I'm so excited to be sharing my recent chat with Ali Sutch, who is one of our new High Tail Hikes Instagram Ambassadors! Ali is a multitalented human and the owner of Up To Snuff. Ali is a certified professional dog trainer and she also makes beautiful snuffle mats and bandanas that she sells in her online shop. Make sure to follow Ali on Instagram and her adventures with dog training, being a maker, and raising her puppy (well, now a teenager) Minnow. Ali has a way of distilling complex training topics into language that can be understood by any dog owner, and she is a dedicated advocate for the humane treatment of companion animals.
Hi Ali! Can you share a little bit about your background and what brought you to the world of dog training?
My first experience with animal training was as an intern at the Pittsburgh Zoo. I was in college and majoring in environmental studies. We had a collection of domestic and exotic animals that would accompany us to presentations about conservation education. Most of the job was the "grunt work" tending to the animals (lots of poop) but that also included enrichment and training. We all had to read "Don't Shoot the Dog" by Karen Pryor. Since then, my interests/careers have bounced between captive animal care, public education, and human social services. More formally, my education is through the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional program.
What are your specialties, or interests in dog training right now? What areas of training excite you?
I really enjoy working with dogs who struggle with anxious and reactive behaviors. I have clinical anxiety and would definitely be a reactive dog. Asking our dogs to enjoy living in urban and semi-urban environments is a big deal and takes a lot of empathy and careful reframing. I use a lot of Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed pattern games in my training because predictability and safety are critical for living with anxiety. I also try to incorporate games and lighthearted fun.
What does your typical week look like?
Kind of crazy right now. I see private training clients on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. I work at PAWS on Saturdays and Tuesdays (PAWS stands for Pets are Wonderful Support, and is an organization that provides free comprehensive support, including veterinary care, for pets of seniors and individuals living with disability or illness). On Wednesdays we teach group class for Full Belly Bus (an organization that provides care, training, pet food, and supplies like leashes, collars, harnesses and pet coats to unhoused people with companion dogs and cats). I usually go to my mom's house on Mondays to spend time with her and work on my sewing projects and admin stuff. And I try to take Minnow on a hike every morning.
What do you love about being a dog trainer?
I love the job flexibility, for sure. I thrive when I have autonomy over my time and energy. And I love finding the intersections of positive reinforcement training and client-centered care--treating the human end of the leash with compassion is just as important as the way we treat our canine learners.
What are some of the challenges of being a dog trainer?
There is an endless need, and it's hard to set boundaries when your career is rooted in love. I have to say "no" to people I don't feel I am capable of helping even if I don't know what else they'll do. We have to protect ourselves from burnout. Another thing I struggle with is content creation; my business is heavily Instagram-based, and there is a balance between creating helpful/accessible content and maintaining the ethical standard of only giving professional advice to clients who you've had a full consultation with. Putting free training tips out there without overseeing how they're being implemented kinda weirds me out.
What’s something about dog training, working with dogs, or working with clients, that has surprised you?
I have been really, really pleasantly surprised at how willing my clients are to let go of punishment. I thought I would have to do a lot more convincing. I have spiels prepared and everything. We live in such a punishment-heavy world. Maybe this is because most of my clients find me through Instagram or referrals from other R+ folks -- but even clients who have a history of using punitive training methods have been fully on board with switching to entirely positive reinforcement training. And it makes my heart smile.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years (I know that’s far away!)? Do you plan to continue private training, or do you envision yourself in the dog world in some other capacity?
I would love to continue private training for the foreseeable future! In a few months I'll be done working at PAWS so I'll transition to training 5 days a week. I would love to find a space to hold my own group classes and puppy socials. The logistics and finances of that right now are a little much right now, especially with the pandemic, but a girl can dream.
What are 3 things (or even just one thing) you wish you could say to every dog owner?
1. You are doing a great job. Having a dog is hard. Find things that you are proud of and celebrate them.
2. Your dog is always doing the best they can. Always.
When we give our dogs the freedom to meet their needs, we greatly improve their behavioral health and our relationship with them. Sniffing, wandering, and yes, even marking are completely normal dog behaviors. The more we find ways to allow our dogs to meet their own needs, the more they are physically and emotionally available to check in with us. Long lines can greatly facilitate this! I've had many clients tell me that investing in a long line was a game changer for their relationship with their dog and their progress with reaching training goals.
