MISHAWAKA – Getting your dog to obey can sometimes seem like an impossible task. But one local trainer is using techniques she learned from Victoria Stilwell, host of Animal Planet's "It's Me or the Dog," to teach canines everything from giving a shake to braving a thunderstorm.
On Saturday, Neika Smessaert met one of her clients for the second time. His name is Whistle, a two-and-a-half-year-old retired racing Grey Hound.
Whistle was adopted by his owners, Spencer Durland and Kanika Travers, a few months ago and they say everything is great except for Whistle's anxiety.
"He doesn't feel comfortable, especially when Kanika leaves. He gets very upset, he'll pace around, he'll whine and he just can't calm himself down," Durland said.
That anxious behavior is what Smessaert is trying to fix. She uses a technique that rewards Whistle for his good behavior instead of punishing him for what he shouldn't do. Smessaert explains it like this:
"If you come and shake my hand and I give you five dollars, you're likely to return and continue to shake my hand," Smessaert said, "But if you come up and shake my hand and I slap you, you're probably not likely to come back."
She says it's all about positive reinforcement. She uses toys, praise and treats to let the dogs know when she is happy they have acted a certain way. But in order to change the way they behave, Smessaert needs to first get them to act in the unwanted behavior.
For Whistle, she makes a loud noise that causes him to become anxious. When his anxiety goes away, Whistle is given a treat. He then begins to associate what was a scary sound with something pleasant, changing his behavior.
"Dogs can do anything, dogs can help you around the house if they wanted," Smessaert said, "If people are given the tools to use with their dogs, they come up with interesting ways their dogs can bring more into their lives and into their homes."
After only his second session, progress is already being seen in Whistle.
"To see him improve and have more and more of his life that is not distressing to him is very rewarding," Durland said.
Smessaert is the only Victoria Stilwell certified trainer in the state. She says punishing dogs breaks their spirit, causing them to become more anxious and less a part of the family.
She also trains cats, mainly dealing with litter box issues, but also deals with aggression and anxiety in felines.