At Your Service was thrilled to introduce you to our new staff trainer, Alex Wise. Alex brings a wealth of experience as both a client and trainer, with group classes and private lessons. As you’ll read, Alex fits in beautifully with our commitment to individualized training approaches, a nonjudgmental and supportive attitude toward both canine and human clients, and a passion for both pets and service dogs. Alex recently shared their experiences in getting started as a dog trainer, learning from their own “problem dog,” favorite training challenges, and TV dog fandom.
First things first! Tell us about your dog
I have a 6 year old deaf Pittie mix named Hitch, whose main goal in life is to fit into as many human laps as possible! Over the 4.5 years he has lived with me, we have had to work through more behavioral challenges than I ever imagined when I brought him home, and I ultimately attribute a large amount of my training skills to those experiences.
His favorite training activities are anything involving nose, paw, or chin targeting…. preferably with gusto! I frequently joke that his best skills are anything that could be described as a “hulk smash.”
How did you get started training dogs?
Dogs have always been a part of my life, but my career as a dog trainer started with being at the right place at the right time. During a visit at a trainer’s house, I was able to communicate with a tough-to-handle puppy they were boarding. From there I started assisting with classes at Animal Alliances, and eventually apprenticed and acted as a substitute trainer before becoming a staff trainer at the school in 2015.
A few months after beginning to assist with training classes, I adopted Hitch, who was 1.5 years old at the time. To my surprise, Hitch had far more behavioral challenges than anticipated. For example, very soon after I brought him home, Hitch decided to jump onto my kitchen table with all four paws to get a better view out of the kitchen window! The major issues we have had to address included jumping habits, significant counter surfing, separation anxiety, and dog reactivity. Several years ago I worked with Hitch as a service dog in training, but ultimately decided to have him do tasks only in my home due to the dog reactivity he developed as he reached social maturity. Combined with the challenges and creativity involved in modifying training techniques for a deaf dog, working with him through the years has significantly contributed to my training skills.
Looking back, I believe I owe a large amount of my expertise to all of the research, classes, mistakes, and eventual successes involved in his training. My experience in adopting him and discovering each of his challenges has also made me a firm believer in the value of consulting an experienced trainer or behaviorist before adopting any dog, particularly if you hope for that dog to participate in a sport or to train as a prospective Service Dog or Therapy Dog.
What are some of your favorite types of dogs to work with?
I particularly enjoy working with dogs who are working toward a possible career (Service Dog, Therapy Dog, etc.) and are working toward the advanced manners skills necessary to succeed in the field they are training towards.
I also love it when dogs require some creativity in my training approach. I enjoy the challenge of modifying what’s usually effective so that it works for each individual dog.
This is one of the reasons that another of my favorites is working with deaf dogs—even just finding ways to “click” for behaviors in a way that is distinct and visible to the dog is a satisfying puzzle! In the photo above, you can see Hitch getting ready for a reward while I mark a correct behavior with a hand cue.
Finally, I also appreciate training dogs with a strong desire for clear “jobs.” Often, their love for working out the “puzzle” of a training activity is so obvious that it’s almost palpable! I particularly love seeing owners who have little previous training experience begin to view training as the wonderful bonding opportunity it is, and the effects are satisfyingly clear when someone owns a dog with this kind of drive.
Is there a dog in popular culture that is a favorite?
My recent favorite is Pepper from the show Speechless. The main character JJ, who has Cerebral Palsy, surprises his family with Pepper. They pressured him to get a Service Dog to fulfill their own desires for a pet. But, while Pepper came from a SD organization, he is one of their “career change” dogs because of his overzealousness for performing assistance tasks without anyone asking. (For the training nerds out there, his assistance tasks lack good stimulus control.)
Pepper is constantly turning lights on and off and has a particular love of retrieving bananas one after the other. While this behavior would be wildly inappropriate and unhelpful as an assistance dog, I get a kick out of how excited Pepper is about performing these complex behaviors. He might be overeager to offer a retrieve, but retrieving a banana without damaging it takes skill!
What’s it been like to work for At Your Service Dog Training?
One of the things I love most about working for At Your Service is the importance we place on tailoring our services and training plans so carefully to each client’s individual goals and needs. I strongly believe in meeting both dogs and humans where they’re at, and setting them up for success. In particular, I’m proud to work with an organization that not only helps owners who already have a dog they are working with, but also provides such extensive support in the task of choosing a dog that best fits their preferences, needs, and lifestyle.
One of my professional priorities is to always find ways of making training feel as accessible as possible for my clients– Alex Wise
On the less technical side, I appreciate that Sharon and I have a wonderful working relationship. We have a shared appreciation for thorough research and continuing education opportunities. In addition, one of my professional priorities is to always find ways of making training feel as accessible as possible for my clients. In my experience, this is a shared priority and particular strength of Sharon’s. We check in regularly about each of my clients’ strengths, challenges, and progress, and I have never left one of these discussions without new and exciting ideas for getting a challenging concept to “click” for one of the teams I’m working with!
Do you have a dog trainer “super power”?
I’m great at coming up with tricks for humans to remind themselves to set their dog up for success, plan lower-cost DIY projects for behavioral management or training tools, and figure out how to put harnesses or other gear on their dog with less confusion over straps and buckles. (Note from Sharon: True! Alex came up with a brilliant idea of how to color-code the buckles on harnesses to make it easier to remember how to put them back on.)
What should people know before they hire a trainer?
I always strongly recommend that dog owners search for an experienced positive reinforcement trainer, read client reviews carefully, and when possible, talk with other owners who have worked with the trainer you’re considering. Those are all suggestions I hear often and that may seem obvious to some owners. What I don’t hear often enough is that we are here to help, not to judge you, your dog, or your training skills! When you meet with us, don’t be afraid to interact with your dog as you normally would. After all, if you do things differently only when the trainer is around, we can’t make recommendations on what to modify or tell you what you’re doing a great job with!
What training services are you offering right now? What towns do you cover for in-home lessons?
I am excited to be offering some new group classes for At Your Service, in addition to private lessons. I’ll be teaching Foundation Skills for Therapy & Service Dogs and Public Access Foundations in Northampton in the fall. For private lessons, I can train dogs in manners (leash walking, coming when called, polite greeting, etc.), tricks (ride a skateboard, chin target, hang-your-head), and other issues.
For in-home lessons, both owner-lessons and day school, I cover the whole Northampton/Amherst/Pioneer Valley area. With online lessons, of course, I am able to train anywhere you have an internet connection.
Would you like to get Alex’s help with individualized, nonjudgmental training instruction for your dog? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or register your dog for Foundation Skills for Therapy & Service Dogs.