Sit, Booboo

  • Lifestyle
  • Saturday, 24 Apr 2010

Never trained a dog in your life? Here are a couple of brilliant reasons why you should start saying, “Fetch!”

In the chaotic compound of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), five dogs are graduating. Each time trainer Rubini Maruthian calls a mutt by its name, it ambles shyly up to her, extends its paw for a paw-shake and graciously accepts a certificate of achievement with its mouth.

Their proud handlers stand close by, giving their heartiest applause, while their canine pals bark words of encouragement from the kennels.

Actually, this isn’t exactly how it happens, but you get the idea.

With the help of Rubini, 32, SPCA implemented a new training programme in October last year to provide pre-basic obedience classes to adult strays that have been in the shelter for more than a year.

“The puppies have a good shot at being adopted, but these guys don’t,” says Rubini, who received her certification from the Animal Behaviour College of Las Vegas and provides professional training services under her company Doggone Good.

“We want to give them a chance and increase their adoptability.”

Rubini doesn’t do it alone, of course. The success of her programme relies on other Good Samaritans and how willing they are to sacrifice their precious weekend to get down and dirty with these mutts.

She coaches them, and they, in turn, coach their furry friends. Those that excel in the five-week programme then get to attend a “graduation ceremony”, albeit a no-frills version without the music, the hopeful speeches and the long flowing robe.

“What they do get are certificates and additional yummy treats on that day,” quips Rubini.

The results, for such a simple strategy, are phenomenal. Of the five dogs that graduated two weeks ago, four have found a home. Having finished training their third batch of “students”, Rubini and her volunteers are in high spirits.

They were supposed to begin training the next group of talented tail-waggers this week but were asked to oversee an adoption drive at a neighbourhood mall. A litter of kittens, four puppies and two adult dogs — Penny and Jing Jing — both alumni of the programme, will be up for grabs.

Rubini is understandably psyched. Clad in sneakers and jeans, she had arrived at the SPCA an hour earlier to help out with logistics. Success means that her former students would be able to find a good family to live with.

“Even if one dog — just one — were to get adopted, it would make my day,” she says earnestly. “I’m not asking for much, am I?”

The dream team

The mall is abuzz with weekend activity. Little boys and girls mill excitedly around the cages, waving and pointing at the pooches. Their parents seem less enthusiastic. Penny is feeling jumpy. She is unable to keep still and obey any of Rubini’s commands.

“I think she’s stressed. She’s not really been out of the compound before,” says Rubini, as she gently steers Penny to the nearest cage.

That is the numero uno issue with shelter dogs. Once they’re in, they’re in. Not many get to roam the streets, much less see them again.

“Our volunteers are doing a wonderful job but many of them only get to come once a week because of their careers,” says Rubini. “As a result, many of these dogs rarely get to go for walks or interact with humans.”

Think of the animals as the animal equivalent of hermits living in a cave and you have an idea of what Rubini and her handlers face during training sessions each week.

“A huge quandary,” she reveals. “That’s why a big portion of my class focuses on relationship-building and socialisation, not useless tricks.”

This is how it goes: Handlers are encouraged to pick their own dog during the first week of orientation. This is arguably the most important part of the process — much like scouring a singles ad for potential mates. They are expected to work very closely with their choices for the entire duration.

“You must be able to keep up with their personality and temperament,” Rubini cautions.

Pick the wrong dog and you’re in for a shocker, as handler Erina Gregory, 28, discovered.

“I remember my first day clearly,” exclaims Gregory, who works as a military officer. “My dog was hyperactive and I had to constantly run after it. The situation got so kelam-kabut (chaotic) that Rubini knew I wouldn’t be able to handle him. She suggested that I take on Pretty instead.”

Pretty, it turned out, was the complete opposite of Gregory’s first dog.

“She’s the quietest dog I’ve met,” Gregory says. “She always keeps her tail between her legs and didn’t respond to treats. I had to practically drag her out of the cage because she refused to move. When she first took her treat, I screamed because I was so excited. But I’ve come to learn that miracles like this are few and far between.”

Meanwhile, tax consultant Jacelyn Soo, 33, who has had the opportunity of training three dogs (including Penny and Jing Jing), agrees that the first few weeks are usually the hardest.

