Hugging the curly-haired Benny to his chest, 12-year-old Shane Rider, of Hays, nuzzled his little dog into his shoulder.
“We’ve seen so much progress in six weeks, it’s amazing,” said Shane’s mom, Julie.
On Monday evening, certified dog trainer Raina Alm, owner of Fur-Ever Friends Dog Training in Hays, handed them Benny’s diploma, certifying that the 10-month-old shihpoo, a mix of miniature poodle and shih tzu, had successfully completed Basic Dog Obedience.
The six-week class, offered through the Hays Recreation Center, is one of two dog-training classes Hays Rec offers. Both are taught by Alm behind the former Washington Elementary School, 305 Main St. At Monday’s class, six dogs were graduating.
“He was so skittish he couldn’t even look at himself in the mirror,” said Shane, as Benny stayed still in his arms. “Now he’s fine with mirrors.”
“He was wild and crazy at home,” said Julie. “He was terrified of people, other dogs, parked cars.”
Now Benny listens to commands, and can walk up to a stranger.
“He used to always run around, but now he’ll sit on the couch with us,” said Shane.
“He’s way more content,” said Julie. “He just doesn’t seem so ornery. I’m going to quote what Raina told us the first day of class, ‘A bored dog is a bad dog.’ ”
Dixie Odum, of Hays, knows the feeling. At Monday evening’s graduation from Alm’s dog obedience class, Odum watched her 14-month Angel following commands to sit, fetch and retrieve a stick, as well as easily stepping over an agility hurdle on the fenced, grassy lawn.
“She’s come a long way from week one,” said Alm, explaining that Angel barked constantly almost the entire first class.
“Week one, her dog was all over the place, jumping, going crazy,” said Alm. “This last week, she was walking perfect on a leash. We even got the training collar off, and she didn’t jump once. That’s the thing, the owners have to take this information home and work with their dogs at home. If they do that, they’ll be successful.”
A mix of golden retriever, husky and German shepherd, Angel has a sister the same age at home. It was a toss-up which one to start with first.
“I had a hard time deciding between the two,” Odum said. “Pearl is the naughty dog, she jumps, chews up everything, and won’t mind. I thought maybe Pearl would learn by watching Angel.”
And she has, said Odum.
“Angel has rubbed off on Pearl,” Odum said. “When I work with Angel, Pearl comes rushing over because she wants to do it, too.”
She’s seen a big difference in Angel.
“Now she’s pretty consistent with ‘sit,’ ‘down’ and ‘heel,’” said Odum. “She was doing good with ‘come,’ but she’s regressed. I have to start weaning her off the treats next. The hardest problem I’m having with her is ‘stay.’ ”
Alm says the most common behavior problems are jumping, barking, rushing up to the door, and some aggressiveness. The earlier the socialization, the better the chance of avoiding aggression issues, she said. Her Puppy Socialization class is for puppies 10 weeks to 6 months. It’s kind of a puppy play-date, Alm said, with the puppies mostly off-leash, while introducing some basic commands.
The six-week Basic Obedience course trains leash walking, addresses behavioral issues like jumping and barking and teaches the commands sit, down, stay, come and leave it.
“In reality, most people just want their dog to behave, and that’s why they do the classes and the private lessons. They just want a well-behaved family pet,” Alm said. “I expect dogs to walk at your side. If you stop walking they sit down. That is your advanced training right there.”
Alm says she trains owners to train their dog and to listen to their owners, not to her.
“That way they can handle their dogs at home, in distracted environments,” she said. “It’s very hard for people that have dogs that don’t have any basic obedience, because there are distractions everywhere. Trying to get a dog to do a ‘sit’ at home is one thing, but to get them to do a ‘sit’ in front of seven other dogs, it can be challenging.”
JoJo graduated Monday evening, too. The 4-year-old shih tzu-and-poodle-cross attended with her owner, Judy Arnold, of Hays.
A rescue dog who was pretty hyper and afraid of people and other dogs, JoJo has come a long way, said Arnold.
“She likes people now,” Arnold said. “And before, when we’d go to the post office, she’d drag me along. Now she stays right with me.”
Alm finds that one of the reasons dogs are taken to a shelter or dumped in the country is due to behavior problems.
“My whole goal is to keep dogs in homes,” said Alm. “That’s why I started my business, I want dogs to be well-behaved, I want them to stay in their home.”
Every dog can be trained, said Alm, and no breed is hopeless. She lets every dog come to the first class, then does a temperament test to see if they need socialization. A dog with aggression issues may need some private lessons first.
The first step toward having a well-behaved dog is to take care when buying from a breeder. Research the breeder and the living environment.
“Go to the facility, see what you’re actually getting, look at the living environment they have,” she said. “Neglect is a big deal.” Also, bred dogs can be hard to potty train if they’ve lived in a kennel.
“They pee and poop in the kennel,” Alm said. “Then owners bring the puppies home and they think that’s acceptable, so they have to be retrained.”
Even dogs with aggression can be managed, she said, sometimes by keeping them in a training collar the rest of their lives, and with limited socializing.
“I’m not a huge fan of medication for dogs, so we try to use treats to redirect attention,” she said.
The next classes start Monday, July 22. Puppy Socialization runs from 6:30-7:30 p.m. and the fee is $50. Dog Obedience is 7:30-8:30 p.m. and the fee is $50.