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Boot camp for dogs

Tamara Jackman's job is to build a better understanding between dogs and people.

Tamara Jackman, 23, Keysborough, Vic

Huffing with frustration, I walked back to the beginning of the obstacle course. 'Let's try it again, Misty,' I said.

It was 1993 and at eight, I was determined to get my kelpie-cross to jump over objects I'd scattered around the garden. After numerous attempts, I was exhausted and ready to give up.

'One last time,' I coaxed.

Running up to the box with Misty at my heel, I prayed she'd obey. 'Jump!' I commanded. And to my disbelief, she did.

'You did it!' I screamed giving her a hug. Why did she jump that time but none of the others? I wondered.

And so my interest in dog psychology and behaviour began.

By 16, I was volunteering at my local RSPCA shelter in Perth. 'I had the best time,' I told Mum after my first day.

My hard work paid off and a year later, in 2001, I became a paid worker. I adored working with the dogs every weekend, but it saddened me to see so many surrendered because of their behaviour.

What I found even more upsetting was when dogs were given up because a couple was about to have a baby. Don't they realise dogs can be great with children? I thought.

Kathy, the behavioural specialist at the shelter, knew how passionate I was about dog training and in 2002 she became my mentor.

Watching Kathy work with the group of aggressive dogs was a real eye-opener. Within two sessions she had them all working together peacefully.

But while I thought Kathy's work was amazing I couldn't understand how so many dogs had gotten to the stage of being given up. There should be more preventative work done, I reasoned.

By the time I'd finished high school in 2003 I knew what I had to do.

'I want to move to Melbourne to study dog behaviour and training,' I told my parents. The course there was the only nationally accredited one.

Arriving in Melbourne, I threw myself into my studies and in my spare time I worked on a business proposal. 'I want to work with pregnant couples, to show them how to include their dog in their new family,' I told Mum.

During the course I worked at a boarding kennel and began training dogs. There I met Stewart, 29, and we began dating.

I didn't just like Stewart for his personality and good looks. I was awed by his ability with dogs. He was the best trainer I'd ever met.

By the end of my course in 2005 I was ready to begin the preventative classes I'd been planning for so long. Luckily, Stewart was also interested.

'I want to call the pregnancy course When Freddie Meets Fido,' I told him. 'That's a great name,' he laughed.

Stewart and I had worked together on lots of delinquent doggie cases, so I knew we'd make a good team.

'So what do you think?' I asked. 'I'd love to be involved,' he said.

While working out the business side of things for When Freddie Meets Fido, Stewart and I began private consultations, working with difficult dogs.

One of our first cases was a two-year-old 70kg Great Dane named Roxy. Her owner, Fleur*, came to us in desperation.

'I can't take her for walks anymore,' Fleur said, dejected. 'I've tried everything, including group training sessions.'

Roxy was aggressive towards people and would bark and snap at strangers. Looking at Fleur, I understood her frustration.

'If this doesn't work, I don't know what I'll do,' she said. 'I don't want to give up Roxy, but I'm scared she'll hurt someone.'

Fleur thought Roxy was a naturally aggressive dog. But as I explained, Roxy hadn't been socialised properly.

'She's most likely been frightened by a stranger when she was a pup,' I said. 'There's no such thing as a bad dog. Most of the time they just haven't had the right training.'

Taking Roxy under our wing, Stewart and I observed her and Fleur as they went for a walk. It was clear that Fleur's timing with Roxy was way off.

'You need to pull Roxy into line before she goes to attack, not when she's already barking and biting,' I said, demonstrating.

After a couple of sessions with Roxy, we tried again. This time Fleur confidently walked down the street with Roxy at her heel.

At the first signs of Roxy's body language changing, Fleur corrected her. Amazingly, Roxy walked past a stranger without trying to attack. 'I can't believe it!' Fleur cried. 'I never thought she'd change so quickly.'

Roxy was the first of many cases. In mid 2006, Stewart and I began When Freddie Meets Fido.

Lots of couples came to us, sure they'd have to give up their dog with a new baby on the way. But after just one session I could see all their fears wash away.

One client, Emma, had a Rottweiler and two Staffies. One of the dogs was a rescue dog and had been badly abused.

'Introducing a new baby to your dogs can be tricky if you don't know what to do,' I explained. 'Often your nerves will confuse and upset the dog. But as long as you use the techniques we teach, your dogs will understand to respect your baby rather than see it as prey.'

Needless to say, Emma's dogs adored her baby and have never shown any aggression.

Stewart and I are hoping to start group When Freddie Meets Fido classes later this year as an extension of the prenatal classes - and for good reason.

Watching the news, time and again we are horrified to see dog-attack reports, especially when a child has been mauled.

Tragedies like these can be prevented. If a dog isn't properly socialised with children, more often than not, they'll see the erratic, excited kid as a predator instead of a human.

I just hope my courses can help prevent disaster.


Dog training

Dog preventative tips and measures. A dog may be provoked to bite when it feels threatened, protecting territory, food, toys or family, overly excited, don't know you, in pain. Do not put your face close to a dog, approach strange dogs, frighten or tease dogs, try to stare down a dog, leave children alone with dogs.

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