Life Support

Wendy Johnstone offers solutions for seniors.

While the idea of one person controlling more than a dozen dogs may sound impossible to an owner whose companion won’t even sit still when asked, Hird reminds us that it all starts with the basics. Instilling effective obedience techniques, she says, is as much about teaching the owner as it is about training the dog.

“Owners tend to use a lot of voice, but that’s not really going to help them out,” she explains. “Dogs don’t speak English.” Instead, Hird teaches owners to complement their commands with hand signals and body movements that help coax their dog into position.

On graduation night, in the field behind the old Tsolum School, Hird’s emphasis on body movements transforms her image from giddy drill sergeant to enthusiastic aerobics instructor. She whips her hand dramatically into the air to demonstrate a distance “Sit!” command, then throws her whole body into a lunge with a downward point to demonstrate “Down!” These canine calisthenics are repeated for each student as she makes her rounds, alternately shouting encouragement, laughing at her students’ antics and offering good-humoured advice for her sometimes-frustrated owners.

“No swearing at the dogs,” she shouts playfully in response to one particularly frustrated owner whose dog appeared more interested in licking than listening. “When they make you the maddest, remember their good qualities; remember how much you love them—most of the time!”

If anyone could be born to work with animals, it’s Megan Hird. Raised on a hobby farm near Shawnigan Lake, Hird grew up surrounded by cats, dogs, chickens, sheep and horses. “Every animal I had,” she says, “I learned everything I possibly could about them and tried to do more and more and more. I always wanted to (work) with animals. I had to do something with animals.”

Hird began volunteering at veterinary clinics when she was 16, and got a job as a veterinary assistant at a Vancouver clinic immediately after high school. It was there that she really began to discover her skill with dogs. She wasn’t allowed to have a dog in her apartment so she began walking dogs for friends and even clients from the clinic, doing basic obedience training along the way.

Hird was gearing up to become a veterinary technician and volunteering at the Victoria SPCA when she enrolled in an animal welfare program through the College of the Cariboo. This year-long course gave her an in-depth knowledge of animal anatomy and behavior. Following this, Hird went on to complete an intensive four-month dog-training program in Victoria under the tutelage of trainer Ben Kersen, all the while volunteering with the local SPCA and working at a combination kennel/training facility.

“Doing the dog training programs really gave me the confidence to start my own business using my own methods, and help people have a better relationship with their own dogs,” Hird says. She relocated to the Comox Valley “for the outdoor life” in December 2004 and began working part-time at local vet clinics while starting up Poochies.

Today, Hird’s pack includes three dogs—Kayla, an eight-year-old Belgian Malinois-cross she rescued from the Victoria SPCA; Skye, a two-year-old Border Collie she raised from a pup, and Choncho, a two-year-old Chihuahua also rescued from the SPCA.

Kayla, scheduled to be euthanized due to her aggression toward dogs and men before Hird adopted her, is now a friendly, balanced dog—thanks to intensive training and exposure to all kinds of situations.

“Kayla is now my teacher to other dogs,” says Hird. “She is a role model for other dogs, and helps other dogs with aggression issues get through it and past it. She and Choncho (who had three other homes before being rescued by Hird) and Skye are the ambassadors for Poochies—they are there to help with the training too.”

Her dogs all accompany Hird to classes, where they wait patiently for after-class playtime, participate in demos and act as distractions for the dogs in class.

With her dogs as proof of the benefits of training, it’s no surprise that Poochies’ classes are in demand, and have been since she first started. Back in 2004 her obedience classes began to fill up almost immediately as word spread about her apparent gift with animals, although “gift” is another word that Hird surely wouldn’t use to describe her knack with dogs. To her, it’s simply a matter of reading the dog and knowing what training method will work best.

“Every dog is an individual,” she says. “Some dogs are really food motivated, some aren’t. Some are toy-driven and some just want to run around or snuggle. It’s finding the motivation for the dogs, and what works best for the owners.

“I don’t really have just one method. It’s all praise-based and reward-based, but while I’ll tell one owner to do something in group class, I might tell the next owner to do something completely different, depending on their dog and their capabilities with it.”

Her methods seem to be working.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the half dozen dogs heeling, halting, sitting, staying and dutifully earning their advanced obedience diplomas. Immediately after the class, participants are already asking Hird when she’ll be offering a follow-up course. (She expects to have one available before the end of the summer, as well as a course focusing on handling aggressive or fearful dogs.)

“It really shows the depth that you can go with training your dog and how you can establish a really good relationship,” says Linda Perron, whose dog Ellie May has just graduated. “There are things she’s doing now that she wasn’t doing before, and things that I understand in her behaviour that I didn’t understand before.”

But it’s Taz, a three-year-old terrier cross, that’s the real story of the day. “He’s from the SPCA in Nanaimo,” explains Lucienne De Vries, Taz’s owner. “He spent his first two years in a back yard. He was not house-trained and he had no social skills with humans or with other animals. He was a wild animal.” The name Taz is actually short for Tasmanian Devil, a moniker he earned with his demonic behaviour.

