Hoss is doing great. The nearly two-year-old super mutt is in an unknown park surrounded by unfamiliar noises and, even worse, unknown humans.
“Hoss has stranger danger issues,” says Kella Woodard, co-owner of Willow’s Way Dog Training and Walking, which serves Southeast Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Woodard and her partner Kaylee Bashaw are steady hands with Hoss, praising his good behavior with a mix of treats and extra love. Rewarding him for small successes helps to combat his triggers, they explain.
Bashaw and Woodard met while working for the same doggie daycare. That’s where they encountered Willow, a rescue pitbull who found daycare overstimulating. They teamed up to tackle Willow’s behavioral issues and, with their help and guidance, she learned how to socialize. Through Willow, Bashaw, and Woodard realized they shared not only a love of dogs but the passion to work with the troubled ones.
Bashaw’s background was in early childhood development, an experience that lends itself surprisingly well for working with canines. “Babies have to communicate without words, just like dogs,” she explains. “It’s up to us to understand what they are trying to tell us, either with body language or with expressive sounds. We need to know how to read the dog to anticipate how the dog may react.”
Woodard majored in zoo studies in college. Subsequently, she was hired as a zookeeper at The Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center in Springfield, MA, working with their wolf population. Although she sees similarities between wolves and their domesticated counterparts, she says that watching the behavior of feral dogs gives a more accurate read on the instinctive behavior of man’s best friend.
“Dogs have an innate bond with humans,” explains Woodard. “They’ve spent 15,000 years being our companions. It’s woven into their DNA. Wolves don’t share that.”
The Willow’s Way training philosophy is focused on positive reinforcement. They never try to out-alpha the animal. “The alpha is a wolf thing,” Woodard continues. “In a feral dog pack, it’s about compromise and cooperation.”
“Anxiety is at the root of nuisance behavior,” Bashaw says. “We need to turn whatever makes them anxious into a positive association.”
As Willow’s Way grows, Bashaw and Woodward are living their dream. “We get to work with dogs all day,” says Bashaw. “I can’t imagine a better job than that.”