Life Support

Wendy Johnstone offers solutions for seniors.

“Dogs get to be dogs,” says Hird of the off-leash wilderness dog walking service she offers for graduates of her obedience classes.  “Having them learn from me, and from the other dogs, makes it much more than just another walk.” Hird takes up to 16 dogs at a time on the two-hour walks.

Megan Hird barks out orders in a firm yet melodic voice, her bare arms planted squarely on her hips and her cropped blond hair flared out from under a green, military-style ball cap. While she wouldn’t look out of place in army fatigues, she’s instead clad in a sporty tank top, black capris and a pair of well-worn sneakers. Dangling at her hip is her sidearm of choice—a climber’s chalk bag full of dog treats.

It’s graduation night for Poochies’ advanced dog obedience class, and six eager canines and their owners will have to show Hird that they’ve earned their diplomas. It’s not going to be easy. Building up from a simple heel, the students will eventually have to show that they’re capable of braking from a full run into a sit, and then remaining calmly seated while their owners march up to 100 metres away and launch into a set of jumping jacks. As if that’s not challenging enough, Hird will be taunting them every step of the way with the aforementioned treats she keeps all too readily available at her hip.

Although she has occasionally been compared to a drill sergeant, albeit a giddy one, Hird is more often referred to as the Comox Valley’s Dog Whisperer, although it’s a comparison she tends to downplay. As the proprietor of Poochies Dog Obedience Training, Hird reckons she’s trained hundreds, possibly even thousands, of animals using a mixture of respect, challenge and praise-based coaching.

“I’m not like the Dog Whisperer on TV where I just jump in and make the dog submit,” Hird says. “I actually earn the dog’s trust. I take the trust first and start working the dog with smaller steps to build up its confidence and trust in me. Then I’ll start challenging it.”

When it comes to training a dog, Hird says, the challenge is what it’s all about.

“Many people don’t give dogs nearly enough credit,” she explains. “They’re extremely intelligent animals and they’re not challenged enough. People will say, ‘It’s just a family dog, it’s just a pet,’ and they’ll leave it in the backyard all day long and never ask anything of it. It’s just like never challenging a person, like having a kid that’s never taught anything new. They can go mentally crazy.

“It’s really sad,” she continues. “There are all these dogs in the pounds for problems that can go away in a week’s time if you just teach them some boundaries and ask a bit more of them. They end up really loving it. A lot of people feel that obedience is a kind of punishment, but really it’s mean not to ask anything of them. They love the bonding, they love the one-on-one time and they love to work.”

Through Poochies, Hird offers private lessons and consultations, as well as a series of group classes ranging from basic obedience training for beginners to advanced obedience and even tricks. In basic obedience, dogs learn commands such as “Sit,” “Down,” and “Come,” and techniques to correct behaviors such as aggression, jumping on people or furniture, begging for food and excessive barking.

Basic obedience classes are held twice a week for six weeks. These twice weekly classes really help to excel the learning rate for people and for dogs, says Hird. Advanced obedience takes those skills to the next level, and the just-for-fun tricks classes teach dogs stunts like rolling over, spinning, weaving through their owners’ legs and jumping through hoops.

Graduates from all classes are also welcome to join Hird on her monthly Saturday free class, where they can refresh their skills and catch up with old classmates.

The most talked-about Poochies service, however, is the dog walking. After you’ve completed her basic obedience training, Hird will pick your dog up from your home and take it on a two-hour “wilderness adventure” along the Trent River near Union Bay. Not doing much to allay her comparisons to the Dog Whisperer, the slight-framed 28-year-old takes up to 16 dogs off-leash and never has a problem with dogs misbehaving or running away.

“They’ve got the rules already set in their heads from the group class,” she says confidently, “and so it’s just a matter of enforcing them off leash.”

“It’s pretty cool,” she admits. “Dogs get to be dogs. They spend so much time around people that they don’t really understand how to be like dogs. Having them learn from me, and from the other dogs, makes it much more than just another walk.”