Dogs are our best friends – they’re with us in our highs and lows, they give us a reason to get outside and take a walk, and they’re a source of nearly endless entertainment and adorable photo ops. Sometimes, however, your best friend might need a little guidance. We all know who’s a good boy – but how can we make sure our good boys are on their best behavior? We spoke with Heidi Benson of the Tribal Dog to get some insight into the world of dog training and behavioral modifications.
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Heidi has been in this line of work for almost 35 years, beginning with a boarding and training facility in Walpole, MA. “It’s always been what I’ve done, professionally and as a hobby with my own dogs,” she shared. After taking a 10-year break to care for her aging parents, who were dog professionals as well, Heidi decided to get back to her roots. She moved to Westerly to work with another trainer, but struck out on her own in 2015, starting the Tribal Dog from the ground up.
The Tribal Dog currently offers private training, stay-at-home training multiple times a week, and daytime care. However, Heidi plans to expand her services in the near future, after the business moves into a new location. At that point, some agility and dog sports classes will begin, along with a daytime enrichment program.
Heidi believes in starting with the basics when it comes to training and caring for dogs, and says all of her methods are based in positive reinforcement and hinge upon establishing healthy relationships. “You can’t beat a dog into doing what you want,” she explained. “You can only reward it for the behavior you want to see, whether that reward is food, a toy, attention, or something else.”
Beyond the positive reinforcement lies the vital work of building and maintaining relationships, between Heidi and her clients and her clients and their dogs.
“A lot of the time, it’s not about training the dog so much as it is about training the family unit,” Heidi said. “Some people are too permissive, or they’re afraid to discipline, but boundaries are so important. Just like a child, or any living organism, a dog survives based on the input that the world around it gives. If there are no consequences for things that are unsafe or things it shouldn’t do, it wouldn’t survive for long, so we work closely with owners to make sure they are confident and have the right skills to have a healthy relationship with their dog and improve that bond.”
Having been in the business for over three decades, Heidi has seen trends in training come and go and is wary of any trainers who rely too heavily on hype and marketing and strict methodologies with no room for individual adjustments.
“It’s easy to be drawn to someone saying that they can solve all your problems with a clicker and a cookie,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, especially in the age of the internet, with people gravitating towards one extreme or the other. In reality, there is no ‘right’ way to train a dog, but there is the best way to train the dog that’s in front of you at the time.”
Towards this end, Heidi prefers to consider the background and breed of each dog she takes on and proceed with a customized approach from there. A border collie is going to learn much more quickly than a basset hound, for example, due to their intended purpose and drive, along with any number of other factors.
Because she’s so willing to be flexible with individual dogs, Heidi believes that no dog is untrainable – but that there are owners who are more difficult to train. “Every dog out there can be trained and their behavior can be fixed rather quickly, but their owners need to commit to continuing the work at home.”
If you’re looking for a trainer, Heidi recommends asking a lot of questions, both to the trainer and current or past clients. “Be sure they can give you references,” she advised. “And go with somebody who you can see is getting the results that you need.”
Fortunately, Heidi has plenty of clients who are more than happy to recommend their services. Her focus on establishing strong relationships often carries over beyond the training sessions and into free time spent in a group of dog lovers known as The Tribe who frequently gather for walks in Wilcox Park. “I came to Westerly by chance, but it has really become a new home for me,” Heidi shared in closing. “I absolutely adore this town and the people in it.”
Treat yourself and your best four-legged friend to some new tricks at the Tribal Dog soon!