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Life-long dog trainer goes beyond treats – Chicago Tribune

By Mark Lawton

When Brenda Belmonte was growing up in Deerfield, she said she frequently brought home stray dogs.

"Unfortunately, as my parents will tell you," said Belmonte, who lives in Lake Bluff with her husband Police Chief David Belmonte. On Nov. 1, Belmonte opened her own dog training facility at 28846 Nagel Court in Lake Bluff.

She was 12 or 13 when she brought home a Shetland-Sheepdog mix, she said, and she got her first peek inside the mind of a dog.

"[The dog] was always looking for something to do and super smart," Belmonte remembered. "I started teaching her tricks. I didn't really know anything about traditional dog training. What I knew was if the dog paid attention and will willing to learn you could use food and play and petting and toys all to your advantage.

"Reward them with what the dog thinks is important," she said.

As an adult Belmonte said she helped turnaround underperforming chain pet stores for five years. She said she then worked at Animal Hospital of Lake Forest for 29 years as a veterinary assistant, bookkeeper and finally as practice manager.

During that time she said she continued to train dogs on the side. She started at people's homes. In 2004 she incorporated at Two Paws Up Dog Training, Inc. and over time hired other trainers, she said. They held trainings at places like Lake Bluff Park District, private businesses and Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest.

Around 2009, Belmonte started thinking about having her own location. Finding such a place, however, ended up taking five to six years due to the difficulty of finding an affordable site, zoned for dog training, near her main customer base in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.

It took until this year for Belmonte find a 4,000 square foot home for Two Paws Up.

The best age to start training a dog is 10 to 12 weeks old, Belmonte said.

"The first 16 weeks of a puppy's life are when it's most impressionable," Belmonte said. "When we can make the biggest impact. But it's never too late to start training."

She adds, "What we see all-too-often is owners getting a dog with that 'perfect scenario' in mind but they don't know how to get there," she said.

"The majority of dogs are in shelters because they have some sort of behavior problem that could have been prevented."

Belmonte's philosophy of training does not include punishment.

"We tend to reach to punishment because it's where dog training started 25-30 years ago," Belmonte said.

Instead, Belmonte and her trainers use a positive reinforcement model.

"I think there is a myth about positive reinforcement training being all about food rewards," Belmonte said. "The realtiy is, there are so many other rewards," she said. "Petting, access to walks, interactions with people. All those things are used. We're actually cooperating with what the dog wants. It's about working with the dog's mind and having a connection."

Maggie Schmude of Lake Bluff brought her wire fox terriers to Belmonte. One, named Bing, had difficulty passing another dog.

"Growling and barking and that sort of things," said Schmude. "[Belmonte] told us, if you see another dog, try to get Bing to focus on you. If he walks past the dog, give him a treat. Bing has gotten a lot better over the years."

Belmonte said, "We invite dogs into our household and yet most owners fail to take into account what's the like from the dog's perspective. We ask a separate species to try to fit into our lifestyle. It's like fitting a round peg into a square hole," she said.

Vicki Amesbury of Lincolnshire had a Labrador-poodle mix named Maggie that had fear issues around people and could act aggressive if she felt threatened.

"Brenda helped us figure out how she can avoid people," Amesbury said. "To back up or leave or go upstairs if there are people in the house."

mlawton@pioneerlocal.com

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