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The Importance of Mentors: An Interview with Pamela Wyman Van Romburgh of Dog Evolve

In one of my previous blog posts, I talked about how I started my dog walking business with very little continuing education in the field (I’m not proud, but it’s the truth). Luckily for me, in my first year I found some great educational opportunities AND some wonderful mentors. I was connected to Pamela Wyman Van Romburgh, and her husband Jordaan Van Romburgh, through a mutual client. Pamela and Jordaan run Dog Evolve, a dog training and dog walking company that focuses on improving the relationship between dogs and their owners using positive reinforcement techniques. Between them, they have decades of professional experience training and working with dogs, as well as mentoring and coaching other dog walkers and trainers. Pamela and Jordaan both coached me through my early years doing off leash group hikes, and years later I still rely on them for advice. Both have a terrific sense of humor and are as skilled at working with their human clients as they are at working with dogs. They have taught me so much, and I’m so grateful.

I chatted virtually with Pamela recently about her background, her current work, and the challenges facing “pandemic pups” and their humans in the Covid era. Enjoy!

Pamela with one of her puppy clients

Can you share a little bit about your business - how long you have been in business, where you're located and what services you currently offer?

I have been certified in training and counseling since 2006. I went through the Academy for Dog Trainers when the program was still held at the San Francisco SPCA. I’m currently located in Durham, North Carolina but I work with clients all over the world (via Zoom and other platforms). My specialties of late have been puppies and separation anxiety, but I have a long history of success with leash reactivity, shy/fearful dogs, and working with newly rescued pups. 

Can you share a little bit about your background and how you got involved with working with dogs? 

I started working with dogs in the late 90’s in San Francisco, when I was "between jobs" and started walking a few friends’ dogs. At the time there were only one or two other professional dog walkers around. I met people at parks and they liked how I worked with the dogs, so my business grew quickly. I started doing small group hikes at Fort Funston and other local spots and soon enough had a full time job, self employed as a professional walker. I had zero formal training and cringe to think about how I "made up" methods to manage my dogs. I will say though, that I strived to always be kind, consistent and to make the outings fun for them. I became involved with the SF SPCA humane education department, developing programming and teaching summer camps for kids. I worked at the shelter hospital for a time, but decided veterinary medicine was not for me. I then started assisting puppy classes and getting formal training myself on how to handle, teach, and manage dogs safely and using humane, scientifically proven methods. I can’t stress how important continuing education is in this industry. I eventually enrolled in the Academy for Dog Trainers at the SF SPCA. It was a very rigorous program - intellectually, practically, and emotionally. 

Have you always used positive reinforcement training or has your training methodology changed over time? If so, what influenced the change? 

There was a time when I was swayed by the "dark side.” I didn’t have an understanding that techniques using pain and fear (shock collars, prong collars, "alpha rolling" etc) were not only inhumane, they were plain unnecessary and damaging to the human/dog relationship. Friends in the SF shelter world and my formal training really blew my mind and changed me for good! 

What do you love about your work and what are some of the challenges? 

I truly love people and I truly love dogs - perhaps equally. I don't know if all trainers feel that way. I love to see people discover how to work with, live with, teach AND learn from their dogs. I find the human aspect the most challenging when people want their dogs to be something they are not, and think that training should accomplish a change of temperament. Most of the time, with the right approach, human learners come around and we make progress so that everyone is happy. The other challenge to my job is that too often I see a dog AFTER the client has tried outdated or harsh training methods and the dog has experienced fallout from that training.

What are three key pieces of advice you would offer to any new dog owner to help set up them and their dog for success? 

  1. Be patient, kind and gentle
  2. Seek professional help in understanding your individual dog (group classes or private lessons) 
  3. Experiment with ways to have fun with your dog (fun for both you and the dog)!

You use BioThane long lines, or drag lines, all the time when working with individual dogs and playgroups. What do you use BioThane long lines for, and how do you recommend your clients use them when working with or training their dog? 

Long lines are critical for a variety of uses. I have my clients use them often as an intermediate stage between on-leash walks (with a regular 6’ leash) and off leash walks (no leash or dragging a long line). Once savvy on handling a long line - there’s a learning curve to doing it well! - guardians can hold the long line and allow their dog to meet other dogs without leash tension, which often helps things go better than a short/tight leash. Long lines can be used to allow for longer distance recall training and be an awesome tool for pups who are not as reliable off leash. Long lines can be held or simply dragged along the ground as a safety backup while working on off-leash skills. BioThane is great because it's waterproof, easy to clean, doesn't tangle, and is easy for clients to manage. 

What are some of the special issues or considerations that you're seeing with owners who have adopted dogs during the pandemic? 

People are in need of comfort and ease right now. Sometimes the new dog (puppy or adult) brings a lot of this, but just as often the dog brings challenges, because it’s a living thing with needs that have to be addressed. The other issue I see is that because folks are home all the time, in many families, the dog has zero experience being alone for months on end. This can become a huge problem when people want to leave the home without the dog. Separation Anxiety/Isolation Distress could become pandemic of its own I’m afraid! Folks can start leaving their dog for very short periods (like 30 seconds to start) asap and watch (via Zoom or puppy-cam etc) to ensure the dog is settling in and can gradually tolerate increases in time. You want to make sure that your dog is not going to panic when you really need to leave! 

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me Pamela!

During a mentoring/coaching session with Pamela on the trail