Episode 9 – Sarah Westcott

Sarah Westcott

Sarah Westcott

Sarah Westcott, CPDT-KSA is the President of Doggie Academy, Inc. and co-author of the award-winning book Play Your Way to Good Manners: Getting the Best Behavior from Your Dog through Sports, Games, and Tricks, which launched in 2019 and was named the 2019 Best Book in Training or Sports by the Dog Writers Association of America.

Sarah officially launched Doggie Academy in 2007 after working with some of the top trainers in the United States to study the science of how dogs learn as well as how to be an effective teacher to their human companions.

She enjoys training & competing with her dogs in a variety of dog sports, with agility being her primary focus. She believes that training should be fun for both dog and human so the journey is just as rewarding as the results.


Doggie Academy Website: https://www.doggieacademy.com


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Sarah Westcott, that is the president of Doggie Academy Inc and co-author of the award winning book, “Play Your Way to Good Manners. Getting the Best Behavior From Your Dog Through Sports, Games and Tricks”, which launched in 2019 and was named the 2019 Best book in training or sports by the Dog Writers Association of America. Sarah officially launched Doggy Academy in 2007, after working with some of the top trainers in the United States to study the science of how dogs learn as well as how to be an effective teacher to their human companions. She enjoys training and competing with her dogs in a variety of dog sports, with agility being her primary focus. She believes that training should be fun for both the dog and the human. So the journey is just as rewarding as the results.

 Hey, Sarah. Welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m really excited to have you. Why don’t you kick us off and tell us a little bit about you and how you got into dog training? You know, in most dog trainers, I have always loved Ox. I’ve always had dogs. I took my golden retriever to college with me, when I moved to New York City. She lived in my teeny tiny studio apartment with me. So I got to a point in my life where I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to spend more time with my dog. So I sort of explored a bunch of different options and ended apprenticing with another local trainer and just kind of really fell into the groove. It just felt right to be doing that. And yes, it allowed me to stay home more with my dog. But it also got me to interact with other dogs and other people as well. You start down this path of training your dog, and then somehow there is a spark that happens that makes you want to learn and do more and be more. I can’t imagine having a golden retriever in college with you in a studio, that had to be a little challenging? Well, by the time we got to the studio apartment, she was an elderly dog. So, okay with her in college, it was actually pretty fun. For a while, we lived in a four-bedroom apartment and I had three roommates, and one of my roommates also had a dog. So between the six of us, my roommate and I shared dog-walking responsibilities, and it was kind of fun. To have both dogs in there, at the same time. Sounds like a really cool set up.

 I love that, that started you on this path and then tell me a little bit about Doggy Academy. And when did you know you wanted to make this a business? Pretty much, when I started apprenticing with the other trainer, I knew that my goal was then to start my own business. Most dog trainers do end up having to sort of also be small business owners because there just aren’t a huge amount of companies out there hiring full-time dog trainers, so you mostly have to kind of make the work for yourself. So I started Doggy Academy in, I think it was 2007. And of course, you know, this sort of business, it’s not going gangbusters right away. So I still had my other full-time job, at the same time and was really doing double duty. And then it was 2008 because I was working on a television show and we had a writer’s strike and writers strike in 2008, put us all out of work. And I said You know what? This is it. This is my time to make a clean break and I’m gonna be a full-time dog trainer. And so that’s how that happened. It was like, OK, this is great because I was just about ready to do it anyway. And I was really kind of getting bombed out on still having my full-time job, and I was in a good place with Doggy Academy at the time, so it was pretty fortuitous. I love the path that that took for you.

 So you guys actually offer a lot of different things at Doggy Academy. So walk me through where that went for you in 2008. What were you focused on? Types of clients and then what does that progression look like? And where are you now? And what is the focus? Yes. So it has definitely evolved. When I first started, it was just me, and my focus was really just on making sure that people and their pets were living together harmoniously. I didn’t necessarily care if dogs were completely obedient, and I still don’t really. I just want them to live up to their people’s expectations and vice versa. So sometimes people will come to me and say, “Oh, you know, I really want my dog to play fetch with me in the park every morning for half an hour.” And I would look at this little, kind of, Shih Tzu mix or something and has zero interest in playing. And I have to say, “Listen, this is the dog you have. I know that’s the dog you want, but this is the dog you have so”, and I got a little sidetracked there. But it was really just about teaching people and pets to work well together.

