Meet Chennai-based canine trainer Saba Poonawala, who is using positive reinforcement techniques on ‘lockdown dogs’
Have you seen a Labrador retriever that does not want to retrieve? Or a rottweiler that is scared of cats?
Welcome to the world of ‘lockdown dogs’, who have had limited exposure to the outside world due to the pandemic, since March 2020.
“People bought dogs during this phase last year because they had time and thought that it would help them deal better with stress, anxiety and boredom. What some of them did not realise is that having a dog is a 15-year rigorous commitment that comes with multiple challenges,” says Saba Poonawala, Chennai-based canine behaviourist and trainer. She adds, “These dogs behave like Alice in Wonderland when you take them out in public.”
Her initiative, called the Pune-Chennai Dog Training Academy, was set up last year with the sole purpose of helping such pets. Since its inception, Saba has worked with about 30 lockdown dogs in Pune, before moving to Chennai earlier this year.
Currently, she is working with seven dogs and their pet parents in the city. “With time on their hands, many pet parents over-protected the dogs. The pets’ exposure to the outside world, which includes a moving car, has been limited. This has resulted in separation anxiety and obedience issues,” she says.
Her new clients include a Yorkshire terrier that is facing severe anxiety and aggression issues. The nine- month-old terrier has a unique problem: the minute the doorbell rings, he goes crazy and lunges towards the person at the door. “He is about nine months old now and the family is trying their best to correct it.” There is also a golden retriever that Saba is working with now: this one does not have the zest to fetch any object, unlike other dogs in that breed.
Saba’s work with these pets, which usually lasts about two months, does not involve yelling or equipment like prong collars. Instead, she takes in to account the setting, the ambience of the house and routine of the dog before arriving at the root cause of the problem. Then, Saba uses positive training and reinforcement techniques on her canine students. “I employ a reward-based method. One dog might have a drive for toys, another might have a high food-drive. When the dog does something good and correct, it is given a treat. This channels the dog’s diet and contributes towards its holistic all-round growth,” explains Saba.
Saba, who charges ₹10,000 for 12 such home-visit sessions, says these positive reinforcement techniques go a long way in contributing to the dog’s well-being. “There is no such thing as a bad dog. They’re just misunderstood, and my aim is to make the owner see this and work around it.”
Her other recent projects include assessing the police force dogs in Pune and training indie dogs before they go to their forever homes. The 30-year-old — who is also a professional hair and make-up artist — plans to set up a dog daycare centre and boarding facility in Chennai in the near future. She says, “I also hope to host doggie parties there. The motto is to add to the pet community in a positive way, and guide pet parents to build positive relationships.”
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