On a chilly September evening, a group of dogs and their humans huddle together around a picnic table. The dogs are seated on the table and the humans are intent on making sure they stay there, using hand gestures, pats, and the occasional verbal command.
The picnic table trick is just one in the repertoire of Yellowknife dog trainer Stephanie Bramhill. She has been teaching the city’s four-legged friends to be good dogs for 11 years.
“Every moment with your dog is a training or a teaching moment,” she said. What is taught in class is brought home for practice, and Bramhill can tell who has or hasn’t been doing their homework. Most of the issues she encounters with local dogs come down to separation anxiety and lack of socialization.
The reality, Bramhill admits, is she is really a people trainer. Once she has finished with them, the humans have the tools to train their dogs.
“Dogs will teach you things you do not know about yourself. It is absolutely amazing,” Bramhill said. “You may think you have the most patience in the world until you run into a dog.”
“You really have to stay on top of it,” Jenny Thompson said of the training as she navigated through downtown with her two huskies, Rogue and Aleu. “Stephanie helps you but she doesn’t train the dogs, she trains you,” she laughed.
Thompson came to Bramhill’s class to work with Rogue, who was living up to her name “a little too much.” Rogue needed to brush up on listening and social skills, as well as tame her inner husky escape artist.
“I was quite concerned about her getting hit,” Thompson said. “This helps her focus on what I’m doing versus what’s going on around her.”
Rogue’s sibling, Aleu, is along for the ride, which helps to socialize the husky puppy – who is timid around other dogs.
“Now she’s great, she loves other dogs. They’re so much calmer with other dogs. Still, with each other they fight as siblings,” Thompson said.
Jenny Thompson works with husky siblings Rogue, right, and Aleu. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
The six-week group classes Bramhill runs through her company, Fetch Some Training, are open to all ages and dog breeds.
“Whenever you throw a different dog or a different energy in, then it throws it all. Which is great for everybody,” she said. “They learn to work with each other. Or even if not working with each other, learn to tolerate and avoid each other.”
On Friday evening, the group starts in front of City Hall. Using obstacles, distractions, and attractions they would encounter during their day-to-day lives, the dogs and their owners work their way along the Frame Lake Trail and up through downtown.
“We do it all outside, in different locations throughout the city. Regardless of what’s going on, they have to pay attention and listen,” Bramhill said.
Stops along the way help dogs to learn commands, walk obediently off-leash, and avoid treats strategically placed in their path.
In Bramhill’s class, puppies like Stella mingle with senior dogs. Most are rescues from the SPCA. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
All of the dogs are then tied up outside Javaroma, where Bramhill instructs the owners to ignore them as the humans head inside. This command goes partially unheeded as furtive owners sneak looks out the window to ensure their dogs are being good.
Like many Yellowknifers, Bramhill has a full-time job and runs her training program on the side. She began this second career after acquiring two Alaskan malamutes.
Hawna Cooper was out in the chilly night with her three children, her husband, and their puppy Aspen, who is “very friendly but very hyper,” Cooper said. “And she’s too big and doesn’t know personal space very well.”
Cooper is bringing her family along to make sure the training they get is consistent. She says it’s been going very well, even without the use of treats to train Aspen. Bramhill doesn’t use treats, clickers, or other “negotiation tools” in her training regimen.
Hawna Cooper said her one-year-old puppy, Aspen, has learned not to sit in people’s laps quite as much. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Denise Bowen has the smallest dog in the pack. She and Teddy, an 18-month-old Biewer Terrier, have come to work on specific commands and learn to walk off-leash. Dropping in is something Bramhill encourages.
“Stephanie is a wonderful teacher,” Bowen said.
“The group is good, the dogs are good.
“You can actually see them progress over time.”