Animals have always been a part of Rhonda York's life.
By RIMSIE McCONIGA
Animals have always been a part of Rhonda York’s life. She grew up on a farm in western Kansas and there was always a new litter of kittens or puppies to care for. She would go outside and yell “kitties” or “puppies” and they would come running.
She has had dogs her whole life except during her college years.
So her newest calling as a dog trainer came naturally even though her interest only developed recently when she was living in Pueblo West, Colorado, and began volunteering at the PAWS Animal Shelter. It was there she saw the difference she could make with the dogs she walked and socialized.
A naturally positive person and having been a voice and piano teacher most of her adult life, Rhonda’s years of teaching taught her that being positive is much more helpful than being negative also when it comes to training dogs.
She earned vocal performance degrees in college and has sung professionally with Tucson Symphony, Canterbury Choral Society, Billings Symphony, and others.
Rhonda is also an ordained clergy member of the United Methodist Church, has a Master’s degree in Christian Education and served for several years as a children’s and youth pastor and worship leader.
Her work at the PAWS Animal Shelter reinforced her interest in working with dogs.
“After two years there, the director asked if I would foster a dog that had been transferred in,” she said. “She was an absolute mess. She had been born into a different shelter but then put into a kennel and not socialized at all for two years. Realizing that she wouldn’t be able to be rehabilitated in a shelter setting, I took on the job. She went from being a terrified and feral animal and changed into a dog. I used what I knew from library books and my limited experience and saw her transform. I ended up adopting her. That experience really got me interested in more formal training. I was certified in June 2018. It took me months to complete the training.”
When Rhonda decided to become a certified dog trainer, she chose Animal Behavior College to get her certification.
“In my opinion, positive reinforcement is a foundational way to teach,” she said. “So when I started looking for a training school, I looked for what would fit my own personality and way of teaching. Animal Behavior College’s philosophy is in line with my own and was in line with the dog training authors I resonated with.”
After moving to Leavenworth last year when her husband was appointed pastor of the Leavenworth First United Methodist Church, she has become a member of Leavenworth Animal Welfare Society, the Leavenworth County Humane Society, Human Animal Bond and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
“Most of the people I spend time with are those who love animals and many of them are working very hard to improve the conditions animals live in,” says Rhonda. “I also know that our businesses are advocates of our pets. Tractor Supply has the free vet clinic, Home Depot has been great when I walk Leavenworth County Humane Society dogs through and Kansas Country Store is doing a lot for strays and surrendered pets. I’m sure there are other businesses in Leavenworth County who are pet advocates that I don’t know of yet.”
Her goal is to train dogs with problem behaviors so they can become more adoptable because the leading cause of dogs being surrendered to shelters is that they have typical dog behaviors that become problems when they live with humans. Rhonda says dogs can learn to change this behavior if a human takes the time to teach the dog.
“The dogs who come into the shelters have probably not been trained (which is why they are in the shelter in the first place). They have good temperaments but just need some consistent instruction. Consistency can be difficult in a shelter setting because so many different people handle the dogs. And there are some problem behaviors we don’t see in a shelter because the dog doesn’t have the opportunity to do it, such as digging. There are also problem behaviors that can manifest in a shelter environment that disappear once a dog is adopted and in a home. Typical problem behaviors that shelters can address are leash pulling, jumping, some on house training, and nipping and mouthing. Others such as digging or jumping on furniture or excessive barking can only be addressed in the home.”
As a dog trainer, Rhonda has found that there are two kinds of problems with dogs: behavior problems which involve an action and temperament problems which involve an emotional state. Behavioral problems are relatively easy to correct with consistent training such as jumping, chewing, digging, house training, etc. Temperament problems are more difficult because a person really can’t completely change the emotional state of the dog. Dogs can be fearful, anxious, hostile, protective or have other behavioral problems. Rhonda says dogs are born with their own personalities and then environment supplies the rest, whether for good or bad. It takes some detective work to figure out why a dog is acting fearful, but if a person can decode the cause of the fear, steps can be taken to desensitize the dog to that fear. Then the dog can become more of who he was created to be. The common temperament issues are fear, hostility toward other dogs or humans and being territorial.
She believes that contrary to the old adage, old dogs can indeed learn new tricks and that most dogs are definitely trainable.
“The only dogs who might be considered untrainable would be those who have been severely damaged by humans,” says Rhonda.
Rhonda helps dog parents with problem behaviors and temperament issues.
“We can work specifically on issues such as dog-to-dog reactivity or dog-to-human reactivity or fence aggression,” she said. “Many issues can be solved with knowing what to do and consistently working with the dog. I will also help people prepare for events such as the AKC Canine Good Citizen test and lower level rally cues.”
One of the challenges for Rhonda in dog training is making pet owners aware that communication is a learned process.
“Maybe it’s because of Disney and TV shows like ‘Lassie,’ but in a way, we think our dogs understand what we are saying,” says Rhonda. “We think if we just say ‘sit’ to them, they should automatically know what that means. They don’t. We have to teach them the behavior first and then work with them to associate the behavior to the word. Another mistake is similar. Again, because of movies and TV, we believe dogs think like humans and have emotions like shame and guilt. They do not. They only know that when we walk in the door, we do actions that scare them, like yelling at them or physically punishing them. They have no idea why and are using dog language to appease us so we won’t hurt them, which to us looks ‘guilty.’ They will never associate the pee or poop on the floor with our tirade. It only makes them afraid of us.”
Dogs love to learn new things and are very curious but breeds differ in activities and traits they have been bred for and Rhonda knows that the breed must be taken into consideration when training them.
“I find it amazing that when a herding dog is put in front of sheep for the first time, she starts herding – she doesn’t need to be taught,” she said. “A retriever would have no idea and would probably not even go out to the yard. But take him out hunting, and he will know what to do. So, breeds can be specific to types of training. Dogs are dogs first and breeds second.
“This means that all dogs will embrace training if they are trained well. With good positive reinforcement, they will try to learn what you want them to. And there are the working breeds who have to be independent enough to make decisions, but dogs want humans to be in charge.
“The problems come when humans don’t lead their dogs. If the human does not offer good leadership for the dog, the dog will then try as best as he can to be ‘in charge.’”
Rhonda has always loved her pets and since she began studying dog training her relationship with her three dogs, Buddy, a black Lab mix, Angel, a yellow Lab and Claire, a heeler/Aussie mix who is a rescue, has become much more fulfilling.
“I was practicing what I was learning on them and watching them grow in their confidence,” she said. “We have fun when we train and just in general. They actually do know what I’m saying a lot of the time. If they don’t, they wait patiently for me to figure out how to make it clearer to them. I’m having a blast!”
Rhonda also helps local prison inmates train dogs.
“I have found that working with the inmates has been a conversation about different training methods, the different personalities of the handlers, and the different personalities of the dogs. We are all learning from each other — I teach the inmates, they teach me, and the dogs teach us all. All of us have benefited from our time together, and I look forward to what else can unfold from this endeavor.
“My reason for becoming a dog trainer was to help people, through training, enjoy their dogs more as well-behaved members of the family and to help make shelter dogs more adoptable. When I can do that, and I see the bond growing between the dog and his human, I have done my job.”
If people are interested in dog training with Rhonda, go to www.dogtrainingwithrhondayork.com or call her at 913-250-8004.