Etiquette for the Canine Set (Story and Video)

Philipstown pooches learn how to be good neighbors at Rec’s Outdoor Obedience Class

By Alison Rooney

The Wednesday commuters returning home to Garrison Station on the 4:45 were greeted like dignitaries by a special welcoming committee recently: the seven  exceedingly well-mannered dogs in Gayle Watkins’s Outdoor Adventure class. The group, whose 6-week sessions are held several times during the year, is one of a number of classes that Watkins offers through Philipstown Recreation. In most of the obedience classes, dogs and their owners meet indoors, and practice the most basic and essential tools of the trade: sit/stay commands, coming when called, jumping up control, walking well on a leash, etc.  The Outdoor Adventure class, for which admission is limited to Advanced Dog Obedience graduates or by permission, takes those skills, which hopefully owner and dog have practiced to some form of almost perfection, “almost” being loosely defined, and takes them to another level outdoors.

The classes are designed to make dogs comfortable with all of the distractions they are likely to encounter walking on local trails and on village streets, or when something unexpected occurs, for example suddenly being surrounded by strangers walking by, or adapting to noises from a train—hence the Metro-North station visit. The class culminates in a walk down Main Street in Cold Spring. The course description states “take your training on the road to teach your dog to be obedient everywhere you go.  Practice loose-leash walking, sits, downs, greetings, and recalls in real life situations.” The three earlier classes had taken place in fields, with lunge lines for long distance stays, and on trails. One participant described the first session, “It was like a Seinfeld episode—my dog was flipping through the air.”  Now it was time for some “expose them to a new environment” action.

In pouring rain, a motley crew of canines, including Olive, a mutt with equal parts Boston Terrier and mystery DNA (two vets and 1,000 people can’t agree, according to her owner, Tom Mullane), headed up the stairs to the overpass between the northbound and south bound tracks.  There Gayle, a former horse trainer and retired Army colonel, who has been training dogs for over 30 years, put the owners and their dogs through their paces: the sit/stay/downs, doing those commands facing another row of dogs, and again, parallel to each other, and finally pairing off in twos while the owners were instructed to shake hands and hold a conversation, seeing if the dogs would stay calm. Doing well was Sue Costigan’s German Shepherd, Jetta, “all the training that any dog would need, this dog needs.”

Two Bernese Mountain Dogs (maybe their popularity was due to being well-suited to scale the peaks of the Hudson Highlands?) were part of the group: Maggie Magee, accompanied by her owner, Suzanne Robertson, and Dylan, a veteran of multiple Rec obedience classes, along with his owner, Margaret Yonco-Haines, who pronounced it “so much fun.  It’s great to see other dogs; I learn so much.”  Mickey, a pug, was truly a veteran.  His owner, Diane Travis, wasn’t sure how many classes he had done: “definitely Beginner Obedience, the Rally class, and this one, two times.  He’s probably schooled out.”

Towards the middle of the session, the first of two trains arrived, with several unsuspecting commuters heading up the stairs and entering into the gauntlet of what seemed to be a dog convention.  Both commuters and dogs were non-plussed—perhaps a day in the city prepares one for all unusual circumstances. Gayle encouraged the owners to speak to their dogs effusively when good behavior was displayed, “Lots of praise; I want them thrilled!”  The more difficult challenges were saved for last, including heeling in both directions, training needed by Beth Greco’s 18-month-old Bull Terrier, Petunia, “she’s just wild; she pulls, lunges, and gets really excited.”  After each dog had performed a ‘restrained recall,’ in which the dog was held at the collar by Gayle, while the owner, several feet away, called to the dog in hopes of the dog running immediately to him/her, the group headed down the stairs to the southbound platform.  Navigating the stairs proved the most challenging to Locksley, a good-natured Doberman rescue dog, whose owner, Kathy Ziempke, said that although he was great with commands, he was terrified of stairs and tunnels, probably due to an unknown incident in his past.  The biggest dog in the bunch trembled as he navigated the descent slowly, but he made it, and later made it there and back through an underpass, and it was clear that the training was helping. Kathy said that the classes were “the best thing that ever happened to Locksley.  You should have seen him without Gayle.”

As a child Gayle fell in love with horses, and trained them through her college years.  After she joined the army, horse training became impractical, and she turned to dogs, first training other people’s dogs, and then training and competing with her own Golden Retrievers.  She has worked with trainers all of the world, and constantly incorporates new knowledge and insights gleaned from her peers. She currently competes with her dogs in Agility, Obedience, Hunt Test and Tracking.  Gayle feels that” inconsistency is the biggest error owners display when dealing with their dogs.”  The only way for dogs to know if they’re doing things right is to standardize the reaction each time. Second biggest mistake?  “Treating dogs like grandchildren.” Note: emphatically not as parents treat their children, but as grandparents, that slightly indulgent sub-species of humankind, are prone to do. “Dogs are not humans.  It’s not fair to expect them to be.”

As the dogs walked to and fro on the platform, Olive’s owner Tom saw progress “She needs lots and lots of tugs, and work on lunging and not chasing squirrels, but everyone I met said to use Gayle.  You can’t get ten people to agree on anything, but they agreed on that.”

The next set of Rec Dog Obedience classes taught by Gayle begin on September 15, and will range from Beginner Obedience to a Self Control Class.  Previous classes, some of which will be repeated at some point in the coming year, included Agility, Puppy Training, and Rally.  Gayle, whose company is called New Directions Dog Training, also works one on one privately, and she sells training products and treats as well as raw dog food. For more information, or to register, call Rec at 424-4618, or contact Gayle at New Directions Dog Training directly with any questions, 265-2045 or [email protected].

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