 And as I grew as a trainer, I started taking on more behavior cases as well. So then doing more behavior modification. And then I, in 2011, opened up my own training studio, called the Brooklyn Dog Training Center, so that now I could start having group classes. Once I started teaching group classes and those were primarily, you know, puppy classes and basic manners classes. And I had started getting involved in agility, so I just had, you know, a couple of agility classes as well. But that also allowed me to start taking on other potential trainers. So people that also wanted to be dog trainers and wanted to learn how to do that. And so from there I ended up hiring one. She’s now my Director of Manners, Kate Nito, and we actually wrote a book together last year. So now I started to have staff and other trainers working for me. So that allowed me to personally move away from teaching basic manners and puppy things and really focus on agility and other dogs sports, which is sort of where my interest lies at this point. 

So now fast forward from 2008 to today, most of what I do is teaching agility and still doing some pet training, pet manners. But because I have Kate and Amanda and Patrick and Lizzie working with me, they can really take on a lot of the nonagility stuff for me and keep that effect of the business rolling. Somebody was pointing out to me that slow and steady is the way to go. And I feel like it is that slow and steady progression, you’re making movements towards where your life has shifted to what interests you. And I like your progression because you learned as you went, you really learned who you were, what you wanted to do. And now you’re in that agility phase, which is something that you’re really passionate about. And I didn’t have that master plan in the beginning. You know, if you had asked me in 2008 what 2020 would look like, I would have no idea that it would be me something here to border guys. It really kind of evolved on its own because of the people that have stayed with me and worked with me and all of the people that work for me, all started as unpaid apprentices, so they would work and study for a year. And if you do that and you stick around, you’re doing all of this for free, for a year.

 Well, you know that that’s a pretty good person to have on your team. I did look at the website for a few minutes and you guys do do a lot of things. But being in New York, I’m curious what that training looks like for you versus maybe somebody who is in a very rural or suburban area. Talk to me a little bit about some of the differences that you see with the dogs in your community versus maybe what you’ve seen and heard in other areas. Training dogs in New York City definitely presents its own challenges. One just being space, so the dogs don’t get to just be let out in the backyard and for energy. They’re lucky if they get to go to the park in the morning for awfully showers. But not everyone lives near a park, not everyone can trust their dog off-leash. So even just from getting puppies, the house training a puppy when you live on the 36th floor of a building is certainly a challenge that most people don’t have to face. So other trainers and other areas might be worrying about digging in the garden. I don’t have to worry about that. I don’t have a call for that with many of my clients.

 But we certainly do get a lot of leash aggression, where dogs are barking at other dogs on leash. So sometimes someone in a rural area will say, “Well, I need my dog to stop chasing the horses.” I don’t know that I’m fully We put that one. I can probably problems all, but I could help you with your dog who can’t get enough exercise during the day. I give you plenty of ways to entertain them. So, yeah, we’ve definitely got different sets of priorities, here in the city. Dogs have to be kind of long proof to be walking on city streets that are crowded with traffic and sirens and people running and bike messengers. And not every dog is meant to handle that. You know, I’ve certainly seen people go, “Oh, I’m taking care of my parents’ dog for the week, if the dog gets outside of the apartment and doesn’t know what to do with himself because this is so weird. Yeah, they don’t have a choice but to adapt. That’s where they live. Whether they’re in a complex , your complex, be it’s still the same type. And so there has to be coping mechanisms.

 I’m assuming in place as you try and work with them through that. How long does it take to work a dog through that? It’s different based on the individual dog and based on their age. So, like I said, I have two border collies, and traditionally they’re very sensitive dogs. They’re bred to be aware of everything since the settle ist movement to be able to react to it. But they are just fine here because I got them at 7-8 weeks and I was immediately like, Hey, this is the world like it’s fun. It’s great. We can play out here. You can eat cheese here. You well, this stuff with fire trucks rolling by these days, we’re getting a lot of rescue dogs from the Korean meat trade. Those dogs weren’t even really pets to begin with, so now all of a sudden they’re taken out of this scary world that they were in and dumped in an even scarier world, where there’s expectations to be affectionate. So those are probably the toughest, in terms of dealing with socializing them to city life. A lot of them end up having to be medicated in some way. So talking them there, when every behaviorist and for all of them it takes time and their people being understanding and making it as stress-free as possible. So for some of those dogs, I tell people, “Listen, take him outside, let him peek and right back inside. That’s all they need to do. And it’s the same with a lot of the hot cake dogs that are adopted out of the islands, the Caribbean. A lot of them. They went from living on a quiet beach to now being right in the middle of everything that it can really blow their minds. 

