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Natural Awakenings San Diego

Pawtopia: Sensible Dog Training for Every Breed and Human

Oct 24, 2011 08:15PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Pawtopia owner Colleen Demling may be lighthearted when describing her work, joking that it requires the skills of a relationship counselor, life coach, matchmaker, tutor, philosopher and teacher. However, she’s dead serious when it comes to improving the communication and relationships between her two-legged and four-pawed clients.

Helping the two species become more aware of their compatibility, strengths and weaknesses is the specialty of this highly skilled dog trainer, and she sought the same level of proficiency in the two experienced trainers who joined the company as it grew. “From the moment I met Zoe Stathis, who covers San Diego proper, and Regina LePage, who covers The 15 corridor, I was comfortable that their extensive backgrounds working with many different breeds of dogs in various situations, and their expertise in a range of training methods, could serve the varying needs of any client,” says Demling.

Some of Demling’s 6,500 hours of hands-on dog-training experience was garnered before she founded Pawtopia. “I trained service dogs for Canine Companions for Independence and was an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Evaluator before I decided that I wanted to go out on my own,” advises Demling, who enjoys working with families to help them determine and reach their goals. “This is where the relationship counseling and life coaching comes in. During a session, our trainers address each member of the family, because generally speaking, everyone’s habits—not just the dog’s—have to change in order for all to achieve the goals they set,” she explains.

Although Demling, Stathis and LePage agree that no quick fix exists for any behavioral problem, their experience confirms that a solution can always be found by teaching a dog and the family a consistent and common language that allows them to better communicate and understand each other, even if the dog is older or has been with the family for many years. “At Pawtopia, we call this ‘continuing education,’ because no one is ever too old to learn,” says Demling, who likes dispelling the myth, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

The trio frequently works with four-pawed rescue clients whose tails are not always wagging. Pawtopia trainers caution that, because rescue animals have come from situations where their human companions were unreliable and some have been in multiple homes, even a permanent and loving home can be confusing and stressful for a while. “Be mindful that your pet has been abandoned and left behind many times, and you’re another potential ‘leaver,’” notes Demling.

New pet parents often unknowingly set their dogs up for failure. “Showing off your new family addition at the pet store, as well introducing them to the vet, friends and neighbors within a short time, is as nerve-wracking for them as getting a new job and having to make a presentation to the company CEO and all the board members within the first week is for us,” she advises.

When a dog becomes nervous, growls, acts cowardly or barks, it’s not uncommon for the new owner to think they’ve made a wrong choice. According to Demling, these reactions occur because the getting-acquainted period was too short and too intense. “Think of it as a first date. You’d never dream of taking a new dating partner home to meet your parents to talk about religion and politics after just one dinner,” she says. “It’s better to take it slow for the first two weeks and give the dog time to bond with its new ‘pack’ and adapt to a new home and neighborhood.”

Pawtopia trainers work to help clients create the types of structure and routine in which pets can flourish. “No one can be successful at a new job without a job description, and your dog, who considers you the boss, always wants to make you happy,” says Demling, whose simple but fun analogies and metaphors give pet owners a whole new level of understanding of the animal world—one that is win-win for both species.

For more information, call 858-414-7797 or visit