Virginia Dare has been a dog trainer and behavior counselor since 1991 and absolutely loves working with people and their dogs! She practices positive reinforcement, which is not only effective but it’s also fun for the dogs and owners. She enjoys resolving behavior problems so pet owners can have the best possible relationship with their dogs, and so the dogs can experience an enhanced quality of life. Her favorite part of training is seeing the relationship blossom between the owner and their dog which enhances the quality of life.
North Star Canines’ Website: https://www.northstarcanines.com
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Hey, Virginia, welcome to the show. Thank you, Rachael. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. Yeah, I’m really excited. So you are with Northstar Canines, and you have a lot of years in this industry, and I’m excited to just jump right in. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in dog training? I actually started all the way back in 1981, sort of studying under a veteran trainer, and learned more traditional training techniques through her. And I wasn’t really in a position then to start up my own business. So it was this very interesting learning experience, and then by 1991, I had the opportunity to learn a lot more. More evolved training techniques.
So that’s when I started up my business full time, and I was actually in Wisconsin for the first 2 years and then over 20 years in Virginia, and now I’m up in Connecticut. And so, in 1981 dog training was, do I dare say new? Did people know what dog training was in 1981? Not that it was new, it’s just that there weren’t a whole lot of options in the style of training that you would do with your dog or learn about. So the only good thing about me starting as a traditional trainer is I know what it’s like and what the fallout is from those training techniques and why I would never want to use them. Some life philosophy is very much a positive reinforcement based, really humane and gentle techniques, you know when I work with animals.
So talk to me a little bit about what that transition is like for you, let’s say in the last 30 years. Where did you start, really in 1991 and with your business, did you start working with people that you knew? Talk to me a little bit about what that progression looks like? So by around that time, I had had the benefit of being able to learn better training techniques. Like I took a long instructors course with Dr. Ann Dunbar, and more conferences and workshops started becoming available to really help me boost my knowledge and effectiveness as a trainer. But when I was in Wisconsin, what I started doing right away was I volunteered at a shelter, so that I could just work with tons and tons and tons of dogs. So it was beneficial, I guess, for the dogs because they could learn some skills before they got adopted. But it was really beneficial for me because I got my hands on lots of dogs so that I could hold my techniques and see, you know, where I needed to adjust the way I handled dogs and how you know, they could be so different from one to the next. So it really helped me to hone my skills. And then my vet in that area had just opened a new facility, and it included a training center. So I would rent space there and I started doing group classes there, and I would see people on, you know, for private lessons as well in the area.
So let’s jump forward a few years and talk to me about what you’re currently doing. Do you do group lessons? Do you do private lessons? Talk to me a little bit about how you’re structured today. Right now, I just do private lessons, typically in the person’s home. Or sometimes we’re meeting in public spaces if we’re working on some more advanced training around distractions. I do behavior consultations. So if they’re having some more serious problems, we work on that together, again on a private basis. For a while, when I moved up to this area, I was training at a dog club and doing some group classes there. But I’m not doing that at this time. I actually prefer meeting with people one on one. I feel like it’s easier for me to make a connection. And I love being able to concentrate completely on that family and their pet. Yeah, I think that makes you a little bit unique. What I hear from a lot of trainers is that they do both, group training classes or sessions and then also private, one on one as well. So the fact that you solely focused on the one on one for just that reason, to give them that individualized attention, I think, speaks to who you are as a person and as a trainer. So you really enjoy teaching the human as much as you do the dog. Is that a fair statement? Yes, definitely so. And I know sometimes people get involved in dog training thinking, Oh, they love dogs and they’re not particularly fond of people. But I actually love working with the people too. And I think that it is a personality thing that my preference is to work one on one, rather than doing group classes, that I’m just more comfortable in that than you.
I think that’s a good approach, you know, we always hear, you know, in the Animal Rescue, an animal shelter arena that, Oh I love dogs, so I’m gonna go work in a rescue or shelter. I love cats, so that’s what I want to do. And we always say that you have to be both an animal and a people person, not just an animal person because there is that human component. Same for training. You could train the dog. But if the human, if their owner doesn’t know what you’re teaching them, it doesn’t do them any good, right? It doesn’t strengthen their connection. It doesn’t do anything for when they’re done with you. What do they do in six months or a year down the road or five years down the road? They’re missing that component. So it really sounds like that’s a huge part of what you do in your sessions with these guys. That’s my job is to teach the person how to train their dog or how to modify behaviors that they may not like. It’s easy for me to do, but I’m only there maybe for an hour at a clip. So I have to gear them up so that they know how to take over and work with the dog, you know, in between sessions and well beyond when we’re finished working together. So I think 90% of my work is teaching people, not training dogs.
