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Trainer in Las Vegas helps shelter dogs improve their manners

Nicole Fox bends to strap a purple vest on Louie, a boxer mix currently residing at The Animal Foundation shelter on North Mojave Road. Assuming a serious air, Louie stands stock-still. It’s time to go to work — even if that work will be mostly play.

A Las Vegas native, Fox is an enrichment specialist at the foundation, and Louie is a participant in its Academy for Canine Etiquette Program. The goal of the program is to get dogs — primarily high-energy large breeds, which are less likely to be adopted — to change their behavior to more human-friendly models. Of the 60 dogs that have completed the program, 53 of them have been adopted. Fox remembers one man who visited a dog five times in about six weeks; satisfied with the dog’s progress, he adopted it before it even got its sheepskin.

Louie, who has been training for about five weeks, used to mark everything in sight, but Fox has broken that habit. He’s become a model canine citizen as long as there are no distractions; she’s working to get him to do the same when there are distractions.

As Fox and Louie enter an enclosed play yard, she unclips his lead and lets him run around. After a while she calls out, “Are you ready?” and when he is — or maybe a little sooner, if he’s too busy taking in the scenery — he’ll come and sit in front of her, facing her and looking into her eyes. Eye contact is one of the things for which he gets rewarded with a treat, because it shows he’s paying attention.

They train for 20 minutes or so, and then it’s time for more play. Louie especially likes the kids’ wading pool when the weather’s a little warmer.

Play is the first phase of the program, and an important one.

“It keeps them happy, which helps keep them healthy,” Fox said. Dogs are grouped together in the play yards to determine their style of play, which can be an indication of the type of environment in which they’d thrive. This helps shelter staff inform potential adopters.

As the dogs progress through the program, they’re training for the ultimate goal, certification in the American Kennel Club’s demanding Canine Good Citizenship program.

Review-Journal: What was the beginning of your involvement with animals?

Nicole Fox: My mom was an animal lover. I grew up around everything from squirrels to horses, reptiles, fish. A squirrel got into her car one day, so she brought it home. (And the tradition continues; her daughter, Teareny, 22, is on the foundation’s behavioral team.)

When did you start at The Animal Foundation?

It’ll be eight years in February. I started in animal care, because I knew how to provide care. I worked with cats and exotics, garden snakes to bird-eating spiders, horses at Horseman’s Park.

Bird-eating spiders?

We get a lot of animals that have been confiscated or surrendered.

How did you learn how to train animals?

A good friend got me into training horses 10 years ago. I also train and compete in Schutzhund (a demanding sport that focuses on canine qualities such as intelligence, protective instinct and their bond with their handler). Last summer, I was sent to Austin to Pets4Life (an educational resource for those who work with shelter animals) to learn how to train shelter dogs to be Canine Good Citizens.

The Canine Good Citizens program talks about teaching dogs manners. What are manners, as they apply to a dog?

How to walk nicely on a leash, down, stay, not jumping on people, to allow petting. A lot of times, they’re surrendered because they haven’t been trained.

What are the CGC requirements for certification?

It’s a 10-step program, including approach, groom, being handed to the evaluator. There can be no leash pressure, no correction, including voice, and no food rewards.

How many dogs do you have at home?

Four. A husky, an American bully, a German shepherd and a (Belgian) Malinois.

You said the pit bull is your favorite breed, and you even have tattoos of pit bulls. What do you like about them?

They’re very forgiving.

Tell us about your pit bull.

(When I got him) he was 100 pounds of ill-mannered beast. His name is Bullet, because he would fly right through you. Now he’s the ambassador of the breed.

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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