BACK TO SCHOOL with IT’S YOUR DOG
Leslie Wiesner is the owner and lead trainer at IT’S YOUR DOG School for Dogs, a small, private-owned dog training school in Hamburg, NJ servicing Sussex County and surrounding areas. When Leslie founded IT’S YOUR DOG in 2004 she left a career in the legal field to devote herself wholeheartedly to dog training, finding the work far more rewarding and emotionally gratifying. Over the past fifteen years, Leslie has built up her business to offer a range of group classes and private lessons.
Our Peaks Pet Nanny, Kevin, recently chatted with Leslie about her profession, how her business operates, and what started her on this path.
How did you get your start teaching dogs?
Through the shelters. When I first got married my husband and I lived in an apartment and I missed having dogs around. We did have cats, but the dog presence was not there. So I started volunteering at shelters just so that I could walk dogs and that type of thing.
I eventually landed at a newly opened shelter that was working from the ground up to build a staff that could help work with the dog population to help make them more adoptable. I realized that I needed to have a mentor that would guide me in how best to do this… Now, I need to preface that with back when I was in college I had a job where I worked with guard dogs as a handler. So I did have several years of handling experience, where I would take the dogs to and from their work sites. So I had some hands-on professional experience, plus just personally training my own dogs, but I didn’t really have a lot of experience in how to help this shelter. So I found a mentor—somebody I could shadow—and I was introduced to reward-based training. And I fell in love; I became the true behavior geek that I am today.
So that’s how I got started: I worked at that shelter, eventually becoming the Director of Training. But I was still working a corporate job. When it came time to leave it made sense to branch out on my own.
What is Reward-Based training?
It’s not just food! We think of food because food is a primary reinforcer, which means dogs are born liking it—we don’t have to teach ‘em. A ball can be something a dog likes too, but we have to give them experience with it. They’re not born liking a ball. But reward-based training is based on knowing what motivates a dog and using those things either to build new behavior that you like or remove behavior that you don’t like.
An example would be jumping on someone or greeting someone with over-exuberance. The dog is experiencing the attention that a person gives them by hugging them, scratching them, loving them—that reinforces the behavior because it’s something the dog likes. Even people who say, “Stop! Get down!”—most dogs would find that fun. So the reward for that behavior is attention. One of the ways to stop that behavior is: when the dog jumps on someone, that person walks away. Then approaches again. So we’re removing and adding the reward of attention to eliminate the jumping behavior.
That is the spectrum that I teach, versus the other side of the training spectrum—which is still learning—using things the dog does not like. That may be a tightened choke chain, so when the dog is pulling they feel uncomfortable and if they don’t pull they feel comfortable. So you’re adding and removing something the dog wants to avoid. My preference, always—almost without exception—is to the reward-based side. It’s fun, dogs learn more efficiently, people can’t inadvertently overdo something the dog wants to avoid…
There is a science to training dogs. And it’s important that dog trainers work with that science and understand that science.
Was there a certification process you had to go through?
Eventually. In 2005 I became a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. I had to work my way up to it before I could take the exam: to sit for the exam you need at least 300 hours of hands-on training with people and their dogs.
Unfortunately at this time in the state of New Jersey, this is an unlicensed profession. Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer. Unfortunately, I believe that accounts for a lot of bad training techniques that are out there. Right now it’s unregulated. I think it’s better for the consumer to know that someone they’re hiring has a certain amount of education and experience under their belt.
I also have certification on the behavioral side of things—I do training and behavior modification & behavior consulting—through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).
What’s the key difference between “training” versus “behavior”?
Well, “training” would be what you expect to see in terms of obedience: your dog knowing to come when you call them, to walk nicely on a leash… “Behavior” has more to do with your dog’s emotional state, things that are triggering your dog to behave a certain way. It’s very much a practice to combine the two: training and behavior usually coincide when treating an animal. There are exceptions to that, like separation anxiety is really about teaching the animal how to be alone. There’s not a lot of “command” type of work involved with that. But for the most part… You know, teaching Fluffy to like other dogs that she passes also involves teaching Fluffy something better to do than to bark and lunge—so that’s where the “training” and “behavior” parts overlap.
But my real love is the group classes. I love teaching group classes; always have, always will. I love the dynamic of teaching two species at once.
Teaching two species as in training the dog and their owners?
Yes, one cannot coexist without the other. We communicate differently than dogs so it’s important that the owners get on board as well and be willing to learn.
Do you conduct group classes at your facility?
Yeah, most of the time. We do have classes offered from time to time where we go on the road and work in public space, but that’s with dogs that have proven themselves worthy of the journey into the public eye…mostly for safety concerns, knowing the dogs well enough to know we’re safe taking them to environments where there are other people. But most group classes are at my facility: we have an indoor/outdoor facility.
We only host about five dog teams at a time…unless it’s puppy school, then we can let our hair down a little bit more. The inside is fully matted with rubber flooring and air conditioning. Our outside space has a nice fenced-in yard where—today, for instance—I’ll be finishing up one of our classes for Come When I Call You. The dogs are going to be off-leash and the owners are going to be calling their dogs away from play which is a very big distraction.
I do like my facility. We’ve been there for about seven years. It serves us well.
You’ve been there for seven years, but you’ve been in business for about fifteen. Were you exclusively going to people’s houses before that?
Yes and no. I only started going house to house because there’s no overhead—you don’t have to rent a facility. But I also had paired up with a local small pet store; we’d push the inventory off to the side at night and we could fit a whopping THREE DOGS. That was how I started teaching classes! There were also some groomers’ facilities because groomers have more space and they’d work during the day and my classes were weekends and evenings to accommodate commuters so that worked out well. Then eventually I got my own place, but those were my humble beginnings.
