BEEN THERE DONE THAT: Reporter's dog training a (winding) walk in the park – The Times (subscription)

I've gone on record before as saying I love dogs.

Like, I really love dogs.

But loving them and the ability to naturally form a healthy leadership relationship with them don't necessarily go hand in hand.

So, after months of jumping, chewing, generally ignoring my commands and family telling me "You REALLY need to take him to training," I begrudgingly decided it was time I bite the bullet and take my beloved black Labrador Zeke to school. I say "begrudgingly" not because I didn't want Zeke to be a good, obedient dog, but because I sometimes struggle with social anxiety and it can be difficult for me to put myself out there into new situations, so to speak.

That's when I turned to Erin Marconi, owner of Four Leaf K9 Training and Daycare in rural Streator.

I had heard good things about her from friends and veterinarians, and with her years of experience working at Countryside Animal Clinic, I knew she had worked with all shapes, sizes and personalities of dogs. She knew Dogspeak, and that's what I needed. And she had the education to back herself up. She is a licensed trainer, continuing to participate in ongoing education.

I contacted Erin through Four Leaf's Facebook page back in November, when Zeke was 11 months old and explained to her my dilemma. We chatted a bit about what Zeke's major problems were. Lucky for me, she wasn't fazed by his, shall we say, undisciplined puppiness. Also lucky for me, she does home visits.

Erin first came over to our house on a Monday evening to observe Zeke's behavior and my responses. From there, she determined a course of action.

"My observation: dog greeted me with paws on my shoulders. Happy, very excitable personality," Erin wrote in a follow-up evaluation. "As I watched Zeke do whatever he wanted, owner has soft voice and was telling Zeke 'no, sit, down.' Zeke never acknowledged a word said to him."

Erin scores dogs separately on personality and training level to date. On a scale of 1 to 10, she gave Zeke a 10, saying "you couldn't ask for a better personality in a dog." (Beaming, proud Mama here). His training level, however, was a 3. "He glanced when he heard his name, he sat one out of the three times told and got back up within two seconds." (Oh, yeah. That).

"Zeke needs an outlet to release his high energy levels, learn manners/commands and train owner how to show leadership and how to communicate with Zeke," Erin wrote.

While Erin recommended group training classes to help Zeke listen with added distractions of other people and dogs in a group setting, I decided to start out with private lessons. I also enrolled him in daycare one day a week.

On the first official training night, Erin brought with her a training collar, which seemed to work fairly well throughout our sessions. The first four commands we were to work on were his name, meaning "come;" "off" for no jumping on people or on the counter; "sit" until released and "No!"

"Zeke responded very well with cheese and then 'shut off' as I call it, after getting corrected for his bad behavior," Erin wrote. "This happens with dogs that haven’t been told what to do before."

Following the first session, Zeke began daycare one day a week for social outing and energy burning at Four Leaf. Erin picked him up in the morning and dropped him off at night. The first day, she texted me a photo of him playing with the other dogs. He loved it out there. When he came home that night, he jumped on me like a little child telling his Mom about his first day at school. Then he crashed for the rest of the night.

The next three sessions, Zeke and I went to Four Leaf, where he was able to learn commands with other dogs present and walk past distractions. We worked on "sit/stay," "down," and "come."

At the fourth lesson, I had gone without having worked much with Zeke or walking him due to the holidays. And I paid for it. He was jumping, wouldn't come to me when outside, needed to work on "down" and was full of energy. Also, I stopped daycare until the holidays were over.

"I went over how all these commands must be used in every day life to keep commands strong and get stronger," Erin said.

As Zeke's training (and - let's face it - my training, too) progressed, we both got more comfortable with each other. Zeke listened and obeyed more quickly and frequently, and I developed more self confidence in being firm with him.

At the fifth and final lesson - after a few weeks since the previous lesson - Zeke jumped on Erin when we arrived.

"But after showing owner to up her correction and timing had to be just right, he didn’t jump any more," Erin wrote. "We then worked on all commands, and they both did great. For his reward after training, he played with two other Labs and had a great time. My work is done, I went over how to enforce these commands on a daily basis and give Zeke more exercise with walks, fetch, etc. The more he goes out in public, the less crazy/excitable behavior he will have and they will have a better relationship together."

PostScript: The day after Zeke's last session with Erin, and my bragging about him on Facebook, I came home from work to find his chewed-up training collar on the kitchen counter. I was furious at him, mostly because I thought myself a failure. A few days later, I embarrassingly asked Erin for a replacement and she reassured me, saying he wasn't the first dog to chew up one of the collars.

We have come a long way. Zeke sits and stays with non-verbal commands, but we still need to practice him coming to me on call and walking calmly next to me. And it will be up to me to see he gets that practice.

Sit, Zeke, sit. Good dog.

  • For more information about Four Leaf K9 Training and Daycare and Erin Marconi, call 815-822-0535, visit fourleafk9.com or on Facebook, "Four Leaf K9 Training and Daycare."

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