolis expresses disdain for classes, even for reasons of socialization. "You can't possibly socialize a dog in one hour per week," he says emphatically.
Another one of Margolis's pet peeves, so to speak, is that trainers aren't required to obtain a license. "Anyone could call himself a dog trainer," he exclaims. "Consequently, there's all kinds of inappropriate training going on - people who use shock collars, people who use snacks to teach every command, and those who call themselves 'behaviorists.' "
So what's a consumer to do? Start by reading books and watching videos by qualified trainers, advises Margolis, who happens to have published 18 books and taped more than a few videos. Then, when you're ready to hire a trainer, he says, be sure to ask: How long have you been in business? Where were you educated? What's your method and why? What role does a dog's temperament play in your teaching? And could you please give me three names of previous clients?"
Price, he adds, should be the last question. "Too often people sign up for classes just because it's cheap," he says. "They just want a quick, cheap fix."
It should be mentioned that Margolis's fee could cost more than the dog itself. For an eight-week program, starting with a 1-1/2 hour session and then moving to one-hour sessions, he charges $895. The same amount of group class time could vary from $60 to $125. Of course, not everyone can dismiss the difference. Margolis says that his work is worth the investment, and with a record that includes house-training dogs in three days and teaching 4-month-old puppies to sit, stay, come, and heel, no one's doubting him. But there are plenty of well-qualified trainers whose fees won't match your monthly mortgage.
Judy Schurger trains dogs with her husband, Glenn Goldman, and also writes a weekly column for two newspapers on the North Shore near Boston. Their fee is $55 per hour for private lessons (with an initial visit of $75), and $125 for a six-week class.
Business is thriving, Ms. Schurger says, explaining that clients comment on the sensitivity of their methods. "My husband was a dog in another life, he understands them so well," she says with a laugh.
The real challenge, she adds, has nothing to do with anything on four legs. "Dogs are easy. A lot of the job has to do with knowing how to work with people. Owners often don't know how to relate to their pet or have problems following through."
This isn't always easy to teach. "It's like parenting," Schurger says. "Some are naturals, and some just don't have it together."
Resources for the dog owner
These books and videos, voted on by members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, are among the best available. In order of usefulness, the association lists the top titles.
1. The Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson
2. Don't Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor
3. How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks, by Ian Dunbar
4. Calming Signals: On Talking Terms With Dogs, by Turid Rugaas
5. The Tool Box for Remodeling Your Problem Dog, by Terry Ryan
6. How to be Your Dog's Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete
7. Think Dog, An Owner's Guide to Canine Psychology, by John Fisher
8. The Dog's Mind, by Bruce Fogle
9. A Dog and a Dolphin, by Karen Pryor
10. Dog Training: The Gentle Modern Method, by David and Ruth Weston
1. Training the Companion Dog (set of 4), by Ian Dunbar
2. Take a Bow...Wow! Fun and Functional Dog Tricks, by Broitman & Lippman
3. Click & Treat Training Kit, by Gary Wilkes
4. Clicker Magic, by Karen Pryor
5. Sirius Puppy Training, by Ian Dunbar
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor