Emma Wikstrom has a love for dogs. She also has experience with them as the Assistant Superintendent for the Kent County Youth Fair Dog Project. In June of this year she decided to start her own dog training business, Riverside Dog Training with her mother as a co-trainer.
Growing Up Around Dogs
Wikstrom grew up in a house where dogs were part of the family and part of life. Her mother, Gail Ayres-Roderick, started training dogs in 1975 and started leading what would eventually become a 4-H group. This knowledge and experience has been passed down and picked up throughout Wikstrom’s life.
At five years of age, it was a rescued Jack Russell Terrier who started her personal road in training and showing dogs. She worked at a dog kennel while in middle school and trained her family’s dogs to compete in AKC Agility, Obedience, and Rally while also showing through 4-H and the Kent County Youth Fair. As an AKC Junior (under 18) Wikstrom was a nationally ranked performance handler and trainer.
Riverside Dog Training got its name because Wikstrom wished to incorporate an important part of the community her business. “The rivers are such an important aspect to life in Lowell I thought it was important to honor that in the name.” she says of her business.
Balanced Training Model
As a response to a “pure positive” form of dog training where no corrections are implemented, Wikstrom strove to find a balanced model to teach her students and their dog. According to Wikstrom, the “pure positive” training method has unfortunately been trending in recent years. In the beginning, treats are used to lure dogs into desired positions. This technique makes it harder to move beyond this stage of training as the dog becomes accustomed to receiving food whenever good behavior is demonstrated. “It is akin to an overly permissive parent always telling their child ‘yes’ but never ‘no’.” she says of this type of training. She goes on to say this results in a dog who is more likely to end up ignoring commands, leaving both dog and human feeling frustrated.
Wikstrom believes dogs should be “treated fairly and given clarity about their expectations”. This practice can establish a routine which can be carried through all stages of training. “[This method] allows us to progress quickly and provide a fun and engaging class environment. With our time tested methods our students are given the tools to leave our six-week class with a consistently responsive working partnership with their dog.” says Wikstrom.
Since beginning in June, Riverside Dog Training has a 100% passing rate for every six-week class. Training is offered to complete the AKC Puppy Star, ACK Canine Good Citizen and the advanced AKC Community Canine test. Each test measures a dog’s ability to work alongside his or her owner without using food as a bribe.
Learn by Doing
Wikstrom cautions those looking to participate in dog training that the field is unregulated. No training or passing of tests is required to call oneself a dog trainer. The “buyer beware” market puts research on owners when it comes to finding not only a qualified instructor but one an owner and dog feel comfortable with as well.
While training schools and certifications can be found, Wikstrom believes in learning to train dogs by training dogs. She says, “By gaining experience training, showing, and collaborating with other skilled trainers and mentors you fill your ‘trainer tool belt’ with methods and strategies.” She maintains dog training is more of an art than a hard science in many aspects. She feels the ability to train a dog is a talent one is born with, similar to that of a teacher. “You must be empathetic with dogs, learn to read them, and develop a feel for what that dog needs. Every single dog is different, and you learn to adapt to their learning style.” she remarks of her definition of what makes a dog trainer qualified.
Wikstrom believes she has gained these skills through the numerous dogs she has encountered over the years in addition to the mentors she has had. She feels that she continues to learn things all of the time, even from the 4-H kids in her care.
Riverside Dog Training classes take place in the King Building at Recreation Park. Classes focus on basic and advanced obedience. Wikstrom is looking to expand in the summer and offer outdoor agility classes. According to Wikstrom, “obedience is the foundation for everything else”.
The relationship between dog and owner should be one of mutual listening and respect. Dave and his dog Dawson, who is a young Newfoundland, were part of Wikstrom’s inaugural class and signed up for advanced training after their first session ended. Dave had done some training on his own but was looking for local, affordable guidance as some issues began to emerge. “Newfoundlands are a large breed dog and if you cannot control a large breed (or any breed for that matter) you will have problems down the road as they grow larger and become more independent. Training at an early age is crucial for a well-behaved dog.” he says. He also looked for a means of socialization for Dawson. “Misbehaved dogs often get a bad rap when the dogs are really not the problem, it is untrained humans that really are creating the issue.” he continues. He appreciates the importance of training both dog and human, which is a philosophy embraced by Riverside Dog Training.
Ben and his dog Jade, a two-year old German Shepherd sought rehabilitation training. Jade was attacked by different dogs at a young age and was unable to meet another dog without panicking and lunging toward the other dog. After a meeting before a training session began Wikstrom determined that Jade was not an aggressive dog but one with insecurities and a need to protect herself after what happened in her past. Ben says of is experience, “Working with [Riverside Dog Training] that first meeting gave me the confidence to go through with both the beginner and advanced classes successfully! She continues to improve while I take one on one classes with Emma every other week to improve her tolerance of other dogs and build her confidence.”
Chrissy Westfall has been seeing Wikstrom for one-on-one lessons with her dog. These drop-in sessions help with her schedule as a nurse. She decided dog training was important “to ensure I was *communicating* my expectations to my dog consistently and clearly.” Wikstrom believes having a trained dog allows the dog to recognize proper choices in real life situations. This knowledge helps strengthen the bond between dog and owner. She also states the number one reason dogs are given up to shelters or rehomed is due to behavioral issues, often due to lack of training. Shelters and rescues typically do not have the time and resources to train dogs needing new homes, which would make them more adoptable.
Spots Still Available
In January, two new sessions of training will begin. Classes will take place over six weeks at a cost of $90 on Tuesdays, Jan. 7, 14, 21, 28 Feb. 4 & 11 at either 6:15-7:00 pm or 7:15-8:00 pm. Each class has a minimum of five students and a maximum of 10. Currently two spots are available in the early class and three slots remain for the later session. A free 30 minute behavior analysis is available for people who may be feeling anxious about how their dog will handle a class setting around other dogs. Children are welcome to be the primary handler during a training session and if a meeting ahead of time to evaluate if the training experience will be safe and beneficial for the child taking the lead and dog is available. The child should be able to handle a dog during classes.
The 45 minute classes aim to produce results and progress each week without overwhelming the dog or handler. Practical skills are taught including off-leash recall, stays, how to handle a dog in a vet office, and walking calmly on a leash while in public. Knowledge learned by dog and owner focus on readiness for daily life with a dog which will keep the furry member of a family safe. Private lessons are also available upon request.
Those interested in signing up for the upcoming six-week session or have questions can contact Wikstrom via email at [email protected]. Visit the Riverside Dog Training website or Facebook page to read more about the business.