When Eileen Thorne first found a six- month-old male American bulldog puppy at the SPCA she was thrilled. She thought it would make a perfect addition to her family which included a Doberman pincher, Magnum.
At the time she was new to dog training, and did not know that two male working dogs in the house could be a recipe for trouble.
“We were okay for a little while,” she said. “Then one day I found myself up on a counter watching my first dog fight.
“I wasn’t reading the body language coming from the doberman as well as the bulldog,” she said. “The bulldog would ignore some stuff, but then at other times, he’d be like ‘right, that’s it! You’re going down, dobbie!’.”
The situation escalated and she found herself often at the vet’s office with her dogs, who’d injured themselves fighting.
“Eventually, I had to decide whether to keep the bulldog or let it go,” she said. “And at that point I would have euthanised Domino.”
But instead of putting the dog down, she decided to study dog training more deeply. She’d always had an interest in it.
Through her studies, she gained a better understanding of dog body language which ultimately saved Domino’s life.
Watching Domino more closely she realised that his eyes often dilated before he attacked her other dog.
“He would pause,” Ms Thorne said. “As soon as I saw that I would say ‘Domino!’, and he would come out of it. He was also fearful. There were certain sounds that triggered him: horns and squealing sounds.”
Ms Thorne has a masters in biology and was working for Forestry Canada when she first came to Bermuda in 1997 for a couple of months with an old boyfriend.
“The triangle got me,” she said. Today, she’s married to Bermudian Philip Thorne, and they have two young sons.
Domino and Magnum have long since passed on, but the Thornes have two other dogs, Synapse, another Doberman Pincher, and Lava, a King Charles Cavalier. She’s also a certified dog trainer.
“I teach for the Dog Training Club, and I do two puppy classes on Saturdays,” she said. “Occasionally, I do private lessons, but only if people really need help with something.”
Last week she spoke at PechaKucha night about some of the things she learnt in her dog training journey.
She said the key to better understanding your dog is understanding their body language.
“If you have a dog and you have children, you have to understand body language,” she said. “Dogs tell you in many steps before they bite. The other important thing to understand is classical conditioning. Dogs make associations between things.”
She is a proponent of clicker training, a popular method with many types of animal trainers.
When the animal does something right, the trainer clicks a device to make a sound to mark the good behaviour. Then the animal receives a reward, usually a small amount of food, a piece of cheese or piece of kibble.
“When your dog performs a good behaviour you have to let them know within a second,” Ms Thorne said. “Then you reward them.”
Ms Thorne said practising patience and good observation is key for the trainer.
“I encourage my students to respect that most of the things their dogs are doing, are natural,” she said. “They are not things we jump in and correct them for and say you’re wrong.
“I say I am not going to give you that treat, try something else.”
Often when she holds a class, she’ll take a bouncy dog, and just stand there with it. She doesn’t yell ‘off!’. She just waits.
“I let the dog take control of their behaviour,” she said. “The jumping is to get my attention. So if I totally shut down and ignore them, then after two minutes, most dogs sit down and look at me like I’m insane. Then I say ‘Yes!’ and get down and pet them.
“This is along the premise of respecting that their behaviours are natural not naughty.
“They are naughty because they don’t fit in with what we want. We have to be patient and reward the behaviour we do want.”
She loves using her dogs to work with children. She thinks learning about dog training, helps children goal set, and break tasks down into little pieces.
She likes to teach her dogs tricks to challenge them and get them thinking.
Synapse stands on her hind legs to get a treat. Synapse can also ride a children’s toy car, a little bit.
Lava, the smaller dog, is learning to stand on a child’s push scooter.
But Ms Thorne said her dogs aren’t perfect.
“Nobody’s perfect,” she said.
Synapse has figured out how to open doors to escape the house, so she can get outside and jump in the pool, her favourite thing.
“This is my new training issue with her,” Ms Thorne said. “She is so obsessed with it that she will jump and jump until she fills up with water. But if I have a training issue, the first thing I have to do is manage the behaviour when I am not training.”
She has a gate that she puts across the pool to try to stop her jumping in when she’s not around.
But Ms Thorne said she loves naughty dogs.
“I love when dogs are a little bit goofy,” she said. “I would never correct that. That is part of their spirit.”
Ms Thorne named her dog Synapse, because a synapse is the connector between nerves, and she believes that dogs are often the connector between people.
One of the things she loves about dog training is how she often becomes a confidante for her human clients.
“People were letting me into their lives,” she said. “This is what non-dog people don’t realise. Dogs are a huge part of people’s lives.”
Ms Thorne can be contacted at email@example.com or @pawsitivepuppybermuda on Instagram.