By Jed Weisberger
Alena Heyer’s love for dogs began when she was 16, the day a German Shepherd puppy arrived at her home near Frankfurt, Germany.
“It didn’t take me long to realize (Alena named her puppy Baily) just how much energy he had,” said Heyer, an IWDBA member who is part of the training staff at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. “I was just fascinated by him.”
Heyer competed with Baily in Schutzhund Obedience, a routine developed in Germany to train dogs to be more useful to and happier for their owners as protection dogs. She earned her dog handler’s license and a top score in the German equivalent of the Canine Good Citizen test.
With such a plaudit, she utilized her skills in volunteer work, assisting in training other owners and their dogs in agility, protection work, tracking, and obedience. Then, in 2016, she joined an au pair program that brought her – and Baily – to the United States.
“My first au pair assignment was in Colorado for six months,” Heyer explained. “That’s the length of each assignment. My second was in Philadelphia and I’ve been here since.”
While serving the Philadelphia-area family, she asked if she could take their dog to training classes in her free time. Her Schutzhund experience helped her become a Dog Trainer at a Petco facility and certified in the All-Positive Dog Training regime.
“I was really happy my host family let me do that with their dog,” said Heyer. “The differences between how dog training is done in Germany and the United States seemed substantial when I started in Philadelphia, but, as I learned, things are really the same with some slight differences. Each individual trainer has his or her unique methods. The only matter two trainers agree on is how the third is wrong.”
In 2017, she was accepted into the Penn Working Dog Center’s Internship Program, joining its training staff full-time in 2018. At IWDC 2021, Heyer and retired Cheltenham (Pa.) officer Robert Dougherty, who serves as Penn Vet’s Law Enforcement Training Coordinator, presented a forum titled “Implementation of a plan to decrease arousal and increase motivation (of dogs in training.”
Heyer spends most of her days with this type of training, working with Dougherty when the dogs are prepped for careers with law enforcement agencies.
“When a dog becomes too aroused, it won’t take direction from a handler or follow commands,” said Heyer. “This won’t help in the work situation the dog is being trained for. So, we have ways of training that will avoid this in the future.”
As Heyer explains, this is where Impulse Training comes into play.
“We do impulse control exercises daily to develop obedience. A dog might have a favorite toy. We take it away and make the dog wait until we see a certain required behavior to get it back and get a treat. The dog must listen and understand that both impulse and patience help bring the toy back.”
Heyer explained there has been an increased demand for search-and-rescue dogs this year, but that has not always been the case, with a balance of that, medical and olfactory detection dogs, and dual-purpose dogs the normal.
“A lot of older dogs are retiring, so we get requests from several areas,” she said.
There is one area – with breeding – she feels Germany has a better overall program than the United States.
“In the United States, we seem to have a lot more behavioral issues than in Germany,” Heyer said. “Breeding there is much better regulated. The dogs go through more tests, a supervisor checks on the litter. There are barely any puppy mills.”