You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, says the old adage…or, can you?
“Without a doubt you can…that’s really important for people to know,” said Sue McMichael, owner of Mamaroneck-based Enjoyable Dog Training, who works with dogs of all breeds and ages.
With her egalitarian attitude toward training, McMichael’s philosophy is simple: “All dogs react to a certain type of training—individual dogs have individual personalities.”
But you’ll never see McMichael yanking on a dog’s leash or yelling to get her point across to one of the canines enrolled in her classes at the . She’s a firm believer in the Humane Society-approved, reward-based positive reinforcement training that teaches a dog to associate good behavior with a reward such as food or praise.
And, to make the training experience as calming and as minimally fear-inducing as possible for the best possible retention, she cautions against “correcting” a dog or telling them “no”, with one exception: if there is a safety issue.
“Once your dog loves to train you’re going to get that focus,” she said, continuing, “If you’re patient, your dog will eventually do what you want it to do.”
But don’t expect your dog to heed your commands just because you tell them to.
“Dogs are not verbal,” explains McMichael, continuing, “Dogs read body language —when I teach any owner how to train their dog I almost always start with a physical or positional cue…once a dog has learned the physical cue, we add a verbal.” The verbal is generally for the benefit of the dog’s handler (owner).
In addition to basic commands, McMichael also incorporates a form of classical conditioning in her advanced training called free shaping, in which she rewards dogs incrementally—initially food paired with a clicker, then just the clicker when the dog learns the association—as a way to mark certain behaviors.
“Whenever I can free shape, I do it. It creates a free-thinking dog,” she said, adding that, without the clicker, the dog will only think about the food without making the association to the behavior.
For the past eight years, McMichael—who studied at the Port Chester Obedience Training Club in White Plains—has been teaching classes and giving private lessons in NYC and Westchester County. When Dr. Raphael Gilbert—the new owner of Mamaroneck Veterinary Hospital and Pet Resort—approached her about teaching at the newly renovated courtyard facility at the hospital, she was thrilled about the prospect of being able to offer training to local residents.
“I’m really proud of being the instructor at a veterinary hospital that’s local,” she said, adding that it’s the only vet office in the area that offers classes.
What’s more, McMichael is already entrenched in the Mamaroneck community, as a second-generation owner—along with her two siblings—of and , the company her parents founded in 1935. Although sailing was in her blood, her passion for teaching was awakened when she combined the two and found it “so rewarding.”
In addition to her basic training/obedience classes, McMichael also teaches an agility class that’s designed to help dogs navigate an obstacle course made up of tunnels, see-saws, jumps, weave poles, an A-frame and a tire, providing them with both physical and mental stimulation. Most of this training is done with body language, said McMichael.
McMichael also makes it a point to connect with her students both before and during classes, and encourages them to e-mail or call her with questions throughout the training process.
This Saturday, June 9, she will be hosting a Q & A session on dog training at the Mamaroneck Veterinary Hospital from noon-5 p.m. Anyone is welcome to attend and ask questions.
“Be happier with a well-trained dog,” she said.
After all, is there any better reason to train?
The Mamaroneck Veterinary Hospital and Pet Resort is located at 649 W. Boston Post Rd. in Mamaroneck, (914) 777-0398. McMichael teaches basic and intermediate training/obedience classes as well as beginner, intermediate and advanced level agility training classes. Classes are $225 for seven, hour-long, weekly sessions. New classes start monthly. To inquire, please email: email@example.com, call (914) 315-6882 or visit her website here. Private lessons also available.