Janine Pierce, owner of J9sK9s Dog Training in Canoga Park, is all about having fun training your dog.The motto, “Learn while you play,” reflects the use of positive reinforcement and reward-based training.
Since 1998, Ive trained my dogs at J9sK9s in Canoga Park where I have been a volunteer class assistant for the last six years.
I started with my black shepherd, Homer, who competed in agility with me. It was only when I rescued a stray pit bull that my life of dog training changed.
He was a beautiful red brindle-and-white American Staffordshire terrier built like a tank, who was running on the Boulevard near Top O Topanga. He was a collarless, intact male, about six months old, I guessed. I coaxed him into my car and continued to my dentist appointment thinking Id find who had lost this beautiful dog. He placed his feet on the console, touched my cheek with his whiskery muzzle and gave me a lick. No one ever claimed him and hard as I tried, I couldnt re-home him. He was mine and I was his.
That was Lionel. He was a sweetheart with people, comical and loving, but I soon discovered he was aggressive to dogs. Not all dogs, but I never knew when he would attack.
Although Lionel did not compete in agility, he accompanied us to trials. No doubt knowing how handsome he was, he happily posed for photographer Pamela Marks.
It took me a while and a couple of vet bills before I realized this dog would never go anywhere off-leash and would have to be confined when I wasnt around to supervise him.
I took him straight to J9sK9s and got serious about training.
J9sK9s was all about games and fun based in a profound knowledge of dog behavior. Owner Janine Pierce understood and practiced the techniques of positive reinforcement and reward-based training that have evolved mightily in the last decades, a far cry from the corrective style, Leader-of-the-Pack, alpha dog mentality.
She came to my home to evaluate my unfenced-in-Topanga situation. I had a large kennel for Lionel and thought putting him on a running line in front of the house was a good idea. It was a false sense of freedom, Pierce counseled, saying that it only exasperated his behavior and wasnt safe for him because other dogs could get to him. It also over-stimulated this highly sensitive and hair-trigger reactive dog.
Training at J9sK9s gave both Lionel and me a quality of life that would have been impossible without it. In class we learned how to play Hide-and-Seek and Tag and that tugging was a good thing, as were piles of treats while we trained. Socialization happened just by showing up in this safe place and Lionel was learning to relax in the company of other dogs. It no longer mattered that he would always be constrained out in the world. We learned how to have fun and still be safe.
While volunteer assistants (background) test dogs as they sit for petting, brushing and ear and paw checks, Pierce helps a student work out a specific problem to prepare for the CGC test.
Pierce has been involved with dogs and their owners since the late 1980s. She was an engineer for a title insurance company for 22 years and often appeared in court as an expert witness.
My family always had dogs. I got hooked on training starting with a Malamute mix that I had from the time I was 14 to when I was 30, then became completely addicted when I started competing with my Irish Wolfhounds in obedience and agility.
I got involved in rescue organizations, read books, went to seminars and started running events for breed rescues. I was assisting in a pet training class and in 1998, the owner turned it over to me.
That was the beginning of J9sK9s. She was still working full time as an engineer, teaching at UCLA Law School (real estate law) and doing court appearances while training dogs and their humans on nights and weekends.
Slowly, I started doing less engineering work and more dog training, eventually coming to the realization that I might be able to make a living doing what I loved, she says. I did a lot of court testimony for insurance companies, did my last expert witness job in 1999 and started J9sK9s full time.
Holly, a German Shepherd, works the “peanut butter bone,” a hollow sterilized bone stuffed with peanut butter. It is something to keep her occupied, while other dogs are working. When it’s her turn to practice her skills, she’ll have to shake off the “peanut butter brain syndrome”that usually sets in and focus on her work.
The transition was scary. I went from pantyhose and high heels to dog hair and dog slobber. She laughs at the idea.
Her class curriculum is simple but well thought out and effective. In the six-week Beginner class, dog owners learn how to teach their dogs to sit, lie down, stay in both positions, walk on a loose leash and come when called, plus handy skills like Leave It.
The Intermediate class reinforces those behaviors at more difficult levels and adds tricks to the curriculum: Shake, Wave and High Five; Spin; and Go to Sleep (formerly Play Dead).
The idea of playing games to train may sound silly, but its not so. Start with the Name Game, where you call the dogs name and reward him just for looking at you. If he comes to you its a huge party. That is the first step towards teaching your dog to come to you, no matter what. The next step is Hide & Seek, where your dog needs to find you. These games teach the Recall and could save your dogs life.
Our strength is that the more we can get people to have fun, the more they will train outside of the class, Pierce says. Lots of people stop after a Beginner class because they have what they want control. The Intermediate class starts advanced learning theory, honing owners training skills in timing, working with distance and tricks.
Advanced students return to their dogs after putting them in a “down-stay” and walking away from them. None of the dogs broke their stay. These Canine Good Citizen (CGC) class members would take their test the following week for certification. Many dogs that pass their CGC test go on to therapy dog certification.
Intermediate is a prerequisite for most of the upper level classes, among which are specialty classes like Canine Good Citizen certification, and field trips like urban and wilderness walks, beach forays, canine camps and more.
We want to make the experience pleasant for everyone, says Pierce. People need to be committed to training before we get to that level and be invested with their dogs in order to make the experience enjoyable for everyone. As dogs become more integral to the family unit, keeping them mentally and physically stimulated becomes a priority for dog owners.
Animal Care and Control recently approved Pierce to work in partnership with dogs that have been legally classified as dangerous dog cases. Remembering how Pierce worked with Lionel, that does not surprise me.
There was an incident in 2000, shortly after I moved, when Lionel escaped from a makeshift pen and attacked a neighbors dog. The neighbor reported the incident to Animal Control and an officer came to our home to evaluate Lionel. During the interview, Lionel was calm, sat quietly on cue and eventually laid down at our feet.
This is not a dangerous dog, the officer said.
Working with aggressive dogs is so rewarding, Pierce says. You change their lives. Dogs who have issues with non-family members lead very stagnant lives because they never get out of the house. When I work with a dog like that, it is rewarding to see the transformation that takes place with these dogs. Their whole face looks different after you have worked with them. They look like a different dog. Its so obvious. Teaching a dog thats in that kind of distress and changing their life . She drifts off, thinking, remembering. You cant help them all, but the ones you can help keep you going.
The July 14 CGC Class posed for its J9sK9s graduation photo. Although everyone looks happy here — and they were — the following week would be a bit nervewracking as they arrived individually with their dogs to take the CGC test. Some of these students have taken more than 30 classes with J9sK9s to advance their skills and opportunities for their dogs.
Although Lionel was the most difficult dog I ever had, he was also my greatest teacher along with J9sK9s.
I grew up in rural New York with numerous dogs, cats, horses and a variety of wildlife that came our way.
Since moving to Topanga, I was rarely without a dog. Often, they would appear in my life and simply take up residence, starting on Bonnell Drive with Foots, a black puppy with white feet. Wags, a mixed breed of mysterious parentage, changed residence and he and Scamp, a black terrier mix, moved with my son and me to Waveview Drive. Coco adopted us but later moved in with Russ, an elderly neighbor at the other end of Bonnell. Snowflake, a white whippet, was hit and killed by a car because she wasnt on leash. Scamp, lived to a ripe old age and said goodbye to all the neighbors before he quietly died in our Waveview parking area. Wags lived long