Several weeks ago, neighbor Mark–who must have gotten the feeling we’re big animal lovers here–enlightened us to the existence of local trainer Alex Garcia and his dog Raja, who have already gained some internet celebrity through their hilarious and impressive YouTube videos (one of Alex’s “Useless Dog Tricks” racked up over a million views on its own, and several other clips have received tens of thousands of hits).
We spoke with Alex, the mastermind behind Civil Pet training, recently about his training methods and background with animals, Raja’s connection to the neighborhood, and coexisting with canines in Ditmas Park.
How long have you been in Ditmas Park, and where were you before? What are some of your favorite things about the neighborhood, as a dog owner or otherwise?
I’ve lived in Ditmas park for six months. I’ve always lived in Brooklyn and tried to move closer to the park for my dog’s sake and mine (it’s a great place to jog/bike in the nice weather). I like that you can get everything you need within walking distance. The abundance of coffee shops is a plus, because I need caffeine to live.
Have you always been an animal lover/someone who connects easily with animals? When did you realize training pets was something you wanted to do with your life?
I was always able to connect with animals easily. Growing up, I probably would have been an animal hoarder if my parents let me. When I was in college, bouncing around from major to major, I decided to volunteer at the NY Aquarium in the training department on a whim. After my first day, I realized animal behavior was something I wanted to study, and I began obsessing over it and never looked back.
How did you get Raja, and what’s up with those Useless Dog Tricks? Working on perfecting anything new right now?
I got Raja from Sean Casey Animal Rescue. For my Useless Dog Tricks, I just combine things she already knows. Putting the baby in the oven was just combining three behaviors: pick up object (to open the door, grab the baby), drop object (putting the baby in the oven), and target object (closing the door). I don’t want to give away my next UDT idea, but it’s going to be a Christmas theme.
Tell us about your training philosophy–positive reinforcement and other principles you rely on.
People seem think that positive reinforcement just means that you’re bribing your dog with treats to do things, which is not true. Positive reinforcement literally means that you’re giving something to increase a behavior; the focus is on teaching the dog how to behave and rewarding them for complying.
Most dogs respond well to food, but some dogs will work for a toy/play. I taught my dog to “Heel” while she was off leash by rewarding her with a tennis ball: I didn’t use food once. It’s all about giving the animal what they want so they’ll give you what you want.
Most people contact me because they want their dog to stop doing something, which is the opposite of how you want to think. If one behavior stops, another one will replace it, so if you don’t teach dog exactly how you want them to behave, they’ll come up with something else that you might find equally annoying.
Let’s say your dog jumps on you when you come home and you successfully stop him from doing so. Now what? He’s all excited and needs to express it somehow. Unless you teach him what to do, he might decide that barking or running around the apartment or peeing on the floor is an acceptable alternative.
Instead, tell him what you want: train him to sit/lay down politely when he sees you, or to bring you a toy or his leash so you remember to take him out. It also works for behavioral problems. If your dog is reactive on leash, teach him to focus on you instead of another dog/skateboarder/squirrel and to walk calmly next to you.
What’s your proudest training story?
I worked in an exotic pet store for a while, and we had a Moluccan Cockatoo who was fearful of men and would act aggressively towards him. I didn’t know much about bird training at the time, so I trained him the way I would train a dog.
Within a week I was able to get him to eat out of my hand, and after two weeks he learned to step-up onto my arm. He never bit me, and eventually trusted me enough to let me scratch his head and handle his wings.
What are some tricks you think are particularly important for Ditmas Park dogs?
We have an awesome park, and the dogs would appreciate if they got some off leash time playing in it, so everyone should work on their dog’s recall.
Anything else you think neighbors might like to know?
I’ve noticed when some neighbors are afraid of dogs, they make it painfully obvious to the everyone (including the dog) that they are. Dogs can’t “smell fear,” but they can tell when someone acts out of the ordinary.
Stopping suddenly and staring at the dog, or abruptly changing your walking pattern, or screaming and hiding behind your friend makes the dog take notice of you and they become curious and want to investigate you, which makes you act even weirder, which makes the dog more curious about you, which… well, you get it.
Pretend you’re not afraid and keep walking! Avoid eye contact and the dog won’t look twice at you. Your behavior will affect your mental state (and vice versa), so if you act like you’re not afraid long enough, you’ll eventually get over your fear.