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A positive start for local pooches

Dog trainer Tammy Williams has found receptive canine and human audiences for her positive reinforcement approach.

THUNDER BAY – The right start can make all the difference, says Tammy Williams.

It’s a sentiment that defines her dog training business, Pawsitively Social Canine Adventures, where she specializes in puppy socialization and training.

Her passion for working with young dogs was sparked nearly a decade ago, when she was a volunteer coordinator with Animal Services.

“I just saw so many dogs who had come in and were being left behind because they weren’t the dogs people thought they were getting, and they didn’t do enough work with them to help them become well-mannered members of society,” she says.

Now after starting her own dog training business, she works to ensure other dogs – and the humans in their lives – get off on a better paw.

Pawsitively Social Canine Adventures, which launched in early 2019, offers a range of courses on more advanced skills like rally, agility, and scent work, but for Williams, it’s still her work with puppies that proves the most rewarding.

“It’s the one I think has made the most difference in people’s lives,” she says. “I’ve helped people have puppies that are confident and resilient. I hear all the time, ‘the dog isn’t scared of thunder storms,’ ‘he walks around like he owns the place’ – they’re just really confident, happy dogs.”

The success stories are the culmination of years of experience for Williams, who got hooked after starting to help out at local training classes.

She spent three years mentoring under a certified dog behaviourist, gaining experience with reactive and timid dogs, before securing her own certification as a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), one of a handful offering services in the city.

She also worked with hundreds of young dogs, often unsocialized, as a foster home for Animal Services and Adopt A Mutt.

That helped drive home the crucial importance of the earliest part of dogs’ lives, the “socialization window” up to about 16 weeks of age that helps shape their perception of the world and their responses to it.

In her work with puppies, Williams emphasizes what she calls “proactive exposure training,” trying to establish positive first encounters with elements of the human world.

“It’s basically making new things not scary, building resiliency so that if something does scare them, they bounce back right away – or they become confident enough that if something’s new, their first instinct isn’t to be scared of it,” she explains.

While Williams specializes in puppy training, she works with dogs of all ages, and will soon begin offering a new enrichment course geared to older dogs, who she says can use new forms of stimulation as they become less energetic.

“It’s important all dogs have, not necessarily a job, but have something to do – that opportunity to use their mind, use their nose, engage with their world,” she says. “That’s really important, especially as they get older.”

Williams’ approach is based on positive reinforcement, rewarding positive behaviour and redirecting unwanted behaviour.

“It’s all about finding what is rewarding for your dog, and basically paying them for the work that they do for you,” she says.

Though it can take more time (and require more patience), she says the approach is ultimately more effective, paying off with a more trusting relationship and an animal more open to continued learning.

“It makes for a better bond [between] you and your dog,” she says. “You can tell a dog that has been trained with [positive reinforcement] methods, because they look forward to working with you, and they’re not worried about making a mistake. They’ll offer you new behaviours.”

The approach has resonated with local pet owners. Williams has been pleasantly surprised with the demand for services since she launched two years ago.

In November of 2020, she opened her own space on May Street, and she's hired a number of trainers (one is also a CPDT, while the others are working toward certification, she said).

Taking on the new space also brought the pressure of making rent while her ability to offer services was constrained by the pandemic and shifting health restrictions.

“The support of the dog community in Thunder Bay has been fantastic,” she says. “They’ve been so patient and understanding. We’ve all been open, closed, open, closed… it’s so hard to keep up with.”

“That’s been a challenge for sure, more so almost than the fact we couldn’t teach classes [during lockdowns]. It’s more the uncertainty around, can you run classes, are you considered essential?”

The Ontario government has since deemed training and other pet services essential, allowing classes to continue with limited capacity (Williams also pointed to heightened cleaning, double masking, and other precautions).

Some customers preferred to wait until the warmer weather allows Pawsitively Social to offer outdoor classes in the coming weeks.

For Williams, who is committed to continuing education for dogs and humans alike, the pandemic has also offered new learning opportunities, with trainer conferences and workshops that would have required travel moving online.

The pandemic has impacted pups, too – while it has allowed many to enjoy more precious moments with their furry companions, Williams worries about the adjustment as people return to work and other activities, especially for new dogs.

“Everyone’s working from home, so the dog has constant human companionship, which is great for them – don’t get me wrong, my dogs love it too,” she said. “But when things go back to ‘normal,’ the dog’s not going to understand… I think we’re going to see an increase in those separation anxiety behaviours that are so traumatic for the human and for the dog.”

She advises dog owners to ensure they’re periodically getting out of the house and leaving the dog home, habituating them to time alone in the house.