We featured you in your role as Manager of Behavior and Training for the MD SPCA a while back. What’s been happening in your career since then?
Gosh, it feels like tons! After several years of making some pretty dramatic changes to the shelter culture in Maryland, I decided to spread my wings a bit, and focus more on keeping animals in the homes they already had.
You’ve recently started your own business called “Oscar Winning Behavior”, tell us a little about the name, which is super catchy and fun!
Thank you! For starters, my crossover dog, aka “my soul” is named Oscar. Every great thing in the past twelve years of my life can be traced right back to him. He’s taught me so much, and is such an inspiration in all I do. Besides that, I actually have a degree in musical theater performance – I love movies and performing. I felt like those two gave me just the right push for a name that really shines for me. It was so much fun to design my website – all my pages are named after movies (though not all won Oscars)
What are some of your favorite issues to work on with clients?
Quality of life issues – things like on-leash reactivity, separation anxiety, and in-family multi pet issues. I have multiple cats and multiple dogs of my own, and they’re family – I want them all to be able to feel happy and safe in my home, and I know my clients want that for their families, too. It can make such a huge difference in your life to be able to walk down the street without feeling like your dog is a danger or an embarrassment, to know you can go out to a movie after work without causing extreme trauma, or to know that your dog and cat can be in the same room together without stress…
What are some of your favorite behaviors to teach?
I much prefer working on emotional issues to specific skills, but I think a favorite is teaching dogs to go to bed using the doorbell (or door knock) as a cue – clients tend to think that’s magic, and it’s such a helpful skill! I also like teaching cats just about anything. From something simple like going into a carrier to more flashy tricks like High-Five or Roll Over – it can do so much good for the cat, and the owners really enjoy the bragging rights.
What would you consider your specialties?
Connection. I’ve struggled with my own dogs, I’ve had self-proclaimed “experts” tell me things that didn’t feel right and caused me to look elsewhere, and I’ve had animals that I knew in my heart were perfect – except for one little glitch. I always tell my clients, “I see how much you love your pet and I know she/he deserves it.” My clients tell me that empathy, that level of acceptance for where they are in their journey, that’s one major thing that sets me apart from trainers they’ve tried in the past. More often than not I get hugs at the end of our initial consultation, because I’m the first voice that’s been able to say “this is going to take work, but if we’re all committed – and I am – than we can make some really big improvements to your happiness with each other.” When I see the weight lifted from their shoulders when they hear that someone else sees their family member isn’t a monster… it’s cliché, but it really is why I do this.
Tell us your thoughts on the importance of on-going education in this field? How do you keep up-to-date on all there is to learn out there?
Oh, it’s so important, isn’t it? If for no other reason than that we all come up with new ways to explain things. Some days I feel like having a thousand different metaphors isn’t enough – maybe that thousand-and-first will be what my next client needs to hear to make it click! But beyond that, we have to remember that behavior is a science, and that means there really are new discoveries all the time. We’re learning more about what dogs and cats can comprehend, and how they view the world, and all of that understanding helps us to be better companions to them. I’m always looking for new seminars, classes, and programs that will help me stretch my mind with critical thinking, bring more clarity to my understanding of the ideas, and give me new ways to help my clients. It’s that third powerful question we suggest clients ask trainers – is there a less-aversive way to teach this? I’m looking for it!
We have what we call the “Golden Ticket Question”- “If my students learn nothing else from this class/session, they will come away with….” What would the answer be you hoped to get from your students?
It’s almost counter-productive, because it feels a little like I’m trying to put myself out of business, but I try to stress with every session that the way to think about behavior modification is this: what is the animal getting from the behavior I don’t want, and how can I make the behavior I do want pay better than that? That’s really all there is to it, and if they really ask that question every time, they don’t need me… but I sure enjoy asking the question with them every week!
What are some of the obstacles you think we face in this industry and how do you handle them?
I think too often force-free trainers get so hung up on talking points that they forget to be force-free with people, as well. We don’t exactly have a reputation for being patient and kind, you know? And it’s something I struggle with too, of course. But I know the principles of behavior apply to all species – dogs, cats, people, pigs. Treats and praise before shaming and reprimands.
It goes back to that empathy I mentioned before. Do I want you to be using a prong on your dog? Absolutely not. But you know what? I bet you love your dog just as much as I love mine, and I bet you’re doing everything you currently know how to do to be a good dog owner. So how about I explain to you some of the problems you might be facing, and how you can avoid them? And how about I let you know that I think you and your dog deserve each other, in the best possible way?
It’s not a case of being right or being kind. We really can be both.
I’ll tell you, I was at a business seminar just this morning – not training or behavior specific in the least (super fun accounting, actually). At the beginning, the instructor asked us to go around and introduce ourselves, and on my turn he said “OH! Can I ask – does smacking a dog on the nose with a newspaper really work?” I said “No, aggression begets aggression,” and he said “I knew it!”
Take away: The message is getting out there. Slow but steady. Just ask my accountant.
What would be your advice to anyone just starting out?
1. Study. Study with as many different people as you can. Read their books, go to their seminars, watch their DVDs. Learn the principles forward and back and then learn them again. Be able to explain them seven different ways.
2. Train. Never forget those principles aren’t just words in a book, they’re animal behavior. Train as many different animals as you can, as many behaviors as you can. Challenge yourself to come up with a new method for each animal. Can you teach five cats to sit on cue without repeating a method? Try. Go to a shelter, volunteer to be a dog walker and take the dogs outside and teach them to sit and shake. Get used to looking at every animal, no matter what behavior they’re exhibiting, and thinking “what’s he getting from that? What does he want more?”
What are some of your goals for Oscar Winning Behavior?
You mean in addition to making a million dollars for playing with puppies and kittens?
Amie is one of our dearest friends. Having her as training partner at Chicken Workshop in 2014 was not only a fantastic experience, but it helped an already blooming friendship to really bloom.
Oscar Winning Behavior is based out of Randallstown, MD. and serves the following areas: Baltimore County, Baltimore City and surrounding areas. Amie is currently accepting new clients and will be rolling out a Reactive Rover program on Sunday mornings in October. You can contact Amie at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to check out the website at oscarwinningbehavior.com.