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Austin Chronicle Down, Boy! The Trainers Speak

MAY 11, 1998:  William & Melanie McLeroy met in 1994. Melanie began her dog training first as a client of William's after other dog trainers failed to effectively train her two dogs. William has been training dogs since he was 14. He started at a kennel, scooping poop and bathing dogs. After a few months, the owner taught him how to train. William came to Austin and started Taurus Training for extra cash while in undergraduate school and his business took off.

The Austin Chronicle: You made progress so quickly with Diablo and me. You explained that it has to do with understanding the "pack mentality."

William McLeroy: The dog/owner situation is like an organism rather than separate entities. You have to look at all the dynamics of each person in the family and the dog and how the people are communicating with the dog and how the dog is perceiving and communicating with the people. Dogs are a different species than human but people treat their dogs as children. When that happens, the dog perceives as the owner not being dominant, which makes the dog think that it should take that position.

AC: What happens when the dog doesn't have an owner who appears dominant?

Melanie McLeroy: It makes the dog feel insecure. My own dogs were such a mess. I obtained two puppies - a Rotrador (a Rottweiler/Labrador mix) and a Great Pyrenees - at the same time when I was in a really rough time in my life. My puppies totally picked up on how insecure I was and it freaked them out. I tried trainers in L.A., in Dallas, two trainers here - no one could help me. William was the only one. We met in the fall of '94. I was his client. He taught me how to train.

AC: Why is training a dog so important? Why not just toss him in the backyard and just let him do whatever he wants?

MM: Dogs are pack animals, and it is very unnatural for them to be in a backyard, lonely and separated from the pack - they don't know how to behave so usually they end up being hyper and destructive. Dogs are always in training - learning from every interaction with you. Obedience training teaches a dog - and the owner - what you expect of the dog in a positive way. For example, dogs test you all the time to see if you are a good pack leader. Dogs, like children, are happiest when they know the rules and have a job to do.

AC: The term "dominant" makes me squeamish; I go out of my way not to dominate my kid.

WM: Dogs are not kids. There's a problem with terms here. Dominance and submission have negative connotations when perceived in a human context. We use them because those are words humans understand quickly.

MM: Dominance is not domineering. You can spoil your dog as long as she knows where she is in the pack - securely below you.

AC: What are some obstacles you've encountered when training dogs with behavioral problems?

WM: We recommend against protection training for companion dogs especially when raising a puppy. Dogs already have a protection instinct. You should only harness aggression if you're going to use them for something like police work. Even if you think your wimpy dog won't protect you, most likely he will.

MM: This is a problem: People want to make sure the dog is aggressive so they never socialize it. Another problem is how people commonly behave when a dog is freaking out. They say, "It's okay, it's okay." It's a human reaction, we use that tone of voice to communicate to our children. But dogs hear that reassuring tone and they think the owner means, "It's okay for me to be afraid. And she's afraid, too, so I better just go bite the hell of this person."

AC: I was a first-time owner who went to the pound, adopted a male, and had no idea of his heritage. Was that a mistake?

WM: There are many good dogs in the pound. But, just as with a bred dog, a pound dog should be adopted with a whole lot of consideration. There are only a few of the major things we can choose in life: our house, our spouse, our car, our job. We don't get a choice about children or parents. You do have a choice about your dog. So you should put the amount of energy you put into choosing those other things into choosing a dog. You wouldn't just choose a spouse for beauty. You wouldn't buy a house without checking into it.

AC: What's your favorite part of dog training?

WM: The most satisfying thing for me is when not only the dog and the owner get a good relationship going, but when the owner calls and tells me his/her relationship with people has changed for the better.

MM: Or their children. They say their relationships with their children have improved (laughter). - S.G.

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