“It’s not unusual for the dogs to back off when you enter the kennels. They’re so used to staying in a big gang of dogs that they don’t trust humans. Though it’s not impossible to form a connection with them, it takes a lot of time and patience,” she observes.

The key, according to Rubini, is to find the dog’s “currency”.

“Humans work for money, so why shouldn’t dogs?” Rubini comments.

“I don’t believe in dog IQ or how some dogs learn faster than others. You just have to know what motivates the dog. After all, not all dogs are motivated by treats.”

This method of positive reinforcement, she claims, has been loosely used around the world.

“Trainers who say they are using the positive reinforcement method, but still yell, hit or use choke chains on the dog, aren’t really doing so,” she says.

Take dog whisperer Cesar Millan, for instance, who made headlines last year after the American Veterinary Society criticised his dominance-based training tactics. If an Oprah-endorsed trainer like Millan advocates such methods, one can’t help but feel that Rubini may well be the last of her kind.

Men = dogs?

“So far, I’ve found that men are unable to commit,” confides Rubini with a glimmer in her eye. “Surprise, surprise.”

She is referring to the fact that all her handlers are women.

“Well actually, we had a man once but he quit halfway. He just stopped coming,” says Rubini. “They don’t usually give us any explanations as to why they give up. We don’t have the right to demand it either. After all, they’re not being paid or anything.”

Nonetheless, Soo claims that men aren’t the only ones with commitment issues.

“Often, owners will return the dogs after a week or so,” she reveals. “They come with all sorts of different excuses, but the most common one of all is that the dog is overly rambunctious.”

Various research journals, however, have an excellent directive to these lackadaisical owners: Train it yourself!

Their reason? There are many intangible benefits to teaching your pooch to sit, stand and roll. O Magazine reported that merely petting a dog lowers blood pressure and even increases the survival rate of patients recovering from heart attacks.

In her book Why Dogs? (An Inquiry into Why Women May Bond so Strongly to Their Dogs), American writer and dog trainer Sarah Wilson posts that there are additional perks for women.

“Dog training is a remarkably effective way for women to resolve their emotional needs in a relationship. One of the biggest problems in women is asking for what we want. We’re afraid it will drive people away,” she argues.

Wilson sees this tendency transformed in a woman who works with a dog. When she learns to be clear, to know what she wants and reward abundantly the one who provides it, she gets results.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of this!” guffaws Rubini.

“But come to think of it, it (training dogs) has helped me a lot in dealing with children. I don’t know about the men in my life, but, yeah, I guess they’ve been obedient enough.”

With so many positive paybacks, it’s a wonder why this programme wasn’t implemented sooner in Malaysia.

“SPCA used to have professional trainers who came in voluntarily to train the dogs, but that didn’t happen frequently enough,” says Rubini.

“So I thought, instead of relying on just one person to do the job, why not pass the knowledge on to others?”

The idea first came to Rubini while she was working in a shelter in the US as part of her curriculum.

“I noticed that all the shelters there had such a programme. It’s so simple and yet it makes such a huge difference in a dog’s life,” says Rubini, who owns two dogs, Arabica and Snoopy.

“I recently adopted Snoopy. He’s a cocker spaniel who is partially blind. I’ve had Arabica for a longer time. He’s the first dog I adopted and he changed my life,” she says.

With all this first-hand experience, what is the most important lesson she’s learned so far?

“I have to agree with Cesar Millan on one thing, and it’s the transfer of energy between a handler and the dog,” Rubini offers.

“If any of the handlers get frustrated, I have no choice but to tell them to leave and come back after they’ve cooled off because dogs tend to feed off that energy.”

The end of the day arrives. As usual, the puppies and kittens have been huge hits, eliciting the biggest response (two of each kind were adopted). Penny and Jing Jing gaze wistfully at the thinning crowd.

“I’ll definitely miss Penny if she gets adopted,” says Soo. “I suppose it’s natural to feel attached to the dogs. But my first and utmost wish, of course, is for her to find a good home. I’ll be truly happy when she does.”

> This volunteer program is open to those aged 18 and above. For more information, contact Rubini Maruthian at 012-220 7457 or

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