Elephants and wolves were very much part of the conversation among 300 dog trainers gathered at the Memphis Cook Convention Center this week.
A former Calgary Zoo elephant trainer suggested dog trainers can apply the same humane principles that he used to work with a 6 ½-ton bull elephant named Spike.
And a veterinarian speaking on dog nutrition parsed the differences between dogs and wolves to explain why dog owners should be skeptical of claims it’s healthier for a dog to eat like a wolf.
Dog trainers came from as far away as Brazil, Australia and India to learn from experts such as Les O’Brien, a 20-year zoo elephant trainer who now runs Palladium Elephant Consulting Inc., and Dr. Amy Learn, a Virginia veterinarian who reviewed the science, or lack thereof, behind canine nutrition products and trends.
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers annual conference, where topics included canine brain anatomy, health insurance and personality testing, concludes on Saturday, Oct. 20.
O’Brien, in Memphis to deliver a Saturday talk entitled “But That’s an Elephant!” said Spike the elephant went from “problem child” and “outcast” to “one of the best-trained bull elephants that there ever was.” O’Brien tended to Spike’s foot after surgeries that often lead to death of captive elephants.
“It wasn’t the surgery part, per se,” that saved Spike, O’Brien said. “It was our ability to work with this animal and not be a tyrant to do it. You can get great behavior out of your animals without resorting to the whip and the chain and the hot shot and the food deprivation and all these things that cause me to lose my hair.”
He cautioned trainers to avoid loaded words including “command” and “no” that put the trainer in a position to dominate the dog, and instead focus on establishing trust and showing respect for the animal.
“If I can do it with a 13,000-pound animal with only having to put my hands on the foot that he’s willingly exposed to me … it can work for anything,” he said.
O’Brien said he started out as “one of those old-school trainers, carrying a hook, going in there, showing them who’s boss.” He had an epiphany when a respected researcher chided him for striking an elephant during training.
He came to understand that knowing the science and being compassionate is what makes a great trainer.
The association, while not officially an advocate of force-free dog training methods, spun off the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers in 2001. The council has certified more than 2,500 trainers who adhere to a code of ethics and a humane hierarchy in behavior and training practices.
Learn, the veterinarian, poked holes in marketing claims of many dog food manufacturers, noting that appeals based on a dog’s discriminating taste preferences ring particularly hollow.
A dog typically has 1,700 taste buds to a human’s 9,000, said Learn, and dogs are well-known for eating unappetizing items. “A lot of people say their dogs are picky eaters, but they’re really not that picky.”
Learn discussed a movement toward raw meat diets, sometimes justified by the wolf-dog connection, and said more science is needed to determine long-term effects.
“Dogs are not wolves,” Learn said. Wolves and dogs continued to evolve after separating genetically, and dogs adapted to grain in their diets as humans shifted from hunter-gatherers to growing crops.
Association member Lisa Ann Carlson, a dog trainer for more than 15 years, came from Franklin, Tennessee to attend the conference. Her business, “The Pawsitive Professor,” touts itself as “Educating dogs and their people since 2002.”
Carlson said she works a lot with puppy owners, children and dogs and dogs with fear-based issues. She attends association conferences to keep her skills and knowledge fresh and find out about new products and services.
Megan Stanley, association president and a dog trainer from Calgary, Canada, said the conference provides an opportunity to acquire new skills and knowledge, to share expertise and experiences with other trainers and to build a community. That’s important because “We have a lot of trainers who work on their own,” Stanley said.
It’s a great time to be a dog trainer, said Stanley, who began a decade ago and operates two training facilities in Calgary.
“It’s a relatively young industry but it’s exploding,” Stanley said. “All parts of the pet industry are growing, and all of these people have to have the right training so we can do the right things for our dogs.”