What is your average client? I imagine a lot of puppies.
Puppies? Yeah, the trend now—unlike, say, ten years ago—is more towards getting early socialization in place. Between ten weeks and sixteen weeks—six weeks in that dog’s whole life—is the ideal time where socialization is the easiest possible.
After that, the average dog we teach is six months to two years old. I would say 50% of people just think they need training and they’re trying to do right by their dog. Then there’s a smaller percentage of very proactive clients, actively trying to ward off bad behavior before it starts. Yay for them. Then there’s maybe 30% of people who wait until problems are already in place and have been practiced by the dog (sometimes well practiced by the dog) before they reach out for help. Those are always challenging. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but they bring a lot more baggage.
So it’s definitely better to address a problem earlier as opposed to later.
Oh yeah. If you suspect a problem reach out to someone. People should try to avoid the internet because it’s just too confusing. People try to do it themselves through video or well-meaning friends… You want to pick a trainer you feel comfortable with and that you can work with. It’s very emotional when there are behavioral problems because that’s a family member. Sometimes you really need to reach out to a professional before it becomes an ingrained behavior. Before the bite would be nice.
My customers are primarily families. I don’t do a lot of competitive-type training; I help family dogs stay in the home. That really is my passion; I think that comes from my experience in the shelter. I want to get dogs into homes and keep them in the home.
Do you find that sometimes people let problems snowball? Like, it starts as a smaller problem they just get used to until it gets out of control? Like chewing up furniture or ripping up the carpet…
Yeah so—let’s just use your carpet example: that could be anxiety, that could be boredom, it could be lack of exercise. Getting to the root cause of why a dog is doing that is essential. And people often get confused between what is behavior a dog will outgrow with age and what should be prevented.
We talked a bit about your group classes, but you also do private lessons?
Yes. More often than not I will go to someone’s home to do that. Oftentimes dogs are not good candidates for the group environment (perhaps sensitivity to other dogs or people). So we will do private lessons either instead of or eventually in conjunction with group classes when the dog is ready. Going to people’s homes helps me tailor a plan specifically for that environment and help them get that behavior in place in that environment. A lot of times the owner’s goal is to have the dog behaving better in the home environment or outside their immediate home environment.
Other people want a dog that’s a generalist and can go anywhere and behave, but unfortunately, dogs don’t learn like humans do in terms of learning and then applying it to a different environment. They need a lot of experience in different environments for the training to stick. If you just train your dog in the home environment and around the home environment and then take them to PetSmart the dog’s going to fall apart because they don’t have the contextual reference points. It’s not like humans: we learn to tie our shoes when we’re kids and we’re good to go anywhere on the planet with that. We don’t have to practice in different locations. But dogs do.
But I guess if a dog has a lot of anxiety, step one is making sure they’re comfortable in their own home.
Do you keep in touch with your clients? I know working as a Peaks Pet Nanny I’ve had clients that learned of Peaks through their association with IT’S YOUR DOG.
Oh, that’s cool! Yeah, when I started out there were a lot fewer trainers in the area so I did a tremendous amount of business back in those days when I was the only person to choose from. I hear from a lot of clients when they get a second dog or I’m seeing the next generation of dog—unfortunately the dogs I had trained earlier have passed, and people are remembering to call me when it’s time to get started again. I have a lot of friends that started off as clients; it’s kind of a close-knit community once you get into it.
I also do an email newsletter that goes out to my client base on a monthly basis.
When did you start calling your business “IT’S YOUR DOG School for Dogs”?
When and why? I know this is just sort of getting into branding, but I’m interested in that stuff.
I started right away; I needed to form an LLC. It used to have a tagline: TRAIN, DON’T RELINQUISH. Because, you know… It’s your dog! In hindsight I may not have kept that name, but…it is what it is. That’s where my passion was at that time: It’s your dog.
But more importantly, I was able to leave my corporate job! I did my time, I did my time—I did twenty-three years in corporate. But I needed to go and this was where I always wanted to work: with animals. It took a lot of work; there weren’t online schools at that time for dog training so I was in the trenches with the rescue dogs. But I’m happy I made that choice.
Much more rewarding than corporate, I assume?
Much more rewarding. It has its moments. It has that emotional component to it. It’s not always playing with puppies. But it’s very rewarding to know that I can help the animals and humans learn about one another and to have better lives.
What is one of the most successful stories you’ve encountered?
Wow, that’s a toughie! I’m going to generalize: Fearful dogs. Dogs that need to come out of their shells. Those are the type of cases that just put a smile on my face. To watch dogs who either lack confidence or don’t know the first thing about how to learn… Watching a dog learn to learn is an amazing process! That’s the success that I see that gets me out of bed in the morning. Those are the cases that are enlightening and other people can see happen week to week.
As you said, the dog is part of the family. When a dog is uncomfortable and stressed, it can wear on a family that is desperately trying to help them out. That you’re able to help people and their pets: that changes lives. I think that’s a really powerful thing.
It’s absolutely the reason why I’m in it.
I think of that original tagline: TRAIN, DON’T RELINQUISH. Some people might feel they can’t handle a dog and might try to get rid of it… It’s so much better for them to learn to teach the dog and keep the dog in the home.
Absolutely. I hope to do this for many years to come.
For more information about IT’S YOUR DOG, visit www.itsyourdog.com