The Best Dog Trainers Purr


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March, 2005

A unique group of ‘dog trainers’.

When seeking a dog trainer, try to find one that purrs. The best dog trainers happen to be of the feline persuasion.

Peggy Moran has been training dogs for 30 years; she’s pretty adept at picking up on a dog’s personality. But she concedes she’s no competition for Barney, her cat who had dog radar. Barney instantly assessed a dog’s vive. If Barney high-tailed it out of the room, she knew she had one of those rare cases of a truly aggressive dog at the end of the leash. If Barney bounded up to a high place, she knew he was being cautious for a reason.

Most of the time, Barney would nonchalantly sit facing a dog – even dogs who are not previously exposed to cats. He even had the presence of mind to groom himself. If the dog barked, he’d lift a paw and flip off the annoying canine.

Even today, cats are always present when Moran trains puppies at her facility in Lemont, IL. The idea is to desensitize her dog pupils to cats because the number of dog owners who also have cats is on the rise, According the 2003/2004 American Pet Product Manufacturer’s Association National Pet Owners Survey, just over 40 per cent of people lucky enough to share their lives with a companion animal call at least one dog and also at least one cat a part of their family.

Xena rules at Kathy McCarthy-Olshein’s training facility in Tippecanoe, Indiana.

Xena tells McCarthy-Olshein immediately what to do with the new arrivals much like Barney does for Moran. McCarthy-Olshein is cautious with the few dogs Xena is wary of.

“Xena has learned to read the dogs more efficiently than I ever could,” McCarthy-Olshein says.

Interestingly, Xena has learned dog language, and just as submissive puppy might, she greets the dogs entering her facility (she believes it is her facility) by rolling over on her back and going limp. She allows the curious and sloppy canines to slobber as they sniff. “She’s often covered with dog drool,” McCarthy-Olshein says.

But those novice in the ways of cats learn fast, if they explore beyond Xena’s patience, or they bite down as they might while playing with another dog, Xena bolts upright and faster than you can say “warrier princess,” and affixes her claws on top of the dog’s muzzle as if she’s saying, “Go ahead, make my day.”

McCarthy-Olshein has had dozens of canine clients at the other end of Xena’s claws – but none have been stupid enough to do anything but submit to her power. Xena has never slashed a dog. “She doesn’t need to,” McCarthy-Olshein explains.

“It’s a brilliant use of natural inclinations of the ability of one species to read another” says Amy Shojai, author of “PETiquette: Solving Behavior Problems in a Multi-Pet Household (E. Evans, New York, NY, 2005; $15.95 – to be released later this year) “These cat not only help the trainers. The dogs learn to read cats and they’re socialized to cats. As families blend, and the cat people wind up living with the dog people, their combined pets become roommates. You do this socializing so they don’t fight like cats and dogs, which is an old notion anyway.”

That’s only one reason an increasing number of guide dog schools are de-sensitizing dogs-in-training to cats. After all, it seems canine pupils are desensitized to all possible distractions, from loud buses to wailing babies. Cats are an important part of the course at the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, Bloomfield, CT. Several cats work at the school as canine distracters, the champion is an elderly kitty appropriately named Terminator. “Trainers are patient with the dogs,” says George Salpietro, executive director, and himself a guide dog user. “Cats are no nonsense.”

It’s the cats who immediately weed out the less than one-percent of dogs whose prey drive is so ingrained; being a guide dog is not a career possibility.

The cats actually help in the training. “Cats are encouraged to run by the dogs,” says Salpietro. “Listen, in the real world you don’t want a guide dog that chases a cat and drags someone down the street.”

McCarthy-Olshein also employs Xena as a major league distraction. Chief is a 4-month old German shepherd puppy who was terrorizing the elder cats he lives with. Desperate for help, Chief’s owner searched for a trainer who could teach her dog self-control. McCathy-Olshein says Xena actually taunted poor Chief when he was doing a ‘down/stay.’ She’d paw at his tail, or sit and stare at him – then bolt across the room with a clear intent to provoke a game of chase. “If you can pass the Xena test, you’re ready for the world,” McCarthy-Olshein says.

Moran says most of her clients ‘get it.’ But then, there’s the one owner who was offended by cats attending a class which she apparently thought was exclusively for dogs only. Then, there was the giddy owner who wanted to bring her cats to the dog class, so they would be desensitized to dogs. “I tried to explain, it just doesn’t work like that,” says Moran. “The dogs learn cat language 101, and they learn to respect cats – but I bet any dog trainer who does this will also have a new respect for cats – they’re also great dog trainers.”