Yes, when you’re working with clients in those situations, are there some basic coping mechanisms that you’re teaching them as they transition cause to your point? Each dog is different, and the timing just depends on the personality and the type of dog and etcetera. Obviously, medication from vets is a huge part of that, or it can be a huge part. Share with me a little bit about some of those methods or mechanisms that owners can use with their pets. So I, especially with dogs like the Korean dogs, I like them to learn that these people are really what they can rely on. So I’ll do a lot with teaching the dog to offer eye contact. So if they’re struggling, if they’re having a hard time, look at their person, and guess what your person’s gonna do. That’s the best thing you could have done. Here is your favorite item. And then if the owner senses that the dog is having a hard time, I’ll have them ask a very simple behavior of the dog, something like a hands target, where the dog just has to touch their nose to your hands. And one, it gets the dog, probably looking away from whatever it is that is scaring them, redirecting them back to their person, who should be their safe space. And it’s an easy behavior that they can accomplish. And then again, yeah, you get your favorite item. Whether that’s cheap, your hot dogs or it’s usually food so that it’s a win-win. I look at my person, I get cheese. They asked me to do something easy. I get cheese and by keeping it to a level where the dog can accomplish that. Now, once the dog can’t offer eye contact, can’t do a hand target, well, you can’t make any headway with that dog, at that time. So your best bet is to just go back home. Wherever it is that dog does feel safe.

I saw that you guys have on your website that you guys do virtual training as well. That’s an interesting one. Not everybody is doing that. So talk to me a little bit about how that came about and how that works for you guys? It really came about because we do in-home private lessons, and I felt like I was spending a lot of my time traveling, going from this person’s house to this person’s house. And of course, all of that gets built into the cost of the lesson, my time and my travel expenses. So I came up with the virtual training so that it would eliminate my travel time and give a sort of a cost-effective way for people to be able to work with a trainer. And now where I have seen most of the benefit in, that is from people who haven’t gotten their dog yet. They just kind of want to talk to a trainer and ask their dog questions like, “I don’t know, is my apartment an okay set up for a dog? Do I want to get a puppy? Do I want to get a shelter dog? What kind of shelter dogs should I get? What rescue do you recommend? What food do you recommend?” And that’s easy to do by Facetime or Zoom and they don’t need to have you there, face to face.

 Now I do have plenty of clients who like to work remotely on other stuff, to anything from puppy raising to agility, and I demonstrate what I want them to do with one of my dogs, and then coach them as I watch them doing it with their dogs. I have one particular client who I worked with, her and her puppy, maybe 10-12 years ago, and she now lives in the Pacific Northwest, on a small island and got a Labrador Retriever puppy. And so we’ve been working for the last couple of months. We’ll chat once a week by Facetime or by Zoom to get her puppy training going. And it’s been a lot of fun. I like that. This is something that people are starting to do, right. I think technology can help with a lot of different things. And the fact that you’re able to do this virtual training anywhere in the country, with any client who finds you and who makes a connection with you, I think is a fabulous way to help more dogs and help more pet owners. There’s so many positive things that can come out of that virtual training. Yeah, I like it, too, because I don’t have to get stuck in traffic. And I don’t have to worry about where am I gonna park my car in New York City? And it can also be an excuse to train my own dogs. My client says, Oh, I need to work on Leave it with my dog. Go! Oh, great eye-popping to work on. Not to let bro you as I worked with her. Yeah, I think that’s great what you’re able to do with that.

