“The secret to a better quality of life for you and your dog is great training!”
That’s what Marie Choo, Dog Behaviourist, Trainer, and Founder of The Dog Alchemist, thinks all dog owners should know. Of course, this is far easier said than done—even for Marie, whose calling in life, as she tells us, is to help dog owners improve their relationship with their furry companions.
But as we learned in our chat with her, Marie’s journey started off very much like every first-time dog owner. 13 years ago, she got her very first dog, Butter the Shetland Sheepdog. A clueless dog mum at the time, Marie saw that Butter was very active and agile, and decided to dedicate time and effort to training her.
Her success in training Butter spurred her on, and she later went on to volunteer at local dog shelters, rehabilitating dogs with aggression, before taking up an online course with the Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour & Training to further her studies in dog behaviour. Eventually, she quit her corporate job to pursue dog training full-time as The Dog Alchemist.
“A lot of the time, the owners that I meet are surprised by how big of an improvement they see in their dogs after just one training session,” she says. “They’ll tell me ‘My dog isn’t usually like that,’ and it makes me very happy, because I feel like this is what I’m meant to do in life.”
In fact, to spend even more time working with dogs, Marie recently expanded her range of services to include dog walking and dog sitting as well. This, she tells, us, is a timely change as she lost her second Shetland Sheepdog, Ash, just weeks after.
“In hindsight, the expansion of my business mentally prepared me for Ash’s death, because after she passed, I still had to get up to walk other dogs, which has helped me in my grieving.”
In light of the loss of Ash, Marie tells us that she won’t be rushing to get a new dog any time soon. Instead, she’s choosing to focus all of her attention on her senior dog, Butter.
“She’s really chill these days, and is enjoying her life as an only child right now. It’s funny because when I first got her, she was really playful and naughty, so much so that if anyone were to bounce a tennis ball or a basketball around her, she would start chasing them immediately.”
Butter is now a far cry from the puppy that she was. Lying calmly in front of us, she has mellowed with training and age, cool and unbothered in the face of the Shentonista team’s hyperactive, excitable office dog, Tobie—but we’ll get to them later.
For now, read on to find out more about the ins and outs of dog training from Marie, and some of the lessons that her own dogs have taught her.
What are some common misconceptions that people have about dogs and dog training in general?
Walks are not just toilet breaks for dogs—they’re also a good chance for your dogs to exercise, get some mental stimulation, and socialise with other dogs and humans outdoors.
That said, it’s important for dogs to be walked at least twice a day, for 20-30 minutes each time, or longer for bigger dogs or more active breeds like Border Collies.
On the topic of toilet breaks, dogs are not cats—we cannot assume that our dog will know where to do its business, even if it’s a household pet that’s been re-homed.
A rescued stray dog might be more familiar with the habit of doing its business outdoors because that’s what it’s used to, but with a puppy and even an adult dog that’s being introduced into a new household, it’s important to teach it how to use an indoor pee tray, or how to hold in its business till it’s brought outdoors.
Finally, all dogs can be prone to developing behavioural issues, even if they’ve attended obedience school or understand basic obedience commands.
Obedience commands are just a form of communication—your dog can still behave poorly even if it’s smart and well-trained. For example, a Border Collie is very smart, but it might still chase after runners and cyclists if you don’t tell it to “sit” or “stay”. Simply put, your dog may understand commands, but may still respond undesirably to triggers if you don’t ask it to “sit” or “stay” to counter-condition its natural reactive instinct to chase.
That said, what are some common things that owners can look out for when reading the behaviour of their dogs?
With dogs and all other animals, it’s important to observe overall body language, rather than just looking at one part in isolation. Here are some common markers you might notice with dogs:
Can you share your top three tips for dog owners looking to train their dogs?
1. Keep commands simple
Commands should always be single words like “sit”, “stay”, “down”, “wait”, “ok”, and “no”—anything more than that can be confusing for your dogs. I’ve met some owners who say “sit down” (do you want your dog to sit or be in a down position?), or even worse, try to negotiate and coax their dog excessively by saying “would you please sit for me?”. A simple, firm, clear “sit” would suffice!
2. Feedback must be given within two seconds
Whether you’re praising or correcting your dog, feedback must be given within two seconds of the dog’s action so that it will understand if its behaviour is desirable or not.
3. Be consistent
Training is a never-ending process. Whether you’re training a new dog or are practicing commands with your older dog, whenever you give a command, you must always follow through to ensure that your dog does the command, otherwise it will learn that there is no need to listen to you as there are no consequences for disobedience.
On that note, what are some things that your dogs have taught you?
Before I had both Butter and Ash, I never knew what unconditional love was. I work with dogs professionally so I’ve witnessed some pet deaths, and so I thought I would be mentally prepared for their departure when it comes. However, when I lost Ash earlier this year, the pain I felt was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. My husband and I even joked that we wouldn’t be as sad if either one of us died (laughs).
I did some research into grieving the loss of a pet and this was what I found: because we don’t have verbal communication with animals, the connections we form are on a much deeper level—they’re our true soulmates, which is why losing them is so difficult.
Butter, Ash, and all of the other dogs I work with have taught me to stop dwelling on the past, live in the present, and not worry too much about the future.
If you’re wondering what Marie is like in action and how she can help your dogs, watch the video below for a glimpse of what a training session with Marie could look like, featuring Butter and Tobie. Plus, you might just pick up a trick or two when it comes to training your own dog!