By Bob Gordon, FOTAS Communications Director
Susi Cohen comes with every dog adoption at the Aiken County Animal Shelter (ACAS). Or, rather, her expertise and guidance does. As the shelter’s expert dog trainer, she provides a free, private session for everyone who gives an ACAS dog or puppy a forever home.
“When dogs leave from the shelter to their new residence, it is a big, happy change but also can cause stress,” Susi explained. “The dogs find themselves in a different environment, and will often rely on their new owners to direct them. That’s when I come into the picture.”
In addition to receiving the training session, adopters are provided with Susi’s contact information so they can call and check in with her if they have questions or need additional training advice.
Susi is the president of the Palmetto Dog Club in Aiken and has worked with and trained animals for more than 30 years. She volunteers at the shelter, helping other volunteers and County staff with basic dog training skills and working one-on-one with dogs that need special attention.
In most cases, the training serves to show the adopters standard disciplinary techniques such as teaching their dog how to: heel and walk well on a leash; stop jumping up on people and furniture; sit on command; or follow proper housebreaking procedures. But sometimes Susi takes on and solves more severe behavioral issues such as a Pit Bull mix that chased and scared an adopter’s horses; a chocolate Lab that liked to chew on his adopter’s car interior; and a Terrier that kept relieving herself in the house immediately after being walked outside.
But even such rare and extreme cases are usually resolved relatively fast. Susi said it all comes down to motivating the dog by using continuous, positive reinforcement and building that bond with your animal.
“The biggest mistake people make is being inconsistent,” Susi said. “They do one thing for a day or two, and then try something different, and then go back to the first approach – and the dog gets confused. The dog has to be able to connect the dots. The key to training success is constant repetition with positive reward”, she explained.
One adopter who recently learned this important lesson is Jim Brownlow of Aiken. He adopted Ruthie, a one-year-old brindle Hound mix, in December and took the free training session with Susi to improve his new dog’s manners.
Ruthie is so friendly, she wants to jump up on people. She also sometimes suddenly stops during her walks because she gets distracted. But Susi showed Jim how to give the appropriate commands for getting Ruthie to follow some simple procedures. Extremely pleased with the session, Jim plans to take more instruction from Susi.
“The training really helped me because I was doing some little things wrong out of habit, and Susi got me on the right track,” he said.
Thanks to such success stories, an increasing amount of people are taking the free training and the shelter’s rate of adoption returns, already low, is dropping.
“When dogs behave well at their new adopted home, it means they become part of the family,” Susi said.
Their lives are in our hands.