By Michele Forto
We are members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and they have one of the best dog training journals around, especially for us in the canine training industry, The APDT Chronicle of the Dog. Each month in their highly acclaimed magazine, they have a member profile edited by Nicole Wilde. While we haven’t been privy to be showcased in this column yet, I thought it would be appropriate to showcase each one of our trainers over the next few weeks so that you can get to know us and what we are about.
This week I will be interviewing Robert Forto
Lets get to know Robert.
Business Name: Alaska Dog Works
Location: Willow, Alaska (Anchorage area)
Years in Business: 12 in Alaska, 23 years as a canine obedience instructor and behaviorist
Personal Training Philosophy: Know Yourself. Know Your Dog.
Our training philosophy at Alaska Dog Works is not a procedure but a lifestyle.
I have learned in the twenty three years of literally living with a pack of dogs and on the sled dog trail that it has offered me a unique perspective. There I was forced to examine my attitude about everything including my dogs. I was constantly challenged to become more open to the language dogs use to communicate with us. This experience confirms our deepest intuitions about the relationship of human beings not only with their dog but every aspect of their lives.
I hope to foster my clients with a diverse and varied understanding of the environment for which they live. I hope to foster a more realistic understanding of their dogs and an increased awareness of the benefits of their companionship.
Drawing on my experience as a kennel owner of many Siberian and Alaskan Huskies I will teach my clients how dog training goes far beyond the elementary instruction of basic obedience; as it must encompass a whole new attitude and lifestyle with their dog. It must touch on the levels of a dog’s own life that are often ignored.
I will bring my client into the world of a dog musher, canine behaviorist, and father of three by using my experience as a lens through which they may broaden their understanding of their dog. The stage will then be set for a balanced, lasting relationship between them and their best friend.
How long have you been in business and what types of services do you provide?
I have been training professionally since the summer of 1994 when I attended my first “certification” course. Also in 1994 I started my Siberian Husky sled dog kennel in Duluth, Minnesota on my hobby farm. I began training clients dogs in local parks in a Canine Good Citizen-type training program and offering in-kennel board and train programs for clients. In 2000, I went back to school to earn and advanced degree and began research on human-canine communication in the sport of dog sledding and I took a hiatus from dog training for clients. In 2006, my family and I moved to Denver, Colorado and I sought employment as a canine trainer. I sent out three resumes and one person called me back. I interviewed for the job and gave him a stack of certificates and degrees and the owner of the school said, “I don’t care about paper, I want to see how you train dogs.”
I went back into his kennel and got a dog and took it to the training room and showed the owner how I could work the dog through an obedience routine. He hired me the next day and shortly thereafter offered me the training school to lease. In January 2007, we opened Denver Dog Works. In August 2010 we moved to Alaska to chase a crazy Iditarod dream and opened Alaska Dog Works. We have been here ever since.
How did you get started?
As I stated before, I have been training dogs since the 90’s in competition obedience and conformation with Siberian Huskies, thought by some to be the toughest breed to train, but my work with canines really started to take off when I moved to Minnesota. I literally lived with a pack of 35 sled dogs 24-hours a day. We ran teams all night on the snowmobile trails in the Superior National Forest and then I would come back and take care of the dogs and interact with them and study their behavior. While there is much to be said about pack based training theory today, I learned so much about those dogs that I became an expert in canine body language and communication.
In 1997, I was given the opportunity to attend a wolf migration study in Alaska and we conducted research by dog sled and helicopter. That was when they still used radio collars on the wolves and antenna, unlike today where they track them via GPS. I worked on that study for 17 months before returning home to run my sled dog teams for sport. I learned so much about the two species and how to compare and contrast the two. Shortly after my return, I was thirty for knowledge and began to read every book I could get my hands on and took several courses in canine training and behavior. I started to attend seminars and lectures and took exams to become a certified canine trainer.
I have received many awards over the years for working with aggressive dogs, fearful dogs, banned breeds and more.
Are you involved in and dog sports or activities?
