She teaches dog lovers new tricks

Soft-spoken Melinda Berger, 56, explains she’s a bit of an introvert until she gets wound up about her work. And something I’d written amounted to a bee in her professional bonnet.

I asked her to meet me over coffee at Starbucks in Newtown, so she could straighten me out. She did, and I had one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve shared in days.

The married mother of adult kids, Berger is a professional trainer who thinks I let down dogs and their owners when I wrote about a training philosophy she finds worrisome. That philosophy is that Sparky will vie with you for dominance.

Humans who think an animal is about to overthrow their reign tend to be too stern and aggressive, Berger says. It’s as though they have license to be abusive.

“Hurts my heart,” she told me.

Your dog should be subordinate, not submissive. If you can get yours to avert its eyes, lower its tail and slink away, you should be ashamed of yourself, she said.

Berger teaches privately and in classes at Indian Walk Veterinary Center in Newtown Township that ANYTIME you employ physical or verbal corrections – punishment – you run the risk of eliciting a fearful or aggressive response. That means you could be creating problems.

Training your dog through positive reinforcement – goodies in exchange for good behavior – is more effective, and it rewards you, too, she said. Being kind just feels better.

Melinda Berger is certified through the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers and a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Counselors.

She says the concept of dominance in dogs is overused and misunderstood. It’s based on wolf studies from the 1940s that are now believed to be flawed.
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While dogs are descended from wolves, Berger said, you can no more understand Fido by studying a wolf than you can understand Uncle Ed’s behavior – my apologies here to creationists and Ed – by studying chimpanzees.

“The good news is that your dog is naturally set up to accept you as his or her leader and actually thrives in that environment,” Berger said.

Don’t make a fuss over your animal’s mistakes. The key to a “Dream Dog” – the name for Berger’s training outfit – is making him “a believer.” He must believe you control all the good stuff and that you’ll gladly share it if he’ll just be a dear.

Share really good stuff. No cheap snacks or distracted ear scratching. Your dog will tell you what motivates her – maybe favorite food bits, praise, belly rubs or games.

Berger’s best advice, in the meantime, is to create a no-fail environment. For goodness sake, she said, put the trashcan out of the dog’s reach. He’s a natural scavenger. Who could blame him for tipping the can to sift through deli wrappers and empty food containers? Not her.

She also suggests reading, “Don’t Shoot The Dog,” by trainer Karen Pryor. Or, if you’d like, give her a call at 215-906-9229. Through education, she hopes to teach the merit of positive reinforcement over old-school correction. I guess you could say here’s where she’s hoping to teach us humans new tricks.

Kate Fratti, whose opinion column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, thought competing diet and child-rearing philosophies were confusing enough. Now this!

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