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The Working Life: Joan Mayer Breeds Strong Canine-Human Bonds

Behavior coach teaches skills and techniques to ensure happy relationships between dogs and their owners

Canine behavior coach Joan Mayer says she didn’t really embrace dog ownership until she adopted Poncho, a 10-pound Chihuahua she calls her “best career counselor.”
Canine behavior coach Joan Mayer says she didn’t really embrace dog ownership until she adopted Poncho, a 10-pound Chihuahua she calls her “best career counselor.”  (Jenn Kennedy photo / www.kennedypix.com)

Joan Mayer considers herself a human and canine coach. Believing any dog is trainable, she has made it her life’s purpose to understand canine behavior and facilitate owner/pet relationships.

Recognizing the value of early training, the city of Santa Barbara Parks & Recreation Department has authorized the first puppy training class countywide, putting Mayer in charge.

Raised in Hollywood, Mayer attended the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and pursued a 14-year career as a costumer. She later decided to switch gears and earn a nurse practitioner degree from Stanford University. While raised in a family of animal lovers, Mayer didn’t really embrace dog ownership until she adopted Poncho, a 10-pound Chihuahua she calls her “best career counselor.”

Studying behavior became her passion. Mayer says The Culture Clash, a popular book about working with dogs, proved incredibly influential to her. Wanting to know more about training and pet behaviors, she attended various conferences before signing up for a six-week training course, which turned into a nine-month submersion. Through the various courses, she learned fundamental theory associated with animal thought processing.

Mayer notes the two main schools of thought for animal (including human) training: Operant conditioning (developed by B.F. Skinner) is the use of a behavior’s antecedent and/or its consequence to influence the occurrence and form of behavior. Operant conditioning is distinguished from classical conditioning (championed by Ivan Pavlov) in that operant conditioning deals with the modification of “voluntary behavior,” or operant behavior.

Operant behavior “operates” on the environment and is maintained by its consequences, while classical conditioning deals with the conditioning of reflexive behaviors that are elicited by antecedent conditions. Behaviors conditioned via a classical conditioning procedure are not maintained by consequences. Mayer subscribes to operant and classical conditioning in her work as a trainer.

In 2005, Mayer founded the Inquisitive Canine, a name she chose to reflect the naturally curious nature of dogs. She works with family dogs, as opposed to those trained for search and rescue or agility and show. Clients come to her with issues ranging from stranger aggression to separation anxiety. She helps owners communicate better with their dogs and create systems for consistent behaviors on both sides.

Beginning June 16 in the Larry Crandell Room of the Louise Lowry Davis Center, dogs ages 12 weeks to 16 weeks will be able to get indoor socialization and training, which Mayer believes will help overall behavior in the long term.

“I hope people will start to view dog training as fun and rewarding time they get to spend with their pet versus a chore used to break a bad habit,” she said. “It’s an activity you get to enjoy together.”

In addition to the puppy classes, Mayer offers public adult-dog classes at MacKenzie Park and Ventura College, and private training at the Ventura Pet Barn. She is also teaching a humans-only workshop on June 2 for dog owners of all ages. She will cover how dogs learn and communicate, and algorithms to achieve desired pet behaviors. During the session, attendees will brainstorm and problem-solve their dog issues and head home armed with tools to try.

While her two early careers may seem unrelated to her work as a dog trainer, Mayer offers a through line.

“I always liked science and looking at the pathology behind medicine,” she said. “Behavioral study (in dogs and people) is an extension of that interest.”

Mayer said taking a complete history (for a patient or a pet owner) is critical to diagnosis or successful training. He applied her fashion foundation by designing an all-in-one harness. She recently also developed an interactive flash card game and smart phone app called Out of the Box Training. The app guides users to dog-friendly places, introduces those who want dog play dates, and offers activities that users can log, post and discuss with others.

Mayer pens a monthly column on Noozhawk called the Inquisitive Canine and covers a range of topics, including crating, socializing and preparation when gifting a dog. She gives advice about behavior and training at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Noozhawk contributor Jenn Kennedy can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to see more of her work. Follow her on Twitter: @jennkennedy.

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