For a fairly small city, Billings is blessed to have a pretty amazing dog community. There are wonderful stores, vets, and trainers in our area. Recently, Lovable Pets staff member Tara Dickerson got the opportunity to sit down with Camilla McCullough from Blue Creek Canine dog training to talk to her about life with dogs, her business, and her training philosophy.
Camilla is an authorized mentor trainer for Animal Behavioral College and the only Family Paws Parent Education Presenter in the state. Lovable Pets has long felt comfortable recommending Camilla’s training classes as they are force-free and fun for dog and handler.
However, as with many dog trainers, Camilla’s young life with dogs involved old-school handling techniques that included leash popping and rubbing noses in accidents. It was a style that led to frustration in the Golden Retrievers she was raised with and also frustration with herself. Camilla recalls a turning point around the age of 12 when, frustrated that her dog would not comply, she kicked it. She immediately felt terribly guilty and this feeling would follow her for years. She wondered why two intelligent creatures – dogs and humans – could not interact in a better way. She promised herself that it would never happen again.
Later in life, after adopting a blue heeler, she was again shown harsh handling techniques and again she felt there must be a better way.
Camilla recalls telling herself that she needed to learn. “This dog I smarter than I am and deserves better than my frustration.” So, she began reading and researching new techniques based on science and logic.
Upon returning to Denmark with the dog, she began to take classes and was happy to find that the techniques there were more progressive and in line with what she had envisioned dog training could be. When she returned to the U.S., she was inspired to share her experience with others and so, she was certified through Animal Behavior College.
“It was two dogs that led me to my current path,” she says. “One that made me see myself in a light that I really didn’t like and one that I wanted to do better for. It was really about wanting to be that better handler that my dogs deserved.”
She started training in 2009, but had a full-time job and a baby. At first, she taught dog training classes part-time at the adult education center. Slowly Camilla added evening classes and in-home consultations to her offered services. And now, for the past two years, she has been training full time. She sees her certification as something similar to a driver’s license.
“Real knowledge comes from experience,” she said, “From continuing to educate myself by attending workshops, seminars and expos around the US and being lucky enough to get in with the right people, mentors, who supported and guided me and even believed in me and my abilities to someday become a full-time trainer. I’ve been doing this now for nine years, but the more I get into it and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. There’s always so much to learn.”
When asked if she has a certain philosophy to her training style, she said, “Educate handlers, because that’s where it all starts.” Convincing handlers how much of a dog’s training is about what the human needs to learn is the hardest part, but also the most important.
“95% of what I do is showing handlers that if they know what to do, their dogs can do it correctly. Once people clean up their handling and are clear in their communication and their requests, the dogs just say, ‘okay, I see what you want, I can do it for you.’ Come to me with an open mind, willing to learn, and ready to start on a journey with me and the dog. ”
After years of experience with dogs, Camilla feels she can read them pretty well and know what they need and what adjustments could help to meet these needs. Translating that on to the owners is the challenge.
“If I don’t succeed in making the handler understand why I do things, then I’m failing the dog.”
Camilla believes that part of the problem in dog training for a lot of years has been an attitude of “do what I want just because I’m your owner.”
“That completely disregards who they are as a species. When you’re taking another species into your home, you have to learn to speak their language. You have to be respectful of their emotions and learn to observe.” She believes there has been “a lack of respect and consent in our communication with our dogs for a long time. That doesn’t mean just have no rules and boundaries for them, because they’re still going to live in our world. It means giving them the skills to live in our world. And that means changing attitudes and philosophies in a lot of cases. Sometimes that’s more than the handler bargained for.”
Camilla sees her biggest weakness in a tendency to want to share so much with the owners so quickly. She tries not to overload the handlers with too much philosophy at once.
“But hopefully my biggest strength is that I can read the dogs and handlers and tell when I’m giving them too much, and then hold back a bit. It’s a fine line.”
The Training Process
Camilla and Tara spoke about an article both had read that focused on people viewing dog training as a product, when it is, in fact, a process. Camilla finds clients are sometimes frustrated when she can’t give them a solid timeline for when their problems will be fixed.
“I really do not know because it depends on whether they do their homework, whether they commit to it, and how deep emotionally this issue might be. So I never guarantee anything and I always tell people that anybody that can guarantee a fix in 48 hours or something – you run, because it is not working with the dog in a way that takes care of the dog.”
Camilla spoke of the importance of creating a safe environment for the dog so that they could learn. If a dog doesn’t feel safe, it is hard for them to take in information and actually learn a new skill. So, first priority is always to create a space where the dog feels safe. Establishing that feeling might take a couple of sessions before trainer and handler can even begin working on the issue with the dog.
