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Shedd's Trained Dogs: From Shelter to Show

What do Shedd’s Pacific white-sided dolphins and six dogs from area shelters have in common? They’re all graduates of the “Shedd way” of animal training. Shedd's pet show closed on May 21, but you may see one of our pooches during an in-line animal encounter.

“Training is such a key component of what we do at Shedd,” says Ken Ramirez, senior vice president of animal collections and animal training. “The four cornerstones of a good animal-care program are healthcare, nutrition, the animal’s environment and training. And good, responsible animal care is the same, whether you’re talking about the sharks in Wild Reef, the beluga whales in the Abbott Oceanarium, or your pet at home.”

Guests will see that as videos of training sessions with the belugas and dolphins are juxtaposed with live demonstrations with the dogs on the stage of Phelps auditorium.

“The show will be about what our dolphins and whales are doing at the other facilities, about the techniques we used with a specific dog, and then some practical things — how to get a dog to walk on a leash without pulling, or not beg at the table.” So for anyone with a sled-dog wannabe or a mealtime mooch, there’s information on untraining, too.
Throughout this new program, Ken intends for guests to see that training is about relationship building, about managing an animal better and about providing good care.

He also promises a “wow factor.”

“Every show will be different, featuring a different dog,” he says. “One show may highlight a dog trained to do agility work, and the next may feature a dog that loves Frisbees, so we’ll show cool maneuvers it knows how to do. Guests might see how detection dogs are trained to find drugs or explosives, using something hidden among the audience.”

The possibilities are as varied as the dogs themselves: a border collie/basset hound mix; a black Labrador retriever; an American bulldog mix; a German shepherd mix; a West Highland white terrier mix; and a chihuahua/corgi mix.

If you noticed that only one is a purebred, it’s because all six were adopted from area animal shelters. Ken had a definite purpose with that.

“Our hope is that people who come to the show will recognize that if they are ever looking for a dog, to think of rescue centers,” he says.

Ken states the painful statistics: Three million unwanted dogs are euthanized every year in the United States. Nearly 95 percent of those deaths were due to avoidable behavioral issues.

“Only a small percentage of dogs given up for adoption or put in shelters have such serious behavior problems that they won’t make good pets. Most are actually wonderful animals that could be great companions for people,” he says. “Sometimes people are afraid of shelters because they think every dog in a shelter is a reject, so something must be wrong with it. They’ll say there’s no way that a perfectly trained dog could come from a shelter, and we’ll say, it sure did!”

Ken, who is known around the world for training marine mammals, started his career more than 30 years ago training guide dogs at the Institute for the Blind. “That landed me my first job working with marine mammals right out of college,” he recalls. But 12 years ago he began training dogs again, for search and rescue, detection work and service. An offshoot of that was his “Pet Training the Shedd Way” classes at the aquarium. Watch a marine mammal presentation and then observe Ken working with dogs, and you’ll notice the same training techniques in use.

“I buck the popular trends among dog trainers that involve coercion, being leader of the pack, or dominating the animal,” he says. “My approach is positive reinforcement.”

It’s an approach toward pet training that he’s wanted to bring to a wider audience — Shedd’s guests — for a long time. And presented with the opportunity during the Abbott Oceanarium renovation, a number of marine mammal trainers were eager to gain or add to their dog-training experience.

As a team, Ken and the trainers visited area animal shelters to find dogs for the program. “We were very objective, but it was extremely difficult to turn a dog down,” Ken says. “The only saving grace is that we had limited room, so we limited ourselves to six dogs: two small, two medium and two large, different colors and different breeds.” The dogs also had to have the right temperament for doing shows.

He continues, “Many service-dog and search-and-rescue-dog organizations like to use rescued dogs if possible, and one of the things that I have done as a behavioral trainer and consultant is work with a lot of these working-dog organizations in perfecting temperament-testing techniques. We selected our own dogs using those tests.”

As they made the rounds of animal shelters, the choices were tough, but the experience was heartening. Ken says, “We were very impressed with how well the city’s program [Chicago Animal Care and Control] is run, how well the animals are cared for and how good the adoption rate is. We were going every other day, and a lot of the dogs we saw were adopted. Shelters are an excellent source for finding a pet.”

He adds that they saw Nico, an American bulldog mix, the day he was brought in, “and we adopted him the very next day. He has a great personality.” Nico is the perfect example of the potential of rescued dogs: He was found, dirty and underweight, tied to a stake in an abandoned building. Today, trotting on a leash alongside a trainer, his tail is wagging and his tongue lolls in a big doggy smile.

The other winsome dogs, who retain the names they were given by former owners or shelter staffers, are Barney, Harley, Olivia, Widget and Wylie. All needed to be neutered or spayed before adoption — a standard shelter policy.

As soon as each rescued dog walked away from a shelter with Ken and his crew, there were treats and praise and pats on the head. Without knowing it, he or she had just begun Training the Shedd Way 101. Because what’s good for our dolphins (and whales, sharks, penguins, turtles and octopus) is also good for our dogs — and yours, too.


Pet tips

Check out our resource guide for those seeking pet-training tips, adoption choices and how to find the right trainer.

Meet the pet show pooches

Watch the trailer and find out more about Barney, Harley, Nico, Olivia, Widget and Wylie on our new Interactive page.

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