Adopting an unruly dog was the catalyst for Cissy to learn dog-training methods and become certified. Today, she trains dogs privately and for the Humane Society, where she also makes it her mission to educate the public and reduce pet euthanasia.
Tell us a little about your background…
I always joke that I was a Beltway Baby. I grew up in the Washington, DC area, in Maryland and Northern Virginia. In my junior year at the University of Maryland, I came to the realization that I would not get into veterinary school, so I changed my major, but really lost interest in college at that point. I did not graduate, much to my family’s dismay. While I did not get the degree, I did gain a lot of knowledge that has served me well.
I have always loved animals, especially dogs and horses. I grew up with dogs and cats in our home; they were family members and companions, but not very well trained. After college, I made my career in retail sales and management, working in my husband’s family business, women’s shoe stores. I worked in the stores, rode horses, and really just followed the easiest path. While I was fortunate and having fun, I was not personally fulfilled. We lived in the DC area until we moved to Florida for my husband’s work in 1997, when I was 41.
When did you start thinking of making a change?
I love living in Florida, especially Vero Beach. The move here freed me to find a new direction. This didn’t happen immediately and I didn’t have a plan. What did happen is I adopted a puppy—Dale, a brown hound mix—from the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County (HSVB). I’d had dogs all my life, but Dale was a nightmare. She would bite, lunge, pull, and just act incredibly unruly.
I started attending dog-training classes, but couldn’t really get the help I needed from local trainers. I started doing research and attending seminars. Surely Dale wasn’t the only dog with these problems! I just had to find a more effective way to train her, and I did.
What is your next act?
I am the owner of Best Behavior Dog Training and the Animal Behavior Manager of the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County, Florida. I work three days a week in each capacity, and then try to rest on Sunday!
Honestly, I had no idea a person could make a living training dogs—or that there was a need for this service. My career was—and still is—a great surprise to me. My family has always been supportive. As my love and enjoyment of my job became obvious, I think I became a nicer, more generous person. Part of it is because I am happier; I wish everyone could feel as fulfilled in their lives as I do. And I just really love dogs. I feel naked when my gang isn’t with me. I can’t explain it, but I just get them somehow.
My dog training focuses on noticing positive behavior and rewarding it. At some point, I realized I should try that with people too. I wouldn’t say I am always successful, but I am working hard at listening better and being empathetic. It’s definitely a work in slow progress.
How did you find your own method of training?
When I started training dogs, I experimented with using corrections like leash jerks and pinch collars, but I hated the way the dogs would look at me when I punished them. I felt like I was breaking their trust. Eventually, I discovered motivational and clicker training and pushed punishment out of my toolbox. I found force-free methods actually helped my own dog, Dale, become a great pet and a competitor on the agility field.
In my training, I like to set dogs up for success by controlling the environment to facilitate learning. I think training should be fun for the dog and the person, plus be effective and humane. I love the “aha” moment when the dog starts to learn and equally the “aha” moment when the human realizes the dog CAN learn. Plus, it’s amazing all the things you can teach a dog to do!
I like to involve the whole family in the training of their dog. Kids make the best trainers. If you can make it fun, they really stay on task and practice. I often give specific assignments to the children. I practice with them to be sure they can have success. Everyone benefits. Busy parents get more time because the kids are occupied with training the family dog!
How did you start and build your business?
I pursued certification to give me credibility, then I joined the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers to further my knowledge and to network with other training and behavior professionals.
My transition from retail sales to full-time dog trainer was slow but steady. For five or six years, I kept my sales job while I trained dogs. Each year, I found I had to cut back on my hourly job so I could invest more time in Best Behavior Dog Training. My business grew steadily. I networked with veterinarians in order to use their facilities to teach classes. This keeps my overhead low and allows me to reach more people by having several locations.
My ultimate goal was to work at my local Humane Society. Three years ago, I moved a portion of my business to their location, which allowed me to continue to improve my relationship with HSVB. This past January, I achieved my goal and became the Animal Behavior Manager of the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County. I am so incredibly fortunate; it is really had to believe.
What challenges have you encountered dealing with dogs or with their families?
The biggest problems are noncompliance and lack of consistency. An hour a week with me isn’t what helps your dog. It’s the practice during the week that makes the difference.
Several years ago, I had clients with two littermate dogs that were fighting constantly. The dogs even got in a fight while I was there the first time. We used an intense program of behavior modification to teach the boys to get along. It took several months, but we were successful. The family was dedicated and very grateful. In general, just teaching the dogs and humans a few skills and opening some communication goes a long way to calming the situation down and increases owner retention while lowering owner frustration!