She describes some dogs as open books, who come in ready to learn right away and they make quick progress. Others take a while to trust and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to happen right away.
“I can’t guarantee quick results but we can start a beautiful journey together. I can get them having a conversation with their dog and give them the tools to continue on. There’s no quick fixes, it’s an animal with emotions and memories.”
Why Take Training Classes?
In terms of improving the lives of our pets, Camilla wishes we could remember to respect our dogs for what they are.
“I think we forget how smart they are and how much they actually enjoy working. Let them do things, let them use their noses. We get so used to giving them everything on a plate that we forget that that’s not what they’re bred to do and it’s doing them a disservice.”
Camilla feels that the biggest value in coming to a class as opposed to training at home is to make a commitment to get out with your dog, to learn the skills, and create the relationship. It also gives her the opportunity to get eyes on the handlers, to see where hand position, pace, or body language might be making communication unclear.
Tara asked Camilla if there is a certain cue or behavior that she thinks is the most underrated or something not often taught, when it should be. Her answer was: settle.
“To learn to actually chill, to kind of teach them an off button.” This goes beyond “sit” or “down” with duration into an actual relaxation of body and mind.
“Some people have come with dogs with high drive and they think they need to run it to exhaust it and yes, that might work for a while but now you’ve created a marathon dog where their adrenaline and cortisol levels are high and it keeps them going, going, going and that can eventually even change their brain and create a bigger problem. Do they need the physical exercise? Yes! But do we need to teach them to chill? Yes!”
When a dog can settle, it becomes a dog that you love to take places, because when you sit down, the dog relaxes and acclimates to its surroundings. She sees it as a very important skill to give your dog to allow it to handle our world. It involves encouraging and highly rewarding the decision to lay down and be calm rather than pacing around the room and she’s seen dogs whose lives have been greatly improved though this one powerful, but easily overlooked skill.
Nutrition and Dog Behavior
At Lovable Pets, we believe that nutrition plays a major role in every aspect of a dog’s life. Likewise, Camilla feels that nutrition is a very important consideration in dog behavior.
“A dog that’s not feeling well is not going to behave well. Getting people educated about nutrition is as important as getting people educated about training, incorporative care, husbandry, everything. You have to look at the whole dog.”
“I’ve seen dogs in here where you can tell that they need a different food. A lot of it is, again, that they can’t settle – hyper, hyper, hyper – and then when we talk about food, we realize the reason that the dog can’t focus is because of the fuel that’s driving the engine.”
Holiday Behavior Issues
Around the holidays, there are always behavior problems cropping up in homes with dogs. Camilla would remind dog owners to think ahead about how the dog is feeling about having all the people coming and going in the home.
“If you’re starting to say ‘ugh’ my dog is nervous and gets excited and aroused to the point of making bad decisions, you have to have a plan in place. It’s probably a little too late now to start training for this, but having crate training or baby gates for management so the dog doesn’t have access to practice the unwanted behaviors like jumping up on people. If the dog has those chances to practice the bad behaviors, not only does the unwanted behavior become reinforced and thus stronger, it also creates frustration and conflict. We can avoid it altogether. We know that the dog will want to jump on Aunt Barbara when she comes to the door, so we make sure the dog is tethered, or outside, or behind the baby gate until everyone is inside and settled and then maybe the dog can come in and greet everyone. Also prepare by having bones or stuffed Kongs – giving them something to do. The chewing and licking can actually help them to calm down if they are aroused. So prepare. Management – it’s too late to train, now. Train for next year.”
Learning From Our Dogs
One thing Camilla wants people to know when they contact her for classes is her tendency to be a stickler for details and want to offer lots of information.
“But it’s because my focus is for the handlers to understand that their dog is reading them and taking in information all the time and the more they are aware of that, the better communication they’ll have with their dog. I’m working on having some workshops for just handlers-only, without the dogs, so we can deal with issues and start creating some muscle memory and creating the mentality of a journey. It’s an ongoing journey, but it’s such a rewarding journey. If anything, my best mentors in life, have been my dogs. They’re honest about it and if I screw up, they’ll let me know in their way. There’s no hidden agenda. And if people would be openminded to learning from their dogs, they would find that they’d learn a lot about themselves. I’ll teach them, but they’ll also learn from their dogs.”
Camilla said that she sometimes wonders if that is more than people want, but she’s compelled to teach this way. “That’s the way I see it. The dog is looking to their handler for guidance and answers. So, the handler better be ready to reply. And to do so efficiently and clearly takes practice.”
Tara had a lovely time at Camilla’s facility, getting to know her. You can learn more about Blue Creek Canine dog training and what classes are coming up when by visiting the website: https://www.bluecreekcanine.com/ Or follow on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bluecreekcanine