BELLAIRE – Jumping, barking and tearing about are such fun – but the ones who control the treats are talking “sit” and “down” and seem to expect something. What’s a good dog to do?
Jill Robbins – a Spanish teacher at Wheeling Park High School by day – is among an all-volunteer crew at the Upper Ohio Valley Obedience Training Club that will help even young pups find the answer to that question.
During a recent session of the club’s puppy manners class, Robbins used a mix of tiny treats and technique to help six area residents and their canines work through everything from basic commands learned in earlier sessions to “rear-end” awareness.
For the latter, Robbins introduced an agility ladder, first flipping it so that the rungs lay flat on the ground. Handlers walked their leashed puppies through the minimal obstacles, luring them along with treats as needed.
Robbins stepped in with salmon treats – veritable scent bombs – if the pups were still reluctant.
Such an activity was clearly a game to the pups – several of whom were able to walk expertly through the ladder even when the rungs were raised by the end of the exercise. But, Robbins said just practicing such actions is also an effective way to work past the “klutzy puppy” stage.
“They need to learn they have a back end,” she said, noting lack of this knowledge is generally why pups are prone to stepping on the feet of their human family members.
Other activities in the fast-paced class were also a similar mix of puppy fun and people practicality. Puppies got used to handlers touching their paw, mouth and collar areas to facilitate easier day-to-day dog care in the future, for example.
Near the end of the hour-long class, activity turned downright tasty. Kibble was spread into muffin tins and some of the cups were covered with tennis balls. Puppies had to move the balls to find all their food – and did so with gusto.
“You start out with a bunch of treats and a few tennis balls, and then make it harder,” Robbins explained, noting such games can slow down hasty eaters.
“The dogs need that kind of mental stimulation,” Robbins said of another benefit of the same activity, particularly for dogs who are anxious. “It helps tire the dog out without physically going on miles and miles of walking.”
For all the fun the dogs were obviously having, their handlers were quite serious. All were sneakered and dressed for play. Leashes were in strong grip. Some had small treat bins strapped to their waists for easy distribution.
Their charges included sibling Australian shepherds learning how to function well alongside a family of five humans. There was a wee pit bull learning commands in both English and Spanish – as in “Sit!” and “Behold!”
A couple of doodle dogs and a lab / mastiff cross clearly destined to be huge rounded out the late class, which was meeting for its fifth of six sessions.
In an earlier puppy manners session that evening, Elaine Lollothin of Adena was there with Storm, a 4-month-old German shepherd. Lollothin said her previous dog did the same training as a pup and she appreciated the results in a long-term kind of way.
That’s exactly the point, said club president Elizabeth Glick.
Glick, an attorney who has four dogs, said most of the people who sign their canines up for classes are simply looking for a calm, happy household.
“They just want a dog that will sit down and not drag them down the road during walks,” Glick said.
The club, which was founded in 1988, has had a focus on such obedience training from the get go, she noted. (Other clubs might focus on training dogs for agility or other sports activities.)
Another key goal, she added, is to offer an affordable choice to regional obedience training options that run from camps to classes to in-home, private instruction.
The clubs’ six-week classes – which run the gamut from puppy manners to tricks – run about $ 60 each for non members. (Classes that involve certification testing at the end are an additional $ 10.)
Members, who must have completed two club classes, can take classes for $ 20 each after paying their annual dues of $ 35 per single or $ 40 per family.
One of the classes – which has pre-requisites – is linked to Canine Good Citizenship certification, Glick noted.
“Lots of insurance companies like to see that. They can see the dog has had some training, ”she said of occasional risk flagging of certain breeds including her di lei own German shepherd.
Beyond such practicalities, Glick said some dog handlers just start to enjoy the special bonding that can happen during training.
“They take a few different classes and they sort of get bitten by the bug,” Glick said of human students who do so much training they eventually wind up entering their dog in obedience or other sport competitions.
Glick and Robbins have both done this.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a purebred dog or a mixed breed,” Glick explained of the different nature of sports competition from widely televised events such as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
She added that some human students also decide to later become volunteer trainers for the club. Robbins acknowledged with a grin that she used COVID down time to become certified in American Kennel Club evaluation and trick training.
The whole thing is pretty much a dog thing, both women acknowledged.
“We all love training dogs,” Glick said. “And, we love to help other people train dogs.”