Heather Witt is eating a hard-boiled egg while driving briskly on the Post Road. In between bites she’s sharing insights into dog and human interactions. She’s accompanied by her two miniature Shetland Sheepdogs (popularly known as Shelties) en route to a local park for a workout with them. I’m riding shotgun and observing her on a typical workday. Witt is a dog trainer. But that’s only a part of her resume.
Witt and Rowan, the female Sheltie nestled between us in the front seat, were Team USA’s first gold medalists at the 2022 IFCS World Agility Championships held in the Netherlands. At 6 1/2 pounds, Rowan still trains to stay in shape. Witt sets aside time every day to work with Revel as well, the male Sheltie in the back seat who is also a competitor. On a break between appointments, I watch as she plays purposefully with each dog. It looks like fun, but it’s about stimulating them and reinforcing a human canine bond.
“Dogs hate boredom, just like we do” says Witt. “A big part of having happy dogs is to keep them busy and active.”
The dogs love to show off leaps and spins. Witt urges them on in a high-pitched and singsong voice. This is a game and they love it. In fact, Rowan sulks when it’s Revel’s turn. This is important “dog time” and it’s a workout for all. “This is my cardio,” she says.
Married to Dennis Sullivan and the mother of two successful grown sons, Finn and Bran, Witt’s energy and athleticism are impressive. She has turned her love of dogs into a dual career competing and training other dogs, both in agility and social behaviors.
As a child, Witt made leashes for her stuffed animals and ran them around a makeshift obstacle course. She even performed imaginary surgeries on them. She studied animal science and biology at the University of Vermont. She makes use of her coursework these days—particularly the psychology part.
Her job description is dog trainer, but to be accurate, she teaches people how to train their dogs, a job that requires psychology, diplomacy, and endless optimism. It’s not unusual for the human half of the team to need considerably more training. “Some people are ready to absorb information, some are not,” she says tactfully.
Witt trained Paul Newman’s two dogs. (Miniature Schnauzers, if you’re wondering.) I pumped her for info and here’s what she shared with great delight:
“When I told a close friend I had gotten a meeting with him (Newman), she said, ‘You’re gonna get something new to wear, right?’ And I said, Absolutely not.” Her voice now rising in mock defiance, “I just put on my regular old sweatpants.”
What was Newman like? “He was cool and friendly, and he was wearing sweatpants too!”
We return to her car and head to a training session, one of three that day. Georgie is a 13-week old female miniature poodle/Cavalier King Charles mix. Her human mom, Barbara, is struggling to curb Georgie’s nipping and reluctance to go in the crate. Barbara appears a model of competence and likely accustomed to having a sense of control in life but Georgie is oblivious. Everything in the pup’s new little world is a thrill ride. How are these two going to get on the same page?
Witt’s substantial mane of curly hair is partially restrained in a bandana, she’s sporting her usual athletic wear and in colder weather a shapeless oversized puffer coat. Her friendly manner masks her keen ability to solve dog and human communications. She’s the Columbo of dog trainers, casually asking questions and listening attentively to answers.
Contrary to what many think, training a dog is not simply teaching a series of commands. “Basically, it’s about respecting a dog’s emotions. If you meet their needs, they’ll meet yours,” she says. “But to be happy they have to have purpose and boundaries.”
How will Georgie learn how to behave; what strategies will Barbara need to implement, and how can the challenge be satisfying for both? Barbara clearly adores her new little puppy and is hesitant to “discipline” her. “You want to have a happy, well-adjusted dog, you want the same for your child, right?” Witt tells her, knowing she’s a mother of four and grandmother of eight children who visit often.
Witt has an easy rapport with both students. She creates a game of going into the crate. Using her “dog voice” she generates excitement then rewards Georgie generously with little treats and big praise. Then it’s practice, practice, practice. Barbara is uncertain at first but begins to get the hang of it. The process reminds me of learning the alphabet on “Sesame Street.”
I wonder aloud about what prompted Barbara to get a puppy in what appears to be her well-ordered universe. She alludes to having a new, independent life which began when her husband of 50 years passed away. ”I always wanted a dog but my husband wouldn’t have one.” For company and comfort she went out and got Georgie.
Subsequent visits with the two are increasingly promising. The bond between them has grown. Barbara talks about how Georgie is curious; how she barks at the moon. Her puppy has become a companion. “She’s wonderful company. I talk to her and she listens..and she doesn’t talk back,” Barbara quips.
But there is a wistful quality in her voice when she recalls coming home at night and waking up in a silent house. But all that has changed. “I read to Georgie and sing to her at night… In the morning I don’t run to the computer anymore. I spend time with Georgie first. It’s wonderful!”
After some weeks of practice, Georgie goes in her crate willingly and the nipping has subsided somewhat. Leash walking is still a challenge and Barbara must learn a new protocol to prevent Georgie from running out the front door to greet visitors. There is more to be done, but Witt’s intuitive training method is working. “Barbara and Georgie are a perfect match,” she says. “They’re going to do well.”
After observing training sessions with Witt I make a promise to myself that I’ll apply what I’ve learned to our own ill-mannered dog. But I’m no Columbo.
For information about individual and group training in agility and behavior visit: https://www.heatherwitt.com/
Heather Witt’s Top Tips for a Happy, Well-Behaved Dog
1. Family Time
Dogs are social creatures and given the option, they would rarely spend time alone. If you are away from home for long periods re-think having a dog as a companion.
2. Outlets to direct A Dog’s Energy and Intellect
Dogs don’t like boredom any more than we do. There’s an activity for almost every dog and family including Frisbee, dock diving, herding, nosework, fly ball, or agility. Try trick training or simple obedience. Family hikes and walks, family play time, and food puzzles are great ways to engage your dog. Too complicated? Try dancing with your dog!
3. Peace of Mind
Some dogs are stressed or reactive to strangers at home or out in public; others are afraid of sounds or cars. These issues can make a dog unhappy and insecure. Socialization skills taught by a trainer or behaviorist can help your dog lead a more serene life.
Not all dogs enjoy being petted by strangers or going to dog parks. When planning outings for their benefit consider their needs before your own. You may have pals at the dog park, but some dogs get very stressed out in that environment.
5. Basic training
If dogs understand and respond to basic commands, they will likely be included in more adventures with the family. Training should be done with rewards not “corrections.”
6. Rules and expectations
Be consistent. Either jumping is ok or it’s not. Are they allowed on the couch? Can they count on a snack from the dinner table? Consistency is comforting.
Proper nutrition and veterinary care are essential for all dogs’ well-being.
Dogs can reduce their stress and lower the heart rates by sniffing on walks. Allow them to indulge. It’s how they take in the world around them.
9. Living indoors
Most dogs prefer access to the den (your home) and would prefer to make outings rather than live outside. Common sense, compassion and weather-watching should dictate these decisions.
Roaming dogs can meet bad ends and in the best of circumstances create havoc for families. Well fenced in play areas and leash walking are necessary for most dogs. Some breeds will ignore commands if they see or smell something irresistible.
Also strongly advised:
- ID tags on collars, chips or smart phone locators
- Crates and/or seatbelts in cars
Photo at top courtesy of Heather Witt