Manners‘ Best Friend

A few weekends ago, Bo, Cleo and Ralph went on an adventure. They traveled by car down to the Bass Pro outdoor sporting shop in Bridgeport, stretched their legs, sniffed the late summer air, then practiced an essential skill: not jumping on people.

The three companions are students of Michelle Douglas’s dog training school, The Refined Canine. Bo’s a pretty-eared Beagle, Cleo’s a svelte mixed-breed and Ralph’s a massive brindled Boxer who hams it up for the camera. All three were brought by their owners to practice navigating the tricky terrain of being a dog in a human’s world.

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Douglas began Refined Canine in 1997, but says “it all started with my dog,” named Gibson, who she met in 1993. “I thought that she was the most amazing creature in the world,” Douglas says. “She was hit by a car and killed at nine months old. It changed my life. The only reason that I could justify her being with me for such a short time was that she was a guardian angel sent to change my path.”

Because of Gibson, Douglas knew she wanted to spend her days with dogs. She started with basic obedience training, joined the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and has now been certified to the nines. After 21 years in business, she says she’s prepared to “take on almost anything,” which she does during classes and private lessons all over the greater New Haven area.

Half of her clientele are pooches with behavior issues like anxiety or aggression, while the other half, like the traveling trio, are just there to learn what Douglas calls “good manners.” A polite pup comes when called, doesn’t jump on people and is relaxed on a leash. It’s a brief list but a challenging one for many of Douglas’s clients.

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Take jumping. “If jumping is how they say hello… the first thing to do is identify how you would like the dog to say hello instead. The easiest one is ‘sit,’” Douglas says, and then qualifies it. “I say it’s easy. My dog might disagree. It’s not that easy to sit when you’re excited.” She has an elegant solution. She teaches dogs to touch their noses or paws to a person’s outstretched hand instead, which is practical because most people reach out their hands anyways when they see an appealing canine. “The signal’s already provided,” she says.

In Bridgeport, I watched as Cleo placed her paw in Douglas’s hand. It looked genial, friendly, refined. Douglas gave her a treat from her inexhaustible supply. When asked how she accommodates dogs who might not be food-motivated, she says she’s got “the good stuff” with her—treats so delicious that even the pickiest palettes are left drooling.

After Ralph, Cleo and Bo finished up their first activity, it was time to venture indoors. The trio navigated through automatic doors and revolving turnstiles into a new environment, rich with strange smells and people wanting to pet them. When a pup made a misstep, Douglas didn’t punish them; she simply refused to enforce their mistake.

“It’s just about consistency… Dogs do what works. If they’re getting attention for something, they’re going to keep doing it,” she says. Douglas also dispels a couple myths about dog ownership: first, spoiling your furballs isn’t a bad thing—“I spoil my dogs all the time,” she says—and, on the other paw, there’s no need to stress about being “strict and disciplinarian.”

“Your dog will never see you as the alpha, because you’re not a dog,” Douglas says. “That’s something they keep in their own species and so do we. We want to dominate everything… But the dogs don’t really care.” They’re just there for the food and the love. She says her favorite part of the job is the lightbulb moment, for the dogs—“They’re proud of themselves. The tails wag and the ears perk up. That’s the best”—and, of course, the humans, too.

The Refined Canine
Group Classes | Private Training
(203) 804-DOGS (3647) | refinedcaninellc@gmail.com

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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