“Why does watching a dog be a dog fill one with happiness?”
— Jonathan Safran Foer
“I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.”
— John Steinbeck
A lot of people love dogs, but do they understand them? Or, more importantly, can they coexist with Fido and friends without driving themselves or the canines crazy?
This is where Valerie Ann Erwin, a “Canine/Human Relationship Counselor,” steps in. A longtime Village of New Paltz resident and landlord, Erwin has recently opened up a new center for her dog training and obedience services at 2 Rocky Hill Road, off Route 32 North.
Erwin runs group classes for puppies aged one year and younger, as well as adult dog obedience courses (beginning in December), at her location, which is currently being transformed from a childcare center to a canine training school. “I love teaching and I love watching people connect with their animals and learn to understand each other,” said Erwin. The owner of three dogs herself, including two Great Danes, one who is an active service dog (mobility and medical alert) as well as Spartacus Maximus, who is a retired service dog, she received her obedience certification in dog training from NePoPo Gold School in Belgium. She also has professional memberships with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the International Association of Canine Professionals.
Erwin said that, besides her group classes for generally non-aggressive dogs, she advises clients who are new adopters/owners of rescue pups to consider taking a group class because they’re “fun and interactive and a fairly inexpensive way for humans and dogs to socialize and learn. Waiting until the relationship has a big problem generally creates a lot of stress for the humans and additional costs in damages, vet bills and expensive private training programs.”
In her experience as a longtime dog trainer and canine behavior researcher, Erwin said that one common myth people have about dogs is that they want a ton of affection. “Dogs are like people in the sense that they need their own space. People too often want a dog to be a teddy bear, and you’ll see these loving, well-intended dog-owners and couples get a new puppy or rescue dog and are so upset when the dog wants to gnaw on them or gets nippy when they want to hug him or cuddle. They just want to be a dog!”
Part of what she does so well is getting people to understand what their body language is telling a dog and what the dog’s body language is telling them. “There are so many fun and easy ways to teach a dog to go, fetch, come, sit and reward them.” But it’s not enough, she said, to just keep throwing a ball to a dog over and over again, or stuff them with treats. “Dogs want a job. They’re workers. If they’re not herding sheep or hunting or on the farm, then they need to learn to protect the house and let you know someone is there, and then you can take over from there and let them know they’ve done their job.”
Routine and predictability are also key to having a harmonious coexistence with a canine companion. A dog that knows what to expect is generally a happy dog, in Erwin’s estimation. She’s also a big fan of crating dogs, so that it can simulate a den as they would have in the wild. “Dogs ingesting things that they shouldn’t is one of the biggest causes of illness, death and vet bills! A lot of that can be avoided by crating them.”
If you take one of her classes, you and your dog can also learn the art of “leash language” and have the dog actually enjoy walking with a leash without the “yank and crank” method that tends not to be gratifying for either the pet or the owner. “When you take a group class, there can be six or seven dogs all on leashes with people, which is a great way to help socialize a dog and get them to learn how to be on a leash.”
Erwin is also very good with dogs that are not so sociable, who bite or who have been rescued from known and unknown situations. “It’s great when people adopt a dog or rescue a dog. But those dogs also come with baggage, and I’m here to help them unpack that baggage,” she said, talking about dogs that are aggressive and bite or want to attack other dogs and people or simply run away.
These tend to be more intensive one-on-one classes, and Erwin might even board the dog to work with it or go to the individual’s house. One struggle she often sees and enjoys working with is when there are a group of dogs in one home that are not getting along with one another. “I love group dynamics!” she said with a smile. “Teaching the owners and the dogs how to live together harmoniously is so rewarding.”
Having worked as an EMT for years and grown up in a service-oriented home has always made Irwin prone toward wanting to train and work with people and service dogs, which can be critical for both physical and mental well-being. She said that the New Paltz Dog Training and Canine Adventures school (NPDT) is a place where “the disabled, active military, veterans and first responders can come and find gratitude for their service and help with their canine companions.”
For Erwin, the NPDT is also about her desire to do something that she loves that also helps people enjoy their dogs more, helps to keep dogs from going to or returning to a shelter and provides her a way of “giving back” some of the good fortune she believes she has received in this life. “After having a critical stroke and multiple cardiac surgeries six years ago, during my extended recovery I looked for good place where I could give back to my community and the universe in gratitude for my survival.” She said that it was thanks to her service dog, her family and the well-wishes of her community that she was able to get through 14 months in the hospital and learn how to walk again.
She wants her canine education center to be a place where “people and dogs can come to fulfill their relationships and lives and experience the peace and satisfaction of incredible communication and cooperative living. It is my goal that I can pay back that karmic debt by being authentic to every person and dog that comes here.”
To learn more about the courses and services NPDT offers, go to Erwin’s website at www.newpaltzdogtraining.com.