This week I was honored to chat (virtually) with Alisha Ardiana, a San Francisco dog trainer who owns Empawthy - Positive Reinforcement for Pets and People (great name, right?). Alisha has a long background in the dog world, including a 20 year career as a veterinary technician. She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and has completed certification programs through both Karen Pryor Academy and the Dog Training Internship Academy. Alisha specializes in helping fearful and reactive dogs feel safe in the world. Enjoy!
Hi Alisha! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you into the world of dog training?
I always knew I wanted to work with animals. I went to the University of Notre Dame with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. Animal Behavior was absolutely my favorite course. If someone had told me during my sophomore year that animal behavior could be a profession, I would have gone down that path.
After I graduated and began interning with veterinarians, I realized that I didn’t want to be a vet. It felt, to me, like being a dentist for kids. The animals often were very upset when handled by the veterinarian. In my observation, it seemed like the veterinary nurse had better interactions with the animals, so I took that path.
I wish I had known about cooperative care when I started my career. I wish I had known more about animal behavior. Because after 20 years of sticking needles in unhappy animals, it just became too hard and I knew I had to find something different.
When I began searching for a new career, I discovered the world of positive reinforcement training. I took entry level jobs at SF Puppy Prep and at the SF SPCA. I quickly realized that this was my new path.
And then I became a full on dog nerd! I went through two separate certification programs: the Dog Training Internship Academy and the Karen Pryor Professional Program. I attended conferences with Kay Laurence, Ken Ramirez, Susan Friedman, and Turid Rugaas. I got involved with Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Deb Jones and Amy Cook are my heroes.
It’s such an exciting, quickly evolving field of science. Every month I feel like we learn more about the emotional lives of animals.
Alisha at home with her papillon Civetta.
What would you say is your "specialty" as a trainer?
I used to want dogs to believe the world is safe. Now I want dogs to feel safe in the company of their handler.
I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with the challenges we experience in the Bay Area. The density of people. The wildlife. The number of people who do not train their dogs. I think it’s really hard being a dog in San Francisco. A lot of people want to pay attention to you when you have no interest.
My daily job is walking reactive dogs. And my goal is to give dogs access to public spaces safely, and with anonymity. I think of myself as the bodyguard. I take them on adventures and do my best to protect them from stress.
I want their walks to incorporate choice, freedom of movement, and mental stimulation.
Speaking of choice and freedom of movement, I know that you are a fan of long lines. Can you tell us why, and what your favorite lengths are?
I absolutely believe in using long lines. It’s the only way I know how to walk a dog at this point. I want dogs to know they have agency and autonomy over their own bodies. I want dogs to know that they can practice avoidance.
I cannot tell you how many times a dog on a long line has realized something is coming into our space - before I do. And they leap like gazelles out of the way - because they have that ability!
I used to use 20 foot lines regularly. But the number of times I’ve been taken off my feet when a dog is chasing wildlife has made me reconsider. I now use a 10 foot leash in the neighborhood, and I use a 15 foot for hiking (Selecting the best long line for your needs).
You are a positive reinforcement dog trainer. As the field of dog training grows and evolves, though, this can mean a lot of different things. Being an unregulated industry, it can be hard to know where trainers stand on the spectrum. How would you describe your training philosophy?
So many people tell me that they tried positive reinforcement, and it did not work. The truth is, If your dog is having a meltdown because another dog is approaching, giving him a cookie is not going to make him feel any better in that moment. And standing there while the other dog approaches will probably make it worse.
We need to ask “What is it that we are reinforcing?” I’m a big fan of identifying what the dog wants and helping them obtain that. Most of the dogs I work with want safety, so creating distance or avoiding the scary thing is the first choice I make.
Once we have established safety, we can start seeing what games will compete with whatever is worrying them. I play a lot of games. I don’t think food on its own can fix the way dogs feel about certain things. But games are much more likely to compete. Especially when they are well loved games, that we have played for several months.
Playing games with Civetta as a dog passes in the background.
What advice would you give to someone looking to hire a dog trainer?
What experience do they have? What training to they have? What education do they have? Look for the letters behind their name. Beyond that - see if you can get a glimpse of their training in action. Look at their social media. There is a lot of opacity in the world of dog training. You have to do your homework.
What are your top tips for dog owners looking to make walks more enjoyable and less stressful, for both them and their dog?
Always take space. Don’t gaslight your dog. If your dog is scared, move away.
Think of how we help children: if a child is afraid of the dark, we wouldn’t question that. We would get them a nightlight. If you took a child to the circus and they didn’t like the clown, you wouldn’t go up to the clown. You wouldn’t make the child take a photo with the clown. You wouldn’t hire the clown to babysit your kid. People laugh at these examples! But I think a lot of times people underestimate how scary the world is for a dog. And they overestimate what the dog is capable of. Just like you would with a child: Be the adult. Take their fears seriously. Don't force them to face those fears alone. Help them, or deal with the scary thing for them.
Oh, and play games on the walk. If you don’t know how to play games on a walk - check out my Instagram, or do a Zoom consult with me!
Playing games on a walk with Chewbacca.
I have a toddler and a dog, so have been immersed in both of those worlds for the last few years. So many of the concepts are the same. It's fascinating!
Yes! My biggest obsession with dog training right now is attachment. More and more studies are coming out that demonstrate dogs attach to their owners, the same way babies do. We become their source of emotional support. We have to understand the value of that and take it seriously.