They didn’t throw their caps into the air — in fact, a few wiggled out of them — and instead of walking a podium to get their diplomas, the graduates sat. Or rather, stayed.
About a dozen dogs — large, small, energetic or serene — gathered with their owners last week at Skyview Middle School for their final session of the Scotch Pines Dog Training program. Taught by Stephanie Hostetter, the nine-week program teaches owners techniques on how to get dogs to stay by their side, come when called, ignore distractions and, eventually, behave themselves when not leashed.
Hostetter, who has taught classes in Idaho for nine years and in Alaska for six, first learned about off-leash methods when she took her springer spaniel, Belle, to a training course.
“I had taken a … treat-based program,” she said. “I read books, and my dog was still out of control. And somebody told me about this class and so I enrolled and I was blown away.”
The program uses positive feedback as well as “correction” techniques, such as using a training collar and a spray bottle with vinegar to deter barking.
While Hostetter acknowledges that correction techniques can be controversial, she’s found the training was most effective for her.
“My dog was off-leash reliable for her whole life and she lived to to be 12 and a half,” Hostetter said.
Although the course is aimed at changing a dog’s behavior, the training is as much for the owner as it is for the animals, she said.
“First of all, you need to be the boss. The person needs to be the leader and the dog needs to be the follower. Otherwise they’re really not going to agree to obey,” Hostetter said. “So we start with leadership and then we follow that with consistent, clear training and instruction.”
Ahead of last week’s ceremony, dogs and owners practiced obedience exercises on a lawn near Skyview Middle School playing fields. Dogs showed off their new willingness to sit, come to owners and walk off leash, with a only few occasionally distracted by fellow animals and people. The event capped off with each dog receiving a diploma and goodie bag, including a bone. Each was also fitted with a mini graduation cap.
Eight-month-old poodle Chloe (legal name Whisper Ridge Chloe), sat by her owner’s side throughout the ceremony, and even stayed put — graduation cap and all — as the humans chatted and dogs played.
“She was very frustrating when we brought her into class,” owner Thelma Musgrove said. “She jumped up on all our grandkids. She peed every time she pet a new person. She didn’t obey. She was very independent, not very loving.”
After nine weeks of class, Chloe has made strides — she has stopped jumping, can navigate crowds without distraction, and follows Musgrove around the house affectionately.
“She got top dog last week,” Musgrove said.
Ralph, a 90-pound German shepherd, had a few freewheeling moments during the skills demonstration, but has made similar progress, owner John Ehlers said.
A resident of Ninilchik, Ehlers commuted to Soldotna weekly for the training and said he’s seen a marked difference not only in Ralph but the other dogs as well.
“I just have to say that from the time we showed up here nine weeks ago, and all these dogs were pulling on their leash and barking. People couldn’t control their dogs,” Ehlers said. “That first day, in two hours, everybody left with control. On the leash with the dogs. And what’s amazing is each week, I’ve just been amazed by the progress.”
Ehlers said the key thing he’s learned from the class is to assert leadership.
“The main thing is establishing yourself basically as the leader of the pack, and learning that you need to correct the dog. And you need to correct them firmly, but you need to praise them more,” he said. “The rule is one part correction, two parts praise.”
Ehlers now takes Ralph when he runs his errands to the bank or auto parts store, and doesn’t worry about having him off leash in public.
“I take him with me off leash and he sits next to me,” he said.
Roxanne Sedor and her husband enrolled their two 18-month-old Finnish spitz dogs in the course. Named Ranger and Starlight, the brother and sister were initially a challenging combo.
“They were totally unruly. Absolutely unruly,” Sedor said.
Sedor, who chose to train Ranger while her husband Michael trained Starlight, said the two dogs have gone from pulling on their leashes and ignoring commands to obeying requests to sit and stay by their sides. Ranger, who was particularly hyperactive, has made significant progress, she said.
“He needs to work on all of it to get better, but he’s done 100 percent better,” she said.
Sedor said she thinks the two dogs enjoy the special attention the training affords.
“Because they spend time with us,” she said. “That helps.”
Hostetter — who currently owns six dogs — said she sees how important dogs can be to owners.
“One of the questions I ask my students is, ‘How many of you has rescued a dog?’ And a lot of people raise their hands. And then I say, ‘How may of you have been rescued by your dogs?’ And and a lot more hands go up,” she said. “These dogs just have a way of reaching us at our heart because they’re so wonderful. And so, a lot of dogs rescue people.”