Meet The Dog Whisperer, Our Pets Magazine
Positive K-9 Dog Training, master trainer Melissa Cocola is the alpha of the pack.
Creekside Resort is an upscale dog kennel and home of Positive K9 dog training facility in Walworth, Wayne County. If you turn into the driveway there, off Sherburne Road, you will hear something very strange for a place where so many dogs are in residence. That something strange is silence. Arrive at any other dog kennel and you are greeted with a Big Bang of Barking. The difference here is one person. Creekside Resort (the kennel) and Positive K-9 (the dog training operation at the same address) are run by Melissa Cocola. In human terms,Cocola is pretty, petite and female. But in dog terms she is the alpha of the pack. Around canines she is quiet, steady, focused and in charge.
“Dogs need rules, boundaries and limitations,” says Cocola, who has trained more than 4,800 dogs in the last 14 years. She’s a nationally certified dog trainer who apprenticed under four experts and has completed dog behavior course at Cornell University. Correct discipline and training for dogs, says Cocola, requires praise and motivation-not food treats.“There’s nothing in the dog world that includes a dog giving another dog a bone,” she says.” That’s human psychology, not dog psychology.”
One of the deepest secrets of modifying a dog’s behavior is one of the simplest, Cocola says: exercise.While in residence at Creekside, dogs (some of them boarded, some there for training) are walked or let out, or trained eight to 10 times a day. The Walworth facility has a system of dog trails on its seven acres of land. A half-acre fenced – in pen, allows four legged clients to run free and get what they need as pack animals: group play. That includes free use of the facilities outside. (The picked-up waste is trucked away weekly by a contractor.)
“It's part of keeping a stress free environment,” says Cocola of the frequent exercise and abundant time outdoors.
Cubicles in the resort itself don’t include drains. No need. “It’s rare we have an ‘accident’ in the building,” she says.
Creekside has two main buildings, both tasteful and practical, and lightly suggestive of miniature hotels. The reception area of one building is where new dogs are signed in. It features a prominent glass dish of dog cookies, non-slip floors (geriatric dogs, like their human counterparts, have trouble with footing) and a canine waiting lounge. There you’ll see an array of low doggie beds, stuffed toys and –yes-wide screen television. Cocola has a big DVD collection of Disney dog movies, as well as TV classics starring Rin-Tin-Tin and Lassie.
Cocola is the Big Dog at Creekside. She also trains dog owners to be the leaders of the pack in their own homes, by dispensing advice on appropriate dominance. For instance, owners should eat before their dogs eat. They should not allow the dog (at first) to sleep on the bed. They should go through gates or doors ahead of their dogs, since controlling territory is dominant behavior too.
Scott Miller of Pittsford boards his 11 year old Labrador retriever Brody at Creekside. When the family recently bought Dante, a Doberman puppy it soon turned rambunctious and uncontrollable. Off Dante went for three weeks of obedience training with Cocola. “When we went to pick him up, I was overwhelmed,” says Miller. “He was the perfect gentleman, and still is.”
What Cocola does with dogs works, but she’s eclectic and flexible about how she does it. “I don’t have a training method,” she says, and doesn’t believe any trainer should stick to one script. “We have a different dog on the end of the leash every day. It’s not one size fits all.”
There are many clashing methods for dog discipline out there; Cocola calls them “split religions”. One group insists on food rewards, another on strict physical discipline. Advocates of the “pure-positive” method tell dog owners to ignore bad behavior and reward dogs for anything good. “But it’s unnatural to ignore bad behavior,” says Cocola and such forgiveness is unknown among dogs that roam in packs. As for strict discipline, she is very plain: “There’s never any reason to raise your voice, yell or hit.” In the wild, says Cocola, alpha dogs are not violent: they are calm and assertive.
On a spacious lawn in front of the resort, Cocola demonstrates her style of discipline training. On short leather leashes are Murphy and Elliot, two dogs among many on site (capacity:35) for a week or more of training. They make an odd couple. Murphy is a blunt, powerful brown pit bull who as a post training treat likes to crash into nearby Red Creek for a reckless swim. Elliot, taller by a head, is a fluffy white bouvier de Flanders, who prefers dithering with loose gravel on the driveway. His flaw is not so much disobedience as it is distraction.
Helping the process are remote controlled collars that can deliver a flea bite like static pulse or and irritating audible cue. A typical dog will wear this collar for six months. Cocola admits collars are controversial, but insists that a few out on the market-if tested and fitted by a professional like herself-are worth the time. “It’s a safety net” that works out to 350 yards, she says.
When a dog is off the leash, it gives the owner a means to remind the dog who is in charge. In general, says Cocola, a dog needs the same things for discipline a 5-year old child does, or a teenager: daily exercise, structure, mental stimulation and –yes- a job to do. For a dog that can be as simple as carrying its own water in a pack while on an outing. Good dog food is important too, she says (with preference for premium chow with no dyes or preservatives).
“They meet our needs,” says Cocola of dogs, and the love and loyalty they give humans. “We have to meet theirs”.
At Creekside, with partner Rob Maher, and in the Positive K-9 business, Cocola often works days that stretch out to 14 or 16 hours; yet she only takes a few days off a year. “I love it,” Cocola days of dog work. “It’s not a job.”
But she does have one pet peeve, so to speak: There’s no state requirement that dog trainers be certified, as she is. That means hobbyists dominate the market, says Cocola, and fall into well-meaning ruts that don’t work. One example: group classes of 15 dogs or more, all in one room with one trainer.
Cocola’s clients from as far away as New England and Canada, remain fans, and are guaranteed a life time of follow-ups. (Positive K-9 gets up to 75 training inquires a day.) “I jokingly call her the Dog Whisperer,” says Lindsay Hobbs, referring to a term usually applied to TV dog guru Cesar Millian (Cocola calls the comparison “a high form of flattery”.) It was in 2001 that Hobbs from West Henrietta, called Cocola for help with an unruly Australian shepherd puppy named Sydney Thunder from Down Under. When Sydney arrived at Creekside for eight days of training, he was difficult. “He seemed to think of us as chew toys,” said Hobbs of herself and her husband. But when Sydney came back home, he accepted that he was no longer in charge of the pack--his owners were. “She brought him back a completely transformed boy,” said Hobbs of the new Sydney. “I thought she brought back a carbon copy.”
Dogs are all individuals, says Cocola, “I learn something from each and every one I train.”
Corydon Ireland is a Rochester-based freelance writer.