One thing that really helps me as a teacher and trainer is my retail experience. Dealing with clients can be as challenging as it is rewarding. Overcoming objections and finding ways for the humans to succeed is the real key to be a successful dog trainer. No dog ever picks up the phone and asks to be trained.
I have never considered giving up; if nothing else, I am persistent and creative in finding solutions to whatever situations arise.
Tell us about your work at the Humane Society.
As the Animal Behavior Manager, I help with enrichment, training, and evaluating dogs living in our shelter. I also provide dog training classes and education for the community. I think of myself as the dogs’ advocate, always trying to improve their lives.
The Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County (HSVB) is an open admission shelter. That means we take in any and all animals—dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, horses, pigs, exotics, the list is amazing. We also take in animals for our counties’ Animal Control. We educate the community, provide low cost spay, neuter and vaccinations. We also shelter, house and train dogs while they wait to be adopted.
We are not no-kill. We advocate humane treatment of animals. It’s hard to talk about euthanasia. Most people have no idea how seriously behaviorally damaged a dog can be. Shut down and catatonic or raging aggression are just some of the things we see at the shelter. Most of these poor dogs never had a chance for a decent life. The best place they ever lived and the most kindness they ever felt was at an animal shelter. That is so sad. They have been so failed by people on every level; it honestly makes me cry. I try to find a way to save them. And if I can’t save them, I try to give them kindness and genuine affection. It’s little enough.
Tell us more about the agility training and competition you do.
Agility is a blast. It amazes me how we can teach dogs to do something so arbitrary and have them love it. Agility is a total bonding experience. It’s you and a dog, off leash, using skilled communication to navigate an obstacle course of 15 to 20 items. Crazy! I started agility to channel Dale’s energy 15 years ago. I’m still hooked.
I teach agility two or three days a week to both competitors and dog enthusiasts. The whole atmosphere is fun; the camaraderie among the people and the dogs make it social as well as a great learning environment.
My dogs—all rescues—are not currently competing. One, Jesse, is retired due to an injury. He was great before he got hurt, but it isn’t fun for him anymore. My middle dog, Rio, has talent and has competed, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy the limelight. I’m hoping he gets re-inspired and wants to come back to the sport. My newest dog, Mustang Sally, shows ability, but is nowhere near trained enough. I’ve only had her three months.
So these days, I compete mostly with my clients’ dogs. I just went to Canine Performance Events National Championship with Sprite, a Shetland Sheepdog who belongs to my client Helen Kelso. Sprite qualified in 8 of the 9 classes. I was beyond delighted.
How does one become a dog trainer?
Sadly, there is no regulation or requirement for dog trainers. Anyone can make that claim. There are certifications—CCPDT, PPG, KPA, among others—that give credibility and professionalism to our industry. I wish more consumers knew to ask about credentials.
To me, the best way to become a dog trainer is to be mentored by a certified professional. This gives you tons of hands on training and experience with guidance to help you find the path. Then, study and take the CPDT-KA exam. This is a minimal competency exam, but the material needed to pass is broad based and independent. It’s a good start to understanding canine AND human behavior. My mentor introduced me to the world of dog training. I often mentor other trainers and really enjoy watching them learn and grow. I especially like it when I start learning from them!
What should one look for when hiring a dog trainer?
Look for a certification for sure. CCPDT meets National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) standards. I think this is quite valuable and better than what other certifications have to offer. But it isn’t the only certification; I also like The Pet Professional Guild, Karen Pryor Academy, and Pat Miller Academy.
Interview the trainer and ask for references. I would ask about their methods and why they made that choice. I would want to know if they have trained dogs with this particular behavior and the outcome. The biggest thing is to make sure you like the trainer. Behavior problems can be very emotional and having someone come in your home to train your dog is personal. A pleasant relationship really helps.
What resources do you recommend?
My favorite websites:
Sue Alisby’s Mind to Mind is the all-time best. Sue is an incredible trainer. I went to a seminar early in my career and she really inspired me.
Dog Star Daily Ian Dunbar popularized lure and reward training quite a few years ago. He has a great presentation and outlook on dogs, humans, and training.
My favorite training books:
Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia McConnel
What’s next for you?
I am so focused on all the changes and challenges at the Humane Society, I can’t really think about what’s next. A book? Lectures? Webinars? They would be lovely and I think they are in my future.
But, right now, my goals are to reduce euthanasia in our open admission shelter, help increase the adoptability of our guests, and increase the number of dogs retained in their homes. This is a huge task. I smile every time I think or write about it. This is my dream!
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Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed
Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge and Skills Assessed
Professional Canine Trainer – Assessed
Animal Behavior Manager, Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County
Member, Pet Professional Guild
C.L.A.S.S. Evaluator #750283
AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator #13985