Yeah, I’m curious, what are some of the challenges that you encounter through the educational process of dog training? One of the hardest things is when I meet people who have unrealistic expectations. So they may have ideas in their mind about how they want their dog to behave but maybe their schedule is so crazy or they don’t quite have the motivation to actually put in the time to do all that training that’s needed. And I have a few recourses. So one of the things that I try to do, of course, is to break down, whatever skill that we’re trying to work on, with the dog into small enough pieces, that the person can put in maybe just a little bit of time every day so that they can see some progress and then feel reinforced and motivated to perhaps work with the dogs and more. In some cases, there could be another strategy entirely. Like, rather than trying to resolve a particular problem behavior, maybe there’s a management technique we could use that would just make the problem disappear. One thing that comes to mind is dogs that like to bark at passers-by. You know, when they’re in the house, they’re looking out a window or something, and they’re barking like crazy every time somebody goes by or another dog passes or a squirrel goes by. It could be as simple as closing shades or using a baby gate to prohibit access to that room, that they wouldn’t actually even have to. And again, a lot of people would say, No, I’d like to resolve this and then we can work on a behavior mod protocol and they can work the steps. But if they don’t have the time or inclination to do that, I’m challenged to maybe come up with some different strategies. And part of what I’m doing is just trying to be a positive coach, to keep the people moving in the right direction so that they are actually getting a bit of work in with their dogs so that they can see success. What I really like about that Virginia is that you’re taking that very difficult feeling of unrealistic expectations, and you’re saying, How do I overcome that? How can I make my client feel like this is possible? I really love the simplicity of it is really breaking down what the steps are.
Yeah, the other piece that you mentioned was the management technique, and I think that’s an interesting one as well. And I think that probably plays into what your client needs, you know, cause every client is different. So do they want to manage? Do they want to really fix the problem, right? If the dog is reacting, do you want to manage? Or do you want to change the behavior? So each client has got to be different just based on who they are, right? The type of person they are. It also could be timing as well. So if I come into a household where the people are expressing concerns about a variety of behaviors, we have to sort of prioritize what’s most important for them to address first. So they may be feeling overwhelmed because there’s several different things that are going on, that are concerning. So if we can push some of them out of the bubble of concern by using some management strategies and focus on the most distressing piece, we can work our way towards that once we’ve addressed, you know, the most pressing issue.
So when you’re doing one on one sessions, are you going to their house or you guys meeting in a public place? Tell me what that process looks like, if somebody is coming to you asking for help. Almost all of the time, I’m going to the person’s home to work with them there, and that’s especially nice in the beginning stages of training. So if we’re just working on basic, obedient skills, it’s awfully nice for the dog to learn in a setting that is comfortable, that where they’re relaxed. There aren’t big distractions so that they’re set up for success. And then as the training progresses, if this is a person who likes to bring their dog in public or likes to go to parks or to go downtown and walk with their dog, then we need to work in different locations to kind of hone those skills and get the dog to understand how to work, even around distractions. But otherwise, it’s a lot of work in the people’s homes and their immediate environment.
And so you had mentioned earlier that you do a lot of positive reinforcement, so I’m always curious. Is there one training technique that goes with you to every client? No matter what the behavior issues are, no matter the obedience you’re trying to teach. Is there one go-to training technique that you use? The training techniques I’m using are based on positive reinforcement in order to get a dog to do a particular behavior, I might use luring sometime. And that’s usually a very easy way to jump-start a sit or down. A lot of the training I do is based on shaping. So I’ll say, Here’s my goal behavior. This is how we’re gonna break it down into baby steps and we reinforce the dog all along the way until we’ve reached that goal behavior. I’m especially keen on that technique, but the overriding goal is to outline what we can teach the dogs, so that life is easier for the owner and that things are more pleasant for the dog, rather than focusing on how do I stop this behavior, or how do I punish this? What can we do to teach the dog how to navigate through his world correctly. And that requires that positive reinforcement training strategy, to help them learn how to do it right, rather than focusing on how to stop the wrong behavior. I love that.