After his Poochies training, De Vries says, Taz is a different dog. “He has manners now. He listens. He was dominant and never had any control in his life, but now he’s totally calm.”

Hird has recently rescued another dog due to be euthanized for his aggression with people and dogs. “He didn’t have the tools to handle situations when it came to people greeting him and dogs approaching him,” says Hird of Rotty, a three-year-old Jack Russell/Miniature Pincher cross.

Thanks to Hird and her dogs, Rotty is now learning how to behave properly in a variety of situations. “I have been doing set ups with him every day to teach him how to interact with people and dogs, always ending with a victory,” says Hird, adding that Rotty has gone back to basics and is developing proper social skills and learning “life boundaries.”

In the week she has had him, he has “come so far. He is now running free with other dogs and has had many successful visits with dogs and people,” says Hird, who will continue to work with Rotty until she feels he is at a level to be re-homed.

“I am sure Rotty will become a great new family member to somebody fairly soon.”

“It’s never too late to teach on old dog new tricks,” says Hird, adding that she recently helped correct some bad behavior in a 12-year-old dog, a geriatric to say the least. Whether it’s for a young puppy or an older dog with behavioral issues, Hird’s advice is always the same: “Invest the time.

“Commit to the time because it just takes a few little reminders here and there after you commit to that time in the beginning. It’s just so nice to be able to have that control when your dog’s out in a public place and is listening to you.

“Nothing,” she adds, “is more frustrating than when you hear owners yelling and screaming at their dog and the dog doesn’t have any idea what the owner’s asking them to do, and the owner doesn’t understand why the dog’s not listening.”

If Poochies’ success continues, as it seems destined, those kinds of ignorant owners in the Comox Valley may soon become a dying breed.

Poochies next basic obedience sessions start September 22. Classes are held Monday and Thursday evenings for six weeks. For more information and details about upcoming classes call Megan at 250-898-9022 or visit the Poochies web site.

Wendy Johnstone.

Wendy Johnstone.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Gerontology is defined in the dictionary as ‘the scientific study of ageing and its effects’. It’s not a word commonly used or seen but it will soon become part of our everyday language as we see more effects of having an elder population living longer than ever before.

To Comox resident Wendy Johnstone, cost
gerontology has been her life’s work for 15 years and now she has launched her own business addressing some of the challenges and issues caused by the natural process of ageing—issues that face many seniors and their families today.

Solutions for Seniors Eldercare Planning was launched in May this year, offering a service for families with elderly relatives who wish to remain independent in their homes for as long as possible or require help in making the transition to a more supportive environment, such as assisted living. Word of her services spread quickly and Johnstone has already received a steady flow of inquiries and clients.

The needs of clients are varied. Johnstone currently has a client who is in hospital, in between placements. The nearest relative lives out of town so Johnstone is filling the void by visiting her client twice a week and ensuring that she has everything she needs—from chiropody treatment and ensuring proper nutrition to assisting with the move to residential care.

Eldercare planning is a pressing issue for many people and it is also a very sensitive area, not only assessing the needs of all those involved but discussing budgets for the financial implications. For Johnstone the whole situation demands a very personalized approach. “Despite the fact that there is a lot of literature out there, many people don’t know where to start or what their ageing relative actually needs,” she says.

It is Johnstone’s job to sort out the tangle, to figure out what is really important to that senior and what is missing for them. During the process she is passionate about not losing sight of the individual, which she feels is the key to having a successful relationship. But equally important to her is that all family members be a part of the solution and contribute in some way.

Johnstone has a strong belief in helping families understand the whole process so that the final choices will be the best choices. Rather than just present a neatly drawn up solution, she will draw up a list of options and probable outcomes depending on the choices made.

Providing the proper service-care plan and solutions can be a very slow process and advance planning is always helpful. She is a firm advocate in adults talking to their elders, initiating conversation about the future and needs and care choices that are available. Even for the closest family unit, this can be a very hard conversation to start and Johnstone is surprised to find she is being asked to coach families through their concerns, such as elders falling, frailty, signs of dementia and so on.

This coaching can be as little or as much as the individuals require—from a short meeting to putting together an action plan that is later reviewed and refined before moving to the next step.

Obviously there are government departments available to respond and help with eldercare issues, such as Seniors Home and Community Care (SHCC). However despite the service they give, with the ever-increasing aging population, they are often overworked and stretched to the limit. Johnstone’s ethos allows for a more holistic approach to not only physical but also mental needs.

Johnstone, young and vital, is obviously extremely passionate about her work and thoroughly enjoys her daily interaction with the older generation.

“I really enjoy spending time with seniors,” she says. “They have so much history and knowledge. Younger people are always looking forward to the future while seniors take the time to look back and see what they are leaving behind. They have a refreshing candor. I really admire that—I see them for who they are and I share in that. To me it is such a gift that I get to do that on a daily basis.”