You are passionate about training that is force free and that is rooted in choice and willing participation on the part of the dogs. How did you arrive at your core beliefs about how we should engage with our dogs?
I think my focus really became clear after a few months of volunteering at a rescue. I didn't know much about dog training or behavior before that, and didn't receive any training/education from the rescue. The dogs were always stressed. What made them feel better? Freedom from aversive stimuli. The ability to engage in normal dog behaviors. These things can be really hard to come by in a shelter environment though. That's where I met Brittany Jacobsen of BAE Dogs and she was working on implementing an enrichment program, which really improved the quality of life of those dogs. My years with the rescue overlapped with my training through Shanti Project where the model of care is client-centered, meaning the goal is to empower people to make their own decisions about their life. Somewhere in there, it all clicked that having agency over your body/life is absolutely necessary for happiness. For everyone.
You’ve talked about how dog training can look similar to harm reduction models in the social services sphere - can you elaborate on that?
Yeah. So in both of these worlds, the question we ask is, "What do you need to feel better right now"? For my human clients, that might be: a cup of coffee, a bag of dog food, relief from vet bills, someone to talk to. The people we serve at PAWS live with low income and are either seniors or people living with disability/illness, and there is a lot of trauma that can come with feeling marginalized. Substance use, housing instability, mental illness, chronic pain, social isolation, etc. No one is turned away. There are no ultimatums. What do they need (self-determined) in order to feel better, and be better equipped to take care of themselves? To me, this is exactly how we need to approach dog training. Dogs are not bad, just as people are not bad - we are all products of our genetics, learning history, and environment. Everyone deserves to be heard and met where they're at.
What about your bandana + snuffle mat business? How did that start? Have you always been crafty/into sewing?
I've always liked crafty stuff but have never actually stuck with anything this long. But this one is definitely sticking! I like the whole process, start to finish. Picking out fabric is a lot of fun, the actual sewing is really gratifying, and of course seeing dogs model my creations is the best. The reception especially for my snuffle mats has been really encouraging.
You adopted a puppy named Minnow last year, after losing your beloved dog Paisley after a battle with cancer. How did Minnow come into your life? What was it like raising a puppy right after losing your heart dog?
It's all been kind of a blur. Paisley was my entire heart. She was really sick, so I was pre-grieving for months before we said goodbye. The day after we lost her, I texted a bunch of people I know in the rescue/shelter world saying to keep an eye out for any pittie puppies. One replied to me right away saying there was a single puppy who just got off a plane from Puerto Rico and could we go pick her up in an hour? And so... we did. And thankfully she was exactly what we needed. Minnow is an exploding torpedo of puppy energy and silliness. We have been very busy.
Ali training with Paisley
One of the things I love about your Instagram page is that you share pictures and videos of the silly things that Minnow does or the things she finds/gets into (for example, the five gallon jug in the banner image of this blog). Many of these behaviors might be seen as “disobedient” or "naughty" to some. How does your perspective differ from these folks?
Control is such a paradox. The more we try to grab hold, the more it eludes us. And why should I get to control or tame this fireball? Yes, she picks up stuff off the street and carries it around in her mouth. Just because I don't (and honestly, could never) command her to "leave it" doesn't mean we don't have a beautiful relationship nor does it mean I'm not a good trainer. I just want her to be happy and to know that the world is safe. That's what training is to me.
What are your favorite High Tail Hikes products, and why?
I have more than a handful of High Tail Hikes leashes
but the one I reach for most often is definitely the 10' long line without a handle, in 3/8" width. I have one in red, and had one in violet too but gave it to a friend. Now I need to get another backup! I use it for walks around the block, and as a drag line when we take Minnow to off leash places. Her recall is a work in progress, and although it's pretty decent, I still prefer the drag line because why not have some extra peace of mind? It's super lightweight so ideal for casual walks too. We hardly ever use anything shorter than 10' because I want Minnow to have room to explore and really enjoy her walks.
Anything else you want to share?
Thanks so much for asking these questions! One of the nicest things we can do for people is give them a chance to talk about themselves and what makes them happy. I feel heard. Thank you :)
Thank you Ali!