Schooling for Success

posted July 15th, 2013 by
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Free Training Classes Help Shelter Dogs
and Their New Owners

by Nancy Gallimore Werhane, CPDT-KA

It is 6:15 p.m., on a Thursday at Pooches, my dog care facility in Tulsa. Boarding dogs are being fed dinner, and daycare dogs are heading out the door to their homes—another busy day is winding down. At the same time, several dogs and owners parade in the door and head for the training room where their work is just beginning. There, they are greeted by the wonderful smile of Beth Sharp.

Beth Sharp is a dog enthusiast, trainer and unsung hero who well understands the journey a rescued dog and new owner can take. Her interest in working with dogs was born when she adopted her dog, Cooper, a stray that showed up on her property about nine years ago. Cooper uncovered the “latent dog lover” in Sharp, who had not had a dog since her childhood.

“The training bug bit while taking classes with my unruly Pit Bull mix,” Sharp says. “It was fascinating to watch him learn and to have this completely different species understand what it was I was asking. You can actually see the wheels turning in their little brains, and I love it!”

Sharp participated in several training classes with Cooper, exploring different training methods until she was introduced to force-free, positive training techniques. “I completely geeked-out on it and read every book about learning theory and animal behavior that I could get my hands on— and I still do,” she says. “The results I got were amazing, and I never looked back.”

Sharp’s experience with Cooper inspired her to want to help other dogs, but she wasn’t ready to commit to adding another dog permanently to her family. Instead, she opted to foster dogs waiting for adoption. Providing a temporary home for a variety of dogs not only helped local rescue groups but also gave Sharp a great opportunity to develop her training skills. “I loved the idea of fostering, of helping a dog past its fears and showing it how to be part of a family,” she says. And a bonus was the strong sense of accomplishment she felt when her foster dogs were adopted into good homes.

In addition to providing a foster home, Sharp also started volunteering at the City of Tulsa Animal Welfare shelter (TAW). “I’d been feeling like I wanted to try to have a bigger impact on the animal overpopulation problem in Tulsa. Helping one or two dogs at a time is a lot of fun and very much needed, but I was looking for ways to do more,” she says.

Initially, she helped out at the shelter by walking dogs and assisting with adoptions. As she spent time at the shelter, she realized that it would be helpful to offer some basic training tips to new dog owners in an effort to help adopted dogs settle into new homes successfully and reduce the number of dogs that are returned to the shelter. “I would have loved some tips when I got Cooper to help me avoid wasting time and effort, trying a litany of things that don’t really work,” Sharp says.

“Sometimes new and even experienced dog owners have issues with their dogs that seem overwhelming, but many issues have very simple solutions and that can be the difference between keeping a pet or having to return it to the shelter,” explains Sharp. That theory quickly developed into a free, three-session training class that Sharp would make available to anyone adopting a dog from TAW.

With the help of TAW Manager Jean Letcher, and volunteers Ann Stiles and Cindy Bucher, the training program started in May 2011. Classes were initially held in a small trailer behind the shelter but moved to the Pooches training room for additional space to accommodate more students.

According to Letcher, the program is making a difference. “It’s such a neat deal to be able to tell people about the class—especially if they are adopting their first dog. I have no doubt Beth’s classes have helped reduce our return rate,” Letcher says.

Sharp’s goal for the shelter training program is to show people how to communicate clearly with their dogs in a manner that focuses on positive motivation rather than correction-based training that might include yanking on the leash, yelling at the dog, or using prong collars and choke chain collars. “That stuff really is no fun and not terribly effective—in fact, it can actually be counter-productive to training goals,” Sharp says.

One of Sharp’s former students has nothing but praise for the free classes. Anne Lassiter adopted her Terrier mix, Woodstock, from TAW. A very fearful dog, Lassiter felt that bad experiences in Woodstock’s past had caused his issues, and she wanted to help him learn to enjoy his new life. When Lassiter and Woodstock arrived at their first class, the little dog tucked his tail, raised his hackles and immediately retreated to the space under Lassiter’s chair.

“I thought I made a mistake by bringing him, but Beth assured me that this was exactly what Woodstock needed,” Lassiter says. Sharp helped Lassiter understand that with time, training and positive experience, Woodstock could gain self-confidence. “He quickly fell in love with Beth and would not let her out of his sight,” she says. “He might be under the chair, but he was watching and learning from her.”

Sharp encouraged Lassiter to continue formal training with Woodstock following the three complimentary classes, and that’s exactly what they did. Since that time, Woodstock has graduated from four levels of training, including a trick class that required Lassiter and Woodstock to perform in a show.

“It was hard to believe the little dog I found curled up in the corner of the shelter cage was now on stage performing like a pro,” Lassiter says. “He now has boundless confidence… the transformation has been amazing, and I thank Beth for helping us get started.”

Lassiter says the jumpstart with training that Sharp provides is of vital importance during a crucial time of transition for shelter dogs. “Her gentle hand is reaching out to help, so they are not returned to the shelter before they have time to adjust to their new lives,” Lassiter says. She is certain Woodstock would not be the happy, wellbehaved dog he is today without Sharp’s assistance and encouragement. One glance at Sharp’s new group of students tells a story in itself. One dog is barking nonstop.

One dog is sitting in a corner drooling. One dog is straining at his leash, trying to visit everyone in the room. In the middle of the chaos, Beth Sharp smiles, introduces herself and dives right in, helping each owner/dog team learn how to work together. Before the hourlong class ends, the dogs have settled, the owners have relaxed and progress is underway.

When asked about her classes, Sharp’s response is immediate. “I’m having a blast doing this!” she says. “To date over 150 dogs and owners have gone through the program, and we’re adding more every month.” That’s a lot of dogs and people—past, present and future—who can be very grateful for the inspiration of a once unruly dog named Cooper and a very devoted dog trainer named Beth.

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