Sara White with Aspen, who serves as a role model for the dogs attending White’s obedience classes at the Grand Canyon Recreation Center
Along with teaching the class, White has other dog-care skills that she applies on an as-needed basis. She is certified to provide emergency medical care for dogs, and has responded three times with CPR, twice successfully.
“There was one drowning and two car accidents,” she said. “One of the dogs hit by a car was too badly injured to make it.”
She’s also rescued about 15 dogs from choking using the Heimlich maneuver, and in her class she emphasizes using soft treats as rewards.
Her own dog, an 11-year-old golden lab named Sundances Aspen McGyver, assists, modeling ideal dog behavior. He demonstrated that behavior all the way to a Best-of-Show ranking in competition that White called “the Westminster of obedience training.” He’s retired now, but he serves as an example to the dogs in the class. He’s also a certified Delta therapy dog, trained to visit nursing homes, facilities for the handicapped and hospitals. He is also certified by the American Kennel Club as a K-9 Good Citizen.
“That means a dog is so well-behaved, he can go into any situation calmly and in a well-mannered way,” White said.
Since she started the classes, she estimates that she and Aspen have helped at least 200 canines and their owners learn the basics of a quality dog’s life.
Good training is an essential component of that, she said.
“Dogs need a job,” she said. “When you teach them fundamental obedience skills, you give them something to do. They know they’re making their owners happy and they love the praise.”
While the goal of the class is a better-behaved dog, White said the training really starts with the owners.
“She trains people to handle their dogs,” said Sherry Baker, who was attending the class with her dog, Grace. “I came because I want a well-behaved dog that people don’t mind being around.”
“I can take any dog and train it,” White said. “They’ll listen and respect me as the alpha dog, but when they go back to their owners it’s a different story. What I do is train people to handle their dogs.”
Because dogs follow a social hierarchy, she said humans need to learn to assume the “alpha,” or dominant role and to have high expectations for their pet’s behavior.
For example, she said, a dog owner should never tolerate growling or raised hackles, not even when directed at another dog, nor should they tolerate their pet’s disregard of a known command.
“That’s a disregard of the alpha,” she said. “If you tell your dog to go settle, it should go settle.”
For the dogs themselves, she said, such clear expectations are ultimately a relief.
“It takes a lot of energy to run the show,” she said.
Along with teaching the basics of obedience, she also gives the dogs time to get acquainted and develop good social skills. Dogs are meant to function in relation to others and undersocialized dogs, she said, can suffer lasting psychological harm.
Barb Walker brought her dog, two-year-old Teton, after White’s class made a difference in her 11-year-old chocolate lab’s behavior. Teton, she said, needed to learn better behavior around other dogs.
“This is my third time,” she said. “With this dog, it’s for socialization. He needs to act a little more civilized.”
White also instructs dog owners in other aspects of maintaining their pets’ well-being. For example, at a recent class, she offered a segment on ear care, especially important for dogs with hanging ears that are more prone to yeast infections. Along with providing advice on effective ear-care products, she also explained the importance and showed the technique of handling the dog’s ears so it grows accustomed to regular treatments.
Seeing dogs and their owners grow in their enjoyment of each other is the biggest reward, she said.
“I’ve seen biting, growling hostile dogs become compliant animals,” she said. “I’ve seen abused and abandoned dogs make a 180 degree turnaround. I’ve seen dogs go from unsure to confident. It’s a joy to watch it happen. People appreciate a well-mannered dog.”
Among her successful alumni are Soap and Salt, the two so-called river pups who were found and rescued from the inner Canyon last year.
“The dogs were essentially feral when they were found,” she said. “Their progress has been outstanding.”
“I try to teach responsible dog ownership,” she said. “By state and county law, dogs must have adequate food and a constant supply of water, adequate shelter from heat and cold, and appropriate medical care. They should also have ample room to exercise. That doesn’t include leaving them chained to a tree.”
There is no written policy governing the care of dogs in the park, but White believes one is needed.
“I’m trying to establish a policy through the superintendent that dog owners provide a basic level of care,” she said. “I’d like to see a fence enclosure rule rather than a chain. It’s a privilege to have a dog in a national park. People should be providing a standard level of care.”