Q&A with Dog Trainer Jennifer Marshall
Jennifer Marshall is a dog trainer and owner of K9 Symmetry, an Oregon-based training practice.
She shared how she got her start and introduces us to the dog sport of Mondioring.
The Honest Kitchen: Did you always want to be a dog trainer?
Jennifer Marshall: When I was a little girl, my first dream was to be a lion tamer in the circus. Gradually it dawned on me that might be a little whimsical, and my focus switched to wildlife biology. I was 10 or 11 when I got my first dog, and I realized training dogs is an actual thing. Training dogs in a professional manner and helping people was an actual job. Sometimes I’m very, very thankful that I did not pursue lion taming.
HK: What is your training philosophy?
JM: When I first started out, you didn’t use rewards back then. That’s all I knew, and that’s what I did with my first dog, which I regret, but I didn’t know any better. I am an obsessive researcher. I love to read, and I love to observe animals. My family knew an old Cherokee blacksmith, and she had wolves and wolfdogs. I had the opportunity to go and observe them on many occasions. I started to learn about dog behavior, and I would incorporate that into my interactions with dogs. I noticed that dogs responded to body language and emotion. Everything that you give to a dog, they respond. The differences between wolves and dogs are dramatic. [Dogs] give you so much more, and they really live for people.
HK: How did your philosophy evolve?
JM: In the late 90s and early 2000s, I started to hear about clicker training and positive reinforcement and the use of markers in training, and I thought it was the best thing ever. I pretty much did a 180 and went from the harsher methods to only the positive aspects of dog training. I tried to focus everything into that. I was successful with a small handful of dogs using no compulsion, but I did notice that with many other dogs, that was not as successful. The dogs that do not have much drive and much motivation, dogs that don’t really bond with a stranger coming into work with them, dogs that don’t want food or treats, those dogs responded a bit better to a combination of what I had learned before. The compulsion and corrections are mixed with lots of rewards from the handler.
HK: What types of dogs do you typically see?
JM: I get lots of puppies, which are awesome, or the dogs that people have bounced around to different trainers and have aggression issues either towards animals or people. Also, I get a lot of fear and anxiety problems, the dogs that are really nervous around new people, new places, and just very timid.
HK: When should a dog owner seek out a professional dog trainer?
JM: Before they get the dog! For people that want a puppy or are open to a rescue dog, I will assist them in finding a dog that matches what they’re actually looking for. I will meet the family, take a long list of things they’re interested in, and I observe how they live. I will take the information from that and go to various shelters or craigslist, evaluate as many dogs as it takes, and find the perfect match.
HK: What behaviors would you like to see every dog owner teach their dog?
JM: I wish that all dog owners would teach basic manners.
HK: Like what?
JM: There’s not really one thing, but recall is top of the list, and loose leash walking and generally being able to control and direct the dog.
HK: You’re very involved in the dog sport Mondioring. Can you tell us what that’s all about?
JM: It consists of extreme agility and jumps with high levels of obedience and protection work. Everything is set up on the field, and you have lots of distractions. The one thing that sets Mondioring apart from other dog sports is everything is different every time you compete. You know the basic exercises—you’ll be heeling, the dog must do a retrieve, refuse food, etc.—but you don’t know the details of those until right before you trial.
HK: Who is best suited for the sport?
JM: People who love the spirit of competition and love training. In general, the dogs do need to have very stable temperaments, dogs that are not easily frightened by sounds or objects. You do have to pass a temperament test with any dog that will be competing in the full program. We also have obedience and jumps only titles [without the protection work portion].
HK: Finally, any advice for first-time dog owners?
JM: It is very easy to get distracted by how cute a dog looks. Most of the time when people start thinking about getting a dog it’s because they saw one that they thought was cute so they go looking for that specific type of dog. Unfortunately, even within a breed, there are wide variations of type. Research is your best friend. You can never have too much information.