Pets: Beast Masters

Portland’s Dog Training Experts Are Divided into Dueling Camps. What Works?

It's been a long, confounding odyssey.

By Benjamin Tepler January 23, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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You decide to adopt a furry bundle of joy from a reputable breeder. She’s cute as can be and sweeter than pie, but petrified by strangers. How do you help her navigate this two-legged world?

In Portland, the first stop is often the “all positive reinforcement” approach. Instructors at Happy-Go-Lucky and Plucky Puppy tell you to reward her with praise and treats, sometimes using a “clicker” to mark good behavior. Meanwhile, avoid the bad: the dog should be kept within her comfort zone, with incremental steps toward a goal.

Many dogs—especially anxious ones—respond well to this type of training, according to Happy-Go-Lucky owner Lisa Plymale.

But not your girl. She barks at strangers, stumbles in fear over her quivering Bambi legs, and drags you like a pulk on neighborhood walks.

You cash in your 401(k) for an animal behaviorist (a psycho-pharmacologist of the animal world) at Synergy Behavior Solutions or Animal Behavior Clinic. They listen intently to your dog’s medical history, fit her with a head-halter for gentle guidance, and hand over a prescription: your dog is genetically or conditionally predisposed to anxiety, and medication will help calm her. According to Synergy’s Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, 85 percent of the dogs in her practice show improvement on canine anxiety medication, like the doggy Prozac equivalent Reconcile, when paired with prescriptive training.

But not your girl. One medication increases her aggression; another makes her projectile-vomit on her Pendleton-upholstered bed.

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The beast herself

Now your furball is a veritable direwolf; her barking graduates to snapping and lunging. You surreptitiously seek out the few trainers in Portland who use old-school operant conditioning: the dog is being dominant, so needs boundaries and strong leadership. Some of these trainers, like Leader of the Pack, work  in the “pack leader” school, à la dog whisperer Cesar Millan—leadership and discipline being paramount—while others, like Sit Means Sit, use electronic collars to “correct” the dog’s behavior.

The barking has stopped; the pulling has lessened. The world is returning to a negotiable environment for you and your new addition. But are you, as all-positive proponents might suggest, simply repressing the warning signs? If pushed, might she snap?

Here’s the thing: It’s a minefield. Just as dueling parenting philosophies each promise the true path to healthy children, there are contradictory thoughts on how best to bring your pooch to heel—or whether that should even happen. What performs for one poodle may grate on the Great Dane. The good news? Whatever your pet parenting style, Portland’s got a training school tailor-made for you. 

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