So I want to talk about your current passion, which is the agility and trick training. And so tell me a little bit about how you got into that and what that drive is? What makes that your current passion? What about that is exciting? I started in agility because I had a particularly challenging dog. My dog Hank. He was supposed to be a Lab, I got from a Lab rescue group. And when he was about nine, I tested him and turned out he was half Lab, half Red Bull Coonhound, which explained a lot. So he was a particularly challenging dog, challenging to live with, especially living in the city. And so we started taking agility classes, just so we kind of have something actually fun to do together, and we both ended up enjoying it because it was fun for him. All of a sudden, I became more valuable in his life, so it really improved our relationship. And then, as the saying goes, agility is an addiction, and once you start, you just want to learn more and do better and better or you want to then get into competing. And then when I decided that it was time to get a second dog, I decided it was gonna be a Border Collie because they’re the fastest dogs out there. And so I get a Border Collie. Now my hand linking has to be upped and I have to be a better trainer. I have to be a better handler. You know, for me, my goals shifted from going to some local trials, every once in a while, to I want a dog that I can go to nationals with. Now it’s I have to go to nationals with this dog because that’s the way you try out for international teams. And I want to be able to compete internationally with my dogs. So it’s a bit of a snowball effect if you let it.

 And so that’s where I am right now. I’m with my four-year-old dog Fever. We are hoping to go to Poland in August to compete at the Border Collie Classic. We went to Finland last year to do some training and we did some competitions there and hope to be able to try out for two or three of the international teams, and then I’m training my younger Border Collie, Riddle, right now. And hopefully she’ll be even faster and better than Fever because she’ll get the benefit of everything I’ve learned working with Fever. Yeah, and you guys actually offer at the Doggie Academy agility and trick classes as well. So I like that that snowball effect, your training and your thirst for knowledge has now turned into part of your daily business. People love agility, and so we actually have two different what we call, tracts of agility. So we have recreational agility. And that’s for a lot of people who just kind of want to have something fun to do with their dog but have zero desire to compete. And so for them, it’s a little bit more loose, and we make sure that all of the training is safe. The dogs are safe, but we’re not really as strict on the handling element from the people. And then we have a track for people that really want to learn more about the real agility where we might be a little bit more strict about, your foot has to point this way. Your hand has to be here, in order for your dog to do this. So that if they decide that they do want to go on and compete, the foundation that they learned with us is going to be correct. They won’t have bad habits that they have to fix later on. Yeah, I like that you offer two different tracks. I personally would think of agility as agility. Not this recreational vs competition. And then I like that you’re more serious about the competition and not just helping the dogs, but the people. Yeah, with the recreational agility, it’s right for people who just want to have something fun to do with their dogs. But it’s also great for dogs who are shy or nervous or aren’t confident. It helps them too. If you see a dog who is terrified of going inside of a tunnel and then they go into the tunnel, come out the other side, they always look around like did you guys just see what I did? They are so pleased with themselves. I love those classes for moments like that, and it’s great for just dog and person bonding. And then when you get to the sort of more competitive agility, a lot of it has to do with Handler. You know, if you watch agility on TV, you might not notice, but it really inches in a handler’s motion makes a huge difference between winning and losing once you get to the higher levels. So it’s important that the people are forming good habits in their handling from the beginning. Yeah, the word that was coming to mind as you’re talking about that is the foundation, right? You’re really setting the basics of how to handle their dogs because the dogs are learning from their humans. And if you don’t teach the human properly, you’re setting not only bad behaviors for the human, but the dog follows suit. So I love that bond and what you guys are doing there with the agility training. Thanks. Yeah, we all really like it. 

Sarah, is there anything else before we get this wrapped up that maybe we missed that you want to talk about or mention? You know what? For me, it’s just important that people are enjoying the dogs that they have. Like I said, with Hank, he was supposed to be a Lab. He was supposed to be like my other Lab, just goofy and lovable. And he was a completely different dog, and I had to learn to love the dog that I had. And agility certainly helped me with that. But for some people, they don’t want to have that kind of commitment in their lives. But there’s gonna be something that you can do, to help that bond with your dog. So it’s not always there immediately. So yeah, I think just making sure that we’re listening to our dogs, just as much as our dogs are listening to us. Yeah, love the one that you have in front of you, don’t think about the one that you want, right to your story earlier. Not everybody is gonna go out and run with you and throw Frisbees for 30 minutes. You have to know who you have and embrace that one for the best life possible. I think that’s a great message. Hopefully, that’s something that everybody remembers. And I have truly appreciated my time with you. I’ve learned so much. I love what you guys are doing. I look forward to following your success and kind of seeing what you come up with next. It’s been really fun chatting with you. Thanks for having me on.

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