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Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Finn, a 7-month-old Bernese mountain dog, gets a belly rub from his owner, Ginny Thomas, after obeying a command during a training class at the Allen County Fairgrounds.

Patient trainers put puppies through paces

Thomas works on heeling with Finn. Her goal is for him to become a therapy dog at hospitals and nursing homes.
Alongside Thomas, Finn listens to trainer Steve Wheeler, who later said the dog was at the top of his class.
Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Finn , far left, looks around during Steve Wheeler’s instructions in his puppy training class. The Fort Wayne Obedience Training Club has offered classes at the Allen County Fairgrounds for more than 60 years.

– This particular obedience exercise for the seven dogs was quite simple: As trainer Steve Wheeler held onto each animal one by one, its owner would walk 20 paces or so away from his or her pet, then enthusiastically call it. Excited for a reunion, no matter how brief the separation, the happy dog rushed to its owner and was praised to the heavens. For their prompt responses, some received treats brought from home.

Observing their own dog’s participation, a man and woman sat on metal folding chairs a few feet behind a collapsible, three-foot high fence – the kind of temporary, scissor-like wooden barricade often used to keep toddlers behind staircases. With their 12-year-old daughter acting as the primary handler, the mother and father sat at the gated end that each dog would run toward.

Their dog – a lively Australian shepherd – responded instantly to the girl’s call.

A young German shepherd with pointed ears and snout was equally obedient, as was an eager-to-please brown dachshund whose particular quirk was, when resting, that he preferred to sit on a specially brought carpet remnant rather than the cold, hard floor.

As for the terrier, not so good, since it spotted an opening between fence and wall and attempted a hasty getaway. Onlookers, plus the owner, foiled the escape.

When it came time for her to summon her frisky, 70-pound Bernese mountain dog, affable Ginny Thomas walked toward the seated couple and joked from behind the flimsy fence, “If he lands in your lap, I’m not responsible.”

But with a few lumbering strides – his thick black, brown and white coat billowing in his own wind, his pink tongue dangling – 8-month-old Finnegan ran directly to Thomas, 73, who congratulated him for being such a good boy.

“This exercise could save your dog’s life,” Wheeler tells the owners, explaining the perils of traffic and the importance of their dog’s immediate response.

It was week seven inside one of the many Allen County Fairgrounds buildings, with one more week remaining in the training course.

It is a vast, barren structure with a high ceiling and green, rubberized flooring, save for the dachshund’s carpet. The temporary fencing crudely divides the large room into three sections, so different classes can be held simultaneously or, if not in use, handlers can work one-on-one with their dogs.

For more than 60 years, forming in 1946 under the leadership of former Allen County Sheriff Custer Dunifon, classes have been sponsored and taught by the Fort Wayne Obedience Training Club.

For $60, there is a six-week course for a gaggle of comically rambunctious puppies. Another $80 gets the dog eight additional weeks of behavior reinforcement.

Finnegan, the focus of our dog tale, graduated from puppy classes and on this particular evening is close to completing his second level. Following that, Thomas says he will receive additional training.

“We always will work on heeling and paying attention to me, so when we’re out in public – if he makes it to be a therapy dog, which I’m sure he will – he focuses on me,” Thomas says.

That is the long-term purpose for his Tuesday night training sessions – so Finn can become a therapy dog; so he can visit hospitals and nursing homes; so that aging eyes and young hands can see him and pet him and talk to him, and he’ll be loved and give love in return.

“To get his therapy dog degree, he has to know all these things,” Thomas says. “Commands are No. 1, and be exposed to as many situations as I can expose him to.”

Finn is Thomas’ second Bernese mountain dog. Her other is 9-year-old Cooper, who continues therapy work. Because of its intelligence and gentle demeanor, Thomas says, the breed is ideal for the specialized task. But before Finnegan makes visitations to the sick and elderly, he must learn proper behavior.

A week into his adult sessions, Finn was already the vision of calm around other dogs in his class. While a nearby husky barked and yipped excitedly and tugged at his leash, Finn sat quietly, tilted mostly to his left side, and watched his neighbor make a spectacle of himself. He wasn’t even distracted by the swarm of yelping puppies in the section next door.

As the adult dogs and their owners form a circle, Wheeler stands in the center and shouts out instructions, reminding the handlers to show the dog a flat hand with the word “stay.”

That part was easy.

Next lesson was to teach the dogs to lie down.

Always ready to sit, Finnegan needed coaxing from Thomas, who would grab both of the dog’s huge front paws and pull them toward her, which forced Finn to lie down.

“Good boy,” was the praise from Thomas. Finn’s lush tail waved like a fan.

Later in the session, Wheeler had the owners walk their dogs in a circle. Then he had the dogs stop. Then sit. Then walk again. Then stop. A few pulls on the short lead from Thomas, and Finnegan was getting the hang of it.

Weeks later, the exercise is repeated: walk, stop, sit and down.

Finn performed splendidly except for the lying-down part.

“Last week was not a good week for him,” Thomas says, with the massive dog at her feet. Once he reaches full growth, Finnegan will approach 100 pounds.

“He had no interest in training. But they go through that. They reach a point where they don’t want to do it anymore. The ‘down’ command, he’s been so good on that. We’ve worked on it all week. Now it’s gone. ‘Stays’ are good. Heeling is good. ‘Come’ is wonderful. But ‘down’ – he thinks, huh, you mean me?”

But on the final Tuesday night, Finnegan received a passing grade.

“Finn’s really good. He does a real nice job,” Wheeler says. “He’s pretty much toward the top of his class.”

Finnegan’s formal education isn’t complete, however. There are still the advanced courses for his career as a therapy dog.

Before and after his eight weeks of classes, Finn devoured the attention from onlookers who would fluff his fur and scratch his ears and kneel down and talk to him.

There was the occasion when Finnegan placed his thick, right paw on top of a hand that was petting him. It appeared to be a friendly gesture.

“No, Finn!” Thomas says, removing the paw. She tells the person, “When he does that, he’s trying to show his dominance.”

The dog then kept both front paws on the floor.

“Everybody likes Finn,” Thomas says. “People don’t walk past him. If you’re not attracted to (other dogs), you can ignore them. But nobody ignores this one.”

She reaches down and gives him a couple pats. Gladly, Finnegan accepts the love, content with the knowledge that he’s a good boy. It’s something he hears a lot.