Dog obedience training has been an irreplaceable part of Ruth Hetzel’s life for nearly 40 years. She has taught private lessons in her home since 1970 and has been a trainer with the Western PA Humane Society for 30 years. She has also taught obedience at Allegheny County Community College and at the Bellevue YMCA. But for Hetzel, personal experience is truly the best teacher.
"When I started, they never had certification," she says. "Your certification came from your training experience. All my dogs have always done well in competition for their titles."
She says that she’s owned about 15 dogs, who have earned a combined 52 titles — including eight Utility Titles, 10 Companion Dog Excellent Titles and 11 Companion Dog Titles. One of her present dogs has his Utility Dog Excellent Title.
Hetzel’s dogs have also done exceptional things like posing with the Steelers for a calendar and appearing in dog food commercials, and most of her dogs have been certified with Therapy Dog International.
While Hetzel has trained her own dogs for competition since 1968, she understands that most owners are merely looking for basic training so their pets are better-behaved at home.
"Most people just want a nicer pet," she says. "The more they train, the dog bonds to the owner and respects them as the leader. I can take my dogs into a vet and say, ‘Down.’ And they’ll lie down. That carries over into the house or anywhere they go."
That’s where Hetzel’s Teen and Basic I classes become helpful tools to learn the basic sit, down, stand and come commands. Her Basic II class is more advanced and teaches the commands with distractions and at further distances, as well as some precision work.
Hetzel says that she tries to create a pleasurable atmosphere for dogs and their owners in her classroom.
"We try to have a good time," she says. "I tell the people, ‘Obedience can be fun.’ I try to tell them not to take it so seriously. All dogs can learn and have a good time doing it."
Even though Hetzel has been training for over 40 years, the unique personality of every dog keeps her career fresh and fascinating.
"Every dog is so different," Hetzel says. "They all have their own personalities and quirks. It keeps it interesting, so it’s not the same old thing every time."
Seeing most dogs blossom into well-behaved canines is always gratifying too, Hetzel says.
"Suddenly, the unruly dog starts behaving, and the owner enjoys the dog more," she says. "When the class starts, people say things like, ‘I’m going to get rid of him if he doesn’t stop jumping or running off.’ Then, after the class is over, they say, ‘Oh, he is so much better.’"
Hetzel says that she likes to pass along one gem of advice to anyone who is training a dog: A solid relationship and respect stems from the communication and interaction between the owner and his dog on a daily basis.
"Some people don’t realize what their dog is capable of," she says. "They’ll say, my dog can never do that. But with time and patience, they can do really well."