So I’m gonna go a little deeper here and ask, what does that look like? And you can take a past client experience. You don’t have to give names or anything, but walk us through what that would look like for you. Okay. So recently I had a client, whose dog was pestering them mercilessly, during dinner time, and it wasn’t just poking at them or begging near the table. She was barking nonstop, and so you could say, Well, that’s really annoying. I wanna show my dog I don’t like that behavior. And not that these people wanted to punish her, but they were frustrated, and meal times were not pleasant at all for the family. So instead we worked on what the dog could be doing instead, and we taught her how to settle on a mat, and we heavily reinforced that behavior instead. And before you know it, the dogs like, here’s the paying zone. Why wouldn’t I want to be lying quietly on this mad because food magically comes to me when I’m on it. So, yeah, it’s sort of a shift of thinking, that instead of trying to imagine how to punish behaviors, it’s like, what can we teach instead and make it so reinforcing for the dog that they want to choose the correct behavior, the behavior that we desire because it pays for them, too. No, I appreciate these steps in that, and this isn’t something that happens in a day. This is certainly over time, takes a lot of time and attention and really working with them and growing that bond. But I like the final outcome through treats and teaching them the right behavior versus scolding them for something that you don’t want them to do. So I’m always a big fan of the positive reinforcement. For that reason alone, you have to teach them just like you would a child or somebody who knows nothing about what they’re trying to do. You could take technology for an example, right? A lot of people struggle with certain aspects of technology, and so you have to think about what you do to teach a human the steps? It’s the same kind of concept when you’re using the positive reinforcement with the dogs, you’re really teaching them what you want them to do and what the outcome is.
And there’s other little details to that will help, because although it may take a little bit of time to get a dog to be really good about settling on a mat and staying there for long duration, we can do little things in the interim, like maybe tethering the dog so that they can conveniently stay at that spot. Maybe giving them food stuffed toys, so that they have a lovely pacifier. So those are also little management techniques so that the family actually gets improved, you know, mealtime, in this case, very quickly and did buy some time to do a little bit more of the training with the dogs to cement the skill of settling on the mat quietly and gradually being able to feed, you know, how frequently they’re giving treats. Yeah, absolutely.
So I know with our current situation, it’s got to be hard or nearly impossible, at this point, to do any sort of one on one training in homes with your clients. So talk to me a little bit about how our current situation has made you really shift and how you’re doing business. Are you offering virtual consultations? Are you doing virtual sessions? Talk to me a little bit about what that looks like for you. Yeah, for both states that I normally offer services in is not allowed to, you know, to meet with people in person at all. So, yes, I am working on trying to grow the virtual or live video side of coaching. It’s actually a really effective way to work with dogs. I think that people on first glance may be concerned or well if you’re not there, how can you teach the dog? But using videoconferencing, it’s incredible, and it’s easy to see the people. It’s easy to break down the steps and guide them through the training process or the behavior mod process. So it works very well. It’s an effective tool. And I think that now, with this strange time we’re living in, people’s eyes are starting to open up to the possibility of this being another avenue for learning more about dog behavior and training. And yes, so hopefully that will grow. I’ve been working with a few clients lately, and it’s actually a lot of fun.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of training virtually? I think that it can be a little bit funky sometimes, and it just requires a bit of extra coaching for the clients. If I need to see sort of a bigger space, they have to figure out where to set up their tablet or their laptop and check and make sure in advance that lighting will be OK. So I try to give them guidance in that area so that by the time we’re actually having our consult, I’ll be able to see what I need to see. Recently, I was working with a client whose dog goes crazy when she sees animals on the TV or their certain sounds that occur around the TV. So she just needed to make sure that her laptop was set up so that I could get a broad view of the owner at the sofa, dog there and sort of a wide-angle so that the TV was included in that as well. But it worked out really well. Yeah, it doesn’t sound like the challenge is with the actual training at all. The training is the easy peasy side of this. The challenge is really the set up prior to making sure that the hour that they’re spending with you is really dedicated to helping them with the animal. Yes, and I really feel for my clients who don’t feel technically savvy, whether it’s the platform we’re using, like Zoom or, you know, just the laptops and things like that, because I don’t feel particularly adept at those things either. So it’s a learning curve. So I have a lot of sympathy for them, and I try to help coach them through that.
