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Talk Story: Karen Tolodziecki

Walking on a treadmill is a form of meditation — especially for dogs. It keeps them calm and helps them channel their focus on moving in a slow, steady rhythm. And it’s a key component of Bark! Bark! Backyard’s canine behavioral training program.

The business was launched by Karen Tolodziecki and her husband RJ in the Puhi Industrial Park last December. They have since worked with more than 100 dogs in that time.

“The treadmill is about a lot more than exercise,” Tolodziecki said. “It’s doggy meditation.”

On a recent Friday, Maggie, a Smooth Fox Terrier, pranced erratically up and down a treadmill. Beside her, a gray pit bull named Bindi walked on a moving floor of her own with a slow, steady strut.

Part of what the couple does is rehabilitate dogs due to behavioral problems and partners with Kauai Animal Welfare Society to find them a home.

“This dog right here is going to fly to the Mainland Saturday to a new adoptive home,” said Tolodziecki, pointing to a pup.

Tolodziecki is a Cesar Millan-trained dog behavioral specialist. She credits her work with Millan, popularly known as “The Dog Whisperer,” for her transformation from a dog lover to a person who’s knowledgeable about dogs. Her mission is to share that knowledge, whether a dog comes under her care for training purposes or simply because its owner is off-island on vacation.

“We don’t just let the dogs go willy nilly and do whatever they want,” Tolodziecki said. “Everything is structured, so it really calms them down.”

What made you decide to launch a behavioral bootcamp for dogs?

About eight years ago we adopted a dog, Betty Jane, and participated in some trainings with the Kauai Humane Society and with Dog Fanciers and we thought, ‘OK, she’s good enough.’ But she went from being, in our eyes, good enough to not good at all. When we would go to dog parks she became the aggressive dog that wants to eat all the other dogs. She kind of wanted to kill other dogs on the street, as well. So, it was dog aggression. I had never dealt with that before. So I took her to Dog Fanciers for some more training and on the first day of training she tried to eat the other dogs and made me cry. But I took the training very seriously. My goal was to be able to go back to the dog park with a good dog. We worked over the course of a 10-week class. By week eight she had become Ms. I Love Everybody. So I was hooked. I decided this was something I wanted to do.

When did you decide to turn your passion for dog behavioral training into a business?

I love Cesar Millan and all that he does and when I was looking online I saw that he was offering a fundamentals class in California. That’s where my family is and that’s where I’m from. At first I thought, well, it’s pretty expensive. Maybe it’s too expensive. But then I thought, if this is what I really want to do, then I want to be trained by the best. So I took money out of the IRA and went. He was an amazing teacher. It was a wonderful experience.

What was your big takeaway from the Cesar Millan training program?

It was all about dogs and how to get them to be calm and all of the training that’s involved in making that happen. Cesar is all about giving the dog what it needs and making sure you understand that it’s a dog and not a baby. You need to give it what it needs, which may not be what we want. Some people just want to hug and love their dog. But it needs structure, it needs rules, it needs boundaries — then comes the affection. We got to walk the dog pack. We studied what a dog park is supposed to look like with the owners taking responsibility instead of letting their dogs run free and do whatever it wants. We did sheep herding with different dogs who had never done it before so we could experience what it’s like to get a dog to do something that you want it to do. And a lot of it was learning what you can do to help your dog feel fulfilled.

Are certain dog personalities more difficult to train than others?

We had a dog come through and it was for a four-night, five-day package and she was very shy and so at the end of the time period I was like she has changed only a small amount. Shy dogs are hard to work with because they are very shut down. It takes them longer. The issue with her is that she was moving into a household with another dog and the other dog was attacking her. And this dog had in the past been attacked by other dogs. She’s a huge dog, but she was always getting beaten up because she had low self-esteem. She didn’t know how to be social with other dogs. And as big as she was she would just crumple and try to make herself as small as possible and she needed someone to stand beside her help her overcome that and to guide her through it. So we extended her stay longer so I could see a result and when we finally did it, it was like ‘there it is.’ She was being confident, she was holding her own with the other dogs, she was reaching out to them and then she finally started playing. Now she’s in the home and we got a video of her playing with the other dog that used to attack her. Of course we took the other dog in, as well, to work on getting him to stop being so possessive.

Why is it important that your dog walk beside or behind you rather than in front of you?

Dogs just need someone to add structure and tell them that they don’t have to be in charge anymore. And I think for a lot of the dogs it’s a great big relief and I tell the owners that, for them, it’s like getting promoted tomorrow to be president of the United States. It’s like, ‘OK, are we dropping the bomb, what’s that over there, what do we do with this and with that.’ You’re not prepared. You don’t know how to do it. So you’re going to stress out, you’re going to react, you’re going to shut down, you’re going to cry — and that’s a human. For a dog when we let them be in charge and they can’t handle it — and they can’t handle it because our human world is not a dog world, it’s got cars and rules and kids on bikes that you’re not supposed to chase — and we’re asking them to be in this world, but we’re saying, ‘Do whatever you want!’ and for them it’s overwhelming.

If I’m a dog and we’re on a walk and I’m walking in front of you, then I’m in charge. That’s when you get dogs who are aggressive because they’re like, ‘I don’t like that, so I’m going to bark at it because I’ve learned that barking at something gets it to go away. And if that doesn’t work then if I bite them, they’ll go away.’ So, the dog is making decisions when they’re walking out front.

When the owner takes charge and the dog isn’t in charge anymore, you can see them relax. Like my rotten girl Betty. When she finally got it, we would walk and she would stop looking around. She would just look at me. It relaxed her a lot more. Before she was on patrol, looking around for something to jump out and reacting to things. When she didn’t have to do that anymore she was much more relaxed. We can de-stress these dogs and get them to be the dogs we want them to be.

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