If you see Lori, the Czech German Shepard, in public, you might look twice. You might spot her in the supermarket, sitting patiently in an aisle with the end of her leash hanging loosely over the side of a shopping cart or on the floor next to her.
Ken Matthews, her owner, is always just a few feet away. He is 100 percent comfortable leaving Lori while he steps away to grab ice cream from a freezer. He knows that when he returns to his cart, Lori will still be sitting exactly where he left her.
Lori may be the most well-behaved dog in town, thanks to Matthews. At the same time, Matthews is perhaps one of the most cool and collected individuals you’ll find around here. It is no surprise, then, that he was a teacher for 34 years, and simultaneously worked with dogs throughout his entire career.
“As long as I was a teacher, I had dogs and was training them,” he says.
It is likely this cool demeanor that has allowed him to train dogs like Lori with such success. He showed dogs in AKC obedience competitions. While he was an obedience instructor in Duluth, MN (his hometown), he saw 30 new dogs every eight weeks. Since 2010, when he and his wife began spending half of each year in Globe, he has voluntarily evaluated dogs for the Humane Society. Most recently, he took a scent protection course at the University of Illinois last summer.
The best way to train a dog, he says, is to use the same technique trainers use to train dolphins at Sea World. It’s a technique called marker-training, and he swears by it.
The earliest beginnings of marker training first surfaced from animal behavior experiments in the 1940s. It really exploded, however, in the 1990s, thanks to the book Don’t Shoot the Dog!, written by former dolphin trainer Karen Pryor. Marker training is a method of training animals using positive reinforcement instead of punishment. For dogs, the positive reinforcement usually comes in the form of dog treats, and sometimes dog toys.
“I read about dogs every day of my life,” he says emphatically.
But it was when he saw a police demo with an unleashed German Shepard that he really became interested in working with dogs. Soon after, he learned about marker training.
Now, when Matthews trains a dog, he never lays a hand on it.
“They’re not afraid of you because you’re not touching them,” he explains. “You can’t just be heavy handed, like you can’t muscle a killer whale.”
Rough handling is a common mistake made by pet owners. It’s what Matthews refers to as the old school method. For example, many pet owners still think the best way to potty train a dog is by rubbing its nose into its own mess on the floor.
This, Matthews says, is completely ineffective. For one, the dog usually has already forgotten it made a mess by the time the owner finds it. Second of all, whatever actions from an animal you pay attention to, you will get more of, he explains.
That is why Matthews will overlook a dog’s mistakes, only acknowledging its positive behavior with a treat or dog toy. That’s not to say that he doesn’t establish authority with the dog.
“In the world of dogs, you either lead or follow,” he says. “You got to show them you’re worth following.”
That’s also why alpha dogs are not the best to train.
“Most people think they want an alpha dog,” he adds. “You don’t. They will challenge you for anything.”
Perhaps the best way to understand Matthews’ technique is by simply watching him work with Lori outside of Fry’s during lunch hour. At any given moment, Matthews can, and does, let go of Lori’s leash, and leave her to her own devices in front of the store’s ceramics display as clusters of shoppers walk past. Again, even when Matthews is approached by a person just feet away, she continues to lay in the exact same spot, her lips pulled back into a panting grin.
After several moments, Matthews walks back to her, looks directly into her eyes, and says “ready?”
Lori’s ears twitch at the sound of his words. She sits up abruptly, her eyes focused on Matthews. He hands her a treat, and then says “free,” which means Lori can stand up and greet the nearby person with a few sniffs and a wagging tail.
It is this constant communication using eye contact, words, and treats in exchange for desirable behavior that makes Lori’s and Matthews’ interactions so fluid.
Whenever he works with a new dog, eye contact is the first thing Matthews establishes with a new dog.
“The first time I catch the dog making eye contact, I give it a treat,” he says. “Pretty soon, the dog won’t take its eyes off of you.”
Then he can hang a treat right above the dog’s nose, until its butt lands on the ground. As the dog lowers its body, Matthews will say “there.” This word becomes critical during training. It translates to “you’re doing it right, and a treat is on the way.” Once the dog sits completely, it is rewarded both with the treat and a simple praise word “good.”
From then on, Matthews will say “there” whenever a dog starts to do something right, and “good” when the dog completes the action. He then immediately gives it a treat. This is considered “marking” positive behavior.
It’s not all that different from working with children, he explains, because humans and dogs respond to the same positive reinforcement.
Contrary to popular belief, Matthews can train dogs at any age, not just puppies. The key is consistency. For this reason, Matthews will not train a dog without its owner present. In order for training to stick, a dog should have the same interactions it has with its owner as it does with Matthews. In fact, the hardest part about dog training are the owners, he professes.
“If you train with me, I want you to say you are going to learn something,” he says.
Otherwise, the first training session may go well, but if a dog’s owner stops enforcing positive behavior once a session is over, then the training is useless. Whatever positive habits the dog just learned during training are soon forgotten, and should an owner try to revisit training days or weeks later, the dog no longer understands.
“That will drive the dog nuts,” Matthews says. “How you live with a dog everyday is what gives you a trained dog.”
If you want a well-trained dog, then you, too, have to be trained as an owner.
Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.