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updated: 5/8/2013 1:18 PM

Proper training can temper pets' behavior problems

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By Linda Kane
ADOPT submission

Since her birth almost a year ago, Tiana has experienced more than most 1-year-olds. Escaping death, Tiana, her mother and two sisters eventually found themselves homeless, living in a Naperville shelter.

Tiana's mom and siblings soon found loving homes. But not Tiana, who remained at the shelter and became its longest resident.

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Tiana, a coonhound recently adopted from Naperville's Animals Deserving of Proper Treatment Pet Shelter, had behavior problems; she didn't want to share her food when other dogs were around. Full of energy, she needed a family who would be patient with her and help her continue to learn the correct doggy manners initiated by ADOPT staff and volunteers.

Shelters across the country are full of dogs like Tiana, with behavior problems that make them difficult to place with adopting families. In euthanizing shelters, such behavior problems could be a death sentence.

ADOPT Pet Shelter is determined to do something about such sad stories.

Help to the rescue

Matthew Pritz, 25, always has loved dogs. In fact, as he was studying for his business administration degree, Pritz decided he also wanted to get involved in the dog training industry.

"I saw a need for quality dog trainers and thought that would be a really great niche for me as an in-home instructor," he said.

While studying for his business degree, Pritz simultaneously took an online training course to become a certified dog instructor. Then, combining his business degree with his skill as a trainer, in 2011 he started his own business, K-9 Intel.

"I really wanted to make sure that the quality for dog training was there," Pritz said, "and that I (was) able to hold myself to a higher standard than anybody else."

Specializing in private, in-home training, which Pritz says is "by far the most effective way (to train a dog)," the young entrepreneur began promoting his business by visiting veterinarians, animal hospitals, pet stores and shelters.

About a month ago, Pritz had his first consultation with ADOPT's animal care manager, Karen Pentimone, about helping Tiana and other hard-to-adopt dogs by creating a behavior program for the shelter.

"We brainstormed my philosophy and how we'd proceed with training," Pritz said. "The behavior program that I want to build (at ADOPT includes) educating the staff members and volunteers, getting everybody on the same page.

"(I need to) have somebody there who can continuously follow through and build off the base we're going to set."

As luck would have it

About the same time, 23-year-old college senior Elizabeth Mullen of Wheaton began an animal behavior internship with ADOPT, a requirement for her field of study, animal behavior and biology, at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis.

Ultimately wanting to work with exotic animals and conservation, Mullen first applied to several Waukesha-area zoos, but found that "where they were located didn't have very good housing options, so I decided to stay closer to home."

Having volunteered at ADOPT before going away to school, Mullen decided to contact the Naperville shelter.

It was a perfect match.

The shelter needed help with difficult dogs like Tiana, and Mullen's timing couldn't have been more perfect.

"Before I came to ADOPT, I had another internship at a shelter called HAWS (Human Animal Welfare Society) in Wisconsin," Elizabeth said. "They have a very well-established behavior department.

"(There) I was trained by behaviorists and dog trainers how to work with dogs. In my college classes we studied positive reinforcement and operative conditioning. So I brought (with me) all those skills and knowledge."

Thus began the relationship between ADOPT, Pritz and Mullen.

A team effort

Pritz and Mullen agree that positive reinforcement is the way to go. Pritz's K-9 Intel website, K-9intel.com, says, "K-9 Intel works solely off positive reinforcement NEVER negative punishment."

Currently, Mullen worked one-on-one with Tiana, as well as other dogs, three days a week. She takes the animal to a private room, where she teaches it using visual hand cues.

"I have a pouch full of treats," Mullen said, "and any time the dog does something desirable, I treat him. That forms associations of 'If I do this, then this happens.' Basically (the dog's) brain changes, forming neurons and connections."

Mullen says training is a process.

"Obedience (alone) can take up to six weeks, and that's if you're (working with the dog) every day," she said.

Dawn Mojzis and Cindy Spika, ADOPT employees, agree that they, too, have learned a lot from Mullen.

"She's very knowledgeable," said Spika, who has been with the shelter eight years. "She really likes what she's doing."

Dawn, who just joined the staff in January, added that Mullen has been both informative and interesting.

Future plans

When Mullen graduates in May, Pritz will continue building the program with the help of ADOPT staff and volunteers.

"A lot of what I do, even when I go to somebody's home, is coaching and educating," Pritz said. "It's getting everybody on the same page and educating them on what dog training really is (and) what dogs see."

Although Pritz began his business in Will County, he says he will go "wherever there's a behavior problem," adding that he's traveled to a lot of different facilities but has been "incredibly impressed by the (ADOPT) facility.

"It's a beautiful and very nice facility," he said.

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