And they’re certainly problem behaviors to like. Traditionally, I’ve worked with a lot of dogs that can react aggressively, on leash, you know, lunging and barking or growling or whatever, say at other people or dogs, Well, of course, I can’t set that up exactly remotely. But there’s so much training that goes into preparing the owner and their dog for the steps that lead up to that work that we can get lots of great foundation training started before we ever actually have, you know, live meetings, with their triggers present. Technology does a lot for us, right? And I think, unfortunately, this time that we’re in, it’s not a pleasant time, but good things come out of bad or strange situations. And I think, you know, if you weren’t doing virtual training before, I think this is a great way to get comfortable with it. And when we get back to the new normal, this is a great addition, I think that you and other trainers can implement. I think this broadens your reach, your client base. Now you don’t have to stay in Connecticut, New York. You could work with people in Utah or California or Wisconsin, and they can really benefit from that. Is this something that you see yourself continuing down the road? 100%. I agree with everything you said. It is a strange perk that’s come out of all of us, I have to push myself to learn more about this and try to market it more because it is such an effective tool. And yes, I can reach people further away. But even people more locally, you know, in the metro area here, depending on the time of day, traffic can be horrible, and I won’t travel to certain areas, you know, like commuter times in the past, because now it could double or triple the travel time. And the other nice thing about the live video coaching is it doesn’t necessarily have to be an hour long. We can do more efficient, shorter sessions, and then when you have dogs that are very anxious or fearful of, say, a stranger coming into their house, it’s really nice that we can start the work before I ever have to go in and, you know, intimidate the heck out of the poor animal,just because I’m present. So I can give them a lot of coaching before you’ve been going into their house. Yeah, there’s a lot of components to this that I feel like are beneficial in this crazy time that we’re in.
I did want to mention I see in your website that you definitely have some training videos out there and you have a YouTube page. Do you want to take a minute and just kind of talk about some of those tools and resources? Oh, thank you. The training DVDs have been produced over the years. They are clicker training based DVDs. So I’ve been selling those since, I think 1995 was the first one that came out, and the YouTube channel is much less formal. I have quite a lot of training clips up there, and I like to use that for resources for my clients. So if, for instance, we’ve met and we talked about the beginning steps for teaching loose leash walking, I can send them a follow-up video that kind of breaks that up for them and reminds them of the details that we talked about. I also send them written notes, but sometimes people are having an easier time learning, I think, by watching a video. So I like to have sort of a resource there, but they’re not fancy, professionally produced videos, those are just my, you know, informal clips. But they certainly come in handy for follow up with my clients.
You know, in this crazy world we’re living in, I think that whole formality has kind of gone out the window. I don’t know that we’re so worried about being formal anymore. Well, and it’s better to get the information out there and Facebook is perfect to get it out there and be able to help people sooner. So yep, that’s exactly what you want to get them before they are closed down and not open to fixing the current situation. So I agree with you getting the content out there, without it being perfect is really the way to go, and I think people are getting more and more used to that with our situation. So I definitely was looking around at YouTube in your sight and we definitely want to push people out there and we’ll make sure the link to the website and your YouTube channel, and so that it’s easily accessible for people.
As we get close to wrapping up Virginia, is there anything else that you want to talk about that maybe we didn’t get to? The only thing I was thinking about when we were talking about virtual sessions is the fact that I’ve had to learn some new skill sets or hone some techniques of mine because when I meet with people in person, it’s very easy for me to just take the dog and demonstrate something. And I can’t do that, virtually. I had to learn how to be more precise about breaking down steps and explain things very clearly so that I am coaching them successfully to do it on their own. Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I think us as humans get really used to routines and the way we do things, and this is definitely shaking it up quite a bit, we have to evolve right. And through that evolution to your point, you have to look at how to do things differently, how to break it down, how to digest the same information in different ways. And so I thought that was a very good addition to your comment on the virtual side of things.
One of the things I love about being in this business is that there’s always new things to learn, So being a lifelong learner is exciting to me and the opportunities are really out there, you know, to learn and grow in my industry, even though I’ve been at it for a long time. So it was refreshing to kind of be reminded of that even in the most basic training that I’m doing.
Yeah, I think that’s a great way to wrap this up. Be open to change with technology. I think we always have to take the opportunity to learn how to be better so that we can help others around us. And I love what you’re doing, the one on one. I love the connection that you’re making with your clients. I think there’s a lot of value in that, and we’ll definitely be following you and watching how you progress in this current situation that we’re in, and thank you for taking the time to join me today. Thank you so much, Rachael. I really appreciate this was fun.
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