It started with a growl.
Norman was just a puppy when he started showing signs of “resource guarding” – the phrase dog behavior experts use to describe dogs who are possessive – and sometimes aggressive – towards their food or toys.
“We couldn’t walk near his food bowl,” Jessica Green of Millersburg said. “The first time or two I thought, ‘Oh, he’s just a puppy.’ But then you could tell by the look in his eyes that he wasn’t playing.
And Norman was growing every minute. A Mastiff mix, he already weighed between 30 and 40 pounds at 10 weeks old.
“Our fear was that he was going to get a lot bigger,” Green said, although she has “a thing for big breeds.”
She went online to search for accredited dog trainers in the Harrisburg area, focusing on those affiliated with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). His research revealed two options, only one of which offered the individualized training Norman needed.
“My only hope was Harrisburg’s Great Dog program, and luckily they had room for me,” Green said.
For several months, Norman and his parents, Green and her fiancé, worked with trainer Natahnee Miller, president of the Great Dog Program of Harrisburg.
One of the first things Miller focused on wasn’t necessarily Norman’s behavior, but his parents’. Norman, like many puppies, was adopted in 2020 amid pandemic lockdowns and work-from-home lifestyles.
“At the time, we weren’t the most structured people in the world. But Natahnee gave us ideas on how to incorporate structure into our lives because Norman needed that as a puppy,” Green said. “Now we deliberately walk him in the morning and at noon every day.”
Miller also taught them to read Norman’s body language and demeanor. And you could say that Norman let his guard down. Now a big 105-pound boy, 2-year-old Norman no longer growls to protect his food, although he’s still working on a few other quirks.
“He’s not perfect, but he’s way better,” Green said. “The training has made life with our dog much more enjoyable. We will always be grateful to the Great Dog Program of Natahnee and Harrisburg.
The experience was life changing in many ways. Green became so fascinated with dog behavior training that she now volunteers at an area shelter, the Perry County Animal Rescue, once a week.
Green has also shown his appreciation by donating to Harrisburg’s Great Dog program. As a non-profit organization, the all-volunteer organization is dedicated to providing high quality training without any expectation of payment. Donations fund the organization’s relatively modest budget of $5,000 a year, which covers everything from insurance to dog treats.
Founded by Andrew Hyle in 2012, Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program first offered free dog training at the Allison Hill Community Center.
When Miller came on board in 2016, she brought a wealth of knowledge from her experience as a former state dog keeper and former director of behavioral care at the Harrisburg Humane Society.
“Working at the shelter and as a dog sitter, you see a lot of people having a lot of communication issues with their dogs, things that can be fixed,” Miller said. And she wanted to help.
The most common problems?
“What dog owners typically refer to as ‘aggression’ — things like barking at other dogs or at people, cars and bikes,” Miller said. “Separation anxiety is also up there, a lot of behavioral issues.”
Miller realized that Harrisburg’s Great Dog program could fill several voids in the community. Very few coaches in the area used the modern relationship-based coaching methods she believed in. Dog behavior, she said, usually comes down to two things: context and communication.
“Either they haven’t learned a behavior or they don’t know what you’re asking,” said Miller, whose day job is at the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Today, 10 years after its founding, Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program has helped hundreds of pet owners and their pooches, primarily in the Harrisburg area. But the circle has widened during the pandemic. Many pet owners across the country – struggling with pandemic puppies and financial hardship – have discovered and contacted the Great Dog Program of Harrisburg. The magic of Zoom has allowed Miller’s free training to spread across the country.
“Natahnee’s mission at the Great Dog Program of Harrisburg ensures that cost is not a barrier to excellent dog training, and he keeps dogs in homes and out of shelters,” said Rhonda Renwick of Harrisburg. “It kind of touched my heart – I love the mission behind the program.”
An IAABC-accredited dog trainer, Renwick juggles her volunteer time — at area dog shelters and Harrisburg’s Great Dog program — with her career in electrical engineering.
“It’s very rewarding to see a dog live a happy life and break down some of the barriers that they had in a shelter and allow a dog to just be a dog,” Renwick said. “Breaking down the fear, the barriers with other dogs, with people, to have a happy and restless dog, it’s definitely worth it.”
For more information, visit www.greatdogprog.org. And tune in to the July episode of TheBurg Podcast where Natahnee Miller provides free advice on the top five dog behavior issues.
Look for the signs
It’s a common scenario: you’re at a local park, when an off-leash dog comes running towards you. “It’s okay, he’s friendly,” shouts the owner, usually from a distance. But does this pet parent really have their dog under reasonable control? What if you are afraid of dogs? Do you have children or a dog with you? How will your dog react?
For all of these reasons and more, two area nonprofits, the Great Dog Program of Harrisburg and the Cumberland County Animal Assistance Program, are teaming up to place educational signs in area parks. So far, 10 parks in East Pennsboro Township are putting up signs, which explain why it’s best to ask permission before letting your dog near others. A QR code links to free dog training and sociability materials on the Great Dog Program of Harrisburg’s website. Additional Parks and Recreation contacts are being sought.
“Consent, just like with people, is key,” said Natahnee Miller, president of the Great Dog Program of Harrisburg. “I don’t want someone I don’t know to come up to me and give me a hug, and most dogs don’t either.”
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