I am heavily involved in canine sports. I have several clients that I am working with right now in conformation classes and competition obedience. I am a professional musher and in training for my first Iditarod and several long distance expeditions. I plan on running an Alaskan Husky team under the Team Ineka banner.
How do you get business, and what is your relationship like with veterinarians in your community?
Most of our business comes from referrals, our website, Alaska Dog Works, and word of mouth. Alaska Dog Works is sought after often as a last resort for dog owners who have tried other training schools and failed for one reason or another. I am sought out often for canine aggression cases and behavior modification. We take full advantage of social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others. Of course, we do offer a lot of canine sports and working dog programs as well.
Do you belong to a trainer networking group, or otherwise consult with/refer to other trainers in your area?
I belong to several trainer associations and clubs throughout North America. I have found that a lot of trainers in Alaska do not refer clients to each other. I don’t know why. I speak to a lot of people though networking events and I host a weekly radio program, Dog Works Radio where we discuss everything that is related to dogs.
What do you believe are the three most important things to teach a dog?
Loose leash walking, Come (recall) and manners. As I tell my clients all the time, a dog that does not know how to walk on a loose leash is the first candidate for a shelter. Why? because if the relationship between owner and dog is strained on walks (pardon the pun), the owner does not want to interact with the dog, hence that equals lack of exercise, which equals destructiveness. In regards to the recall command, I tell my clients, “who cares if your dog will sit and down on command in your living room, if he won’t come to you at the park, you will have a big problem.”
What types of cases do you find the most challenging and why?
I find dispelling the myths that people have about their dogs the most challenging. I routinely talk about canine evolution and anthropomorphism and how proper relationships should be formed with our canine companions.
What advice would you give to other trainers about working with dogs and their owners?
Patience. Just one word, Patience.
Can you offer a specific tip or trick for working with dogs or owners that other trainers might find helpful?
Take the time to listen to your clients and encourage them to think outside the box about their dog and their training goals. Also, turn off the T.V. and get out and do something with your dog and that will teach them more about their canine companions than any book or T.V. dog training show.
What was your scariest moment with a dog (or client)?
I have been known to say that I have been bit by the best and trained the rest. In all honesty I have never had a scary moment with a dog but witnessing my wife being attacked by a Dutch Shepherd that we had in training scared me to death.
What would you say are the top three things you have personally learned as a trainer?
1. Patience. 2. dogs make better clients than people, 3. and that fear and punishment is the least effective way to get a dog to do what you want.
What was the last training related seminar you attended?
I conducted the last seminar I attended and that was about the misconceptions people have about how dogs behave in dog parks. I was the featured speaker at a conference with several HOA’s and the city of Denver when it was up for debate on whether Denver should add more dog parks.
Are there any specific books, authors, DVDs that have influenced you as a trainer?
I have read so many books on canine training, behavior, evolution and origin that I cant list them all. Some of the most influential have been the books written by the Monks of New Skeete, the book Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. the three book series by (Lindsey) Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog, many courses in psychology an learning theory, hundreds of business books and articles, countless hours of research for my dissertation and the thousands of miles on the back of a dog sled and in my kennel have been my greatest teacher.
Anything else you would like to add?
In my opinion, our relationship with our dogs is our greatest gift. I say that not only as a dog trainer and a business owner, but also as a father of three teenagers. Our dogs have taught us so much about life. My work with canines is dedicated to my friends of friends “Ineka and Rutgrr” who have taught me the definition of unconditional love. In addition, to all other sled dog pups that have unselfishly provided comfort, compassion, and unparalleled commitment to humans. This dedication is generally without measure of our right to such gifts or of our own commitment to reciprocate.
It is this affection that has given me the ability to survive, with relative sanity, in an often difficult world. The power of this unconditional love has been the inspiration for this dissertation and the project that produced it. May this project bring power to those who want to chase their dreams. May this project also give us a better appreciation for those creatures with which we share the earth.
Michele Forto is the business manager and a trainer for Dog Works Training Centers and the co-host of a weekly radio program, Dog Works Radio. Michele can be reached through her website at www.alaskadogworks.com