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Dog trainer’s peace comes by helping pet owners find theirs

PIX-DOGPACKBy Phyl Newbeck

Observer correspondent

Rhonda Bilodeau had always known she wanted to work with dogs, but she also knew she had a lot to learn. She attended workshops and training sessions and in 2007 joined the International Association for Canine Professionals.

Bilodeau finally began working as a dog walker and dog sitter, but when the recession hit, her services were no longer requested. Undaunted, she decided to see what else she could do in her chosen field and thus, Vermont Dog Pack was born.

Bilodeau’s initial venture was an off-leash park for dogs. Although the impetus was to provide exercise and socialization, she soon began turning her outings into “training camps” which she ran across Chittenden County.

“The truth is, dogs can lose their minds outside,” Bilodeau said. “We need to curb bad habits and teach them impulse control. That’s why pack walks are so important.”

Bilodeau explained that dogs have different drives, or motivations and the goal is to keep them in social drive rather than a play or predator drive on those walks.

After starting her dog camp, Bilodeau began to branch out into training sessions including “puppy pack,” “play and engage” and “loose leash” group classes.

She now teaches both “puppy pack” and “play and engage” at the Pet Lodge in Williston.

Bilodeau said that one of the things that differentiates her classes from others is that she provides information online before the class begins.

Those who sign up get a user name and password and are able to download material so they can practice with their dogs before coming to class. The goal of the classes is to help dog owners perfect their technique.

Bilodeau describes her puppy class as more comprehensive than most she has seen.

“It’s not just ‘sit’ and ‘stay,’ but engagement with your dog,” she said. “Basic obedience doesn’t matter if you can’t get their attention. Just teaching commands is not enough because when you go out in the real world there are competing motivators like chasing a squirrel or meeting another dog.”

Bilodeau teaches her clients to not just offer a cookie to dogs who sit and wait, but to use that cookie in an engaging manner by treating it like a game. “Channel the motivation inward instead of outward,” she said. “You, yourself should be the most motivating thing.”

“Puppy pack” runs for five weeks and is generally held on weekends, she said. It also focuses on loose-leash walking to help train dogs to pay attention in high-distraction settings.

In addition to the puppy class, Bilodeau teaches a four-week “play and engage” class for older dogs, usually on weekday evenings. The class is designed for dogs who are “reactive” on a leash, barking or exhibiting nervous behavior in public settings. Owners are taught how to build a strong relationship with their dogs so the dogs will look to them for comfort and redirection.

Although her business name, Vermont Dog Pack, only refers to canines, Bilodeau stresses that humans are an important part of the equation.

“I enjoy working with people as much as working with dogs,” she said. Bilodeau loves dogs of all ages but her favorites are puppies because you can prevent later life-stress by working with young animals.

“There’s nothing sadder or more frustrating than to see someone who could have prevented stress in their dogs by working with them as a puppy,” she said. “What makes a really good dog trainer is you’re really invested in your clients’ success.”