“Dogs are misunderstood, and our cultural ideas about them are hurting them. Dogs need a voice, and often it’s their dog trainer who is speaking up for them. I love being that person for a dog.” —Kim Silver
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you first get into animal training, and what you are doing now?
I have been a professional dog trainer for 12 years. My interest in dog training was born from a compulsion-based dog training class I attended with my dog Eve in 1997. I learned to train dogs in that group dog trainingclass using a choke chain. In that class, I witnessed the trainer hang a dog on a choke chain when the dog lunged at another dog. I never went back. I continued to train my dog on my own but still used the choke chain. When I moved to Arizona in 2007, I crossed over to using positive reinforcement only. With each passing year, I have grown closer to becoming the force-free trainer I am today. People are often surprised to hear that I am a crossover trainer. I have regrets about my roots in dog training, but if not for those experiences, I would not have so much reverence for every dog in front of me and the principles of force-free training.
Tell us a little bit about your own pets.
I have had so many wonderful pets in my life that have taught me great lessons. Currently, I have a 15-month-old beagle named Jasper Luca. Jasper is my newest addition, and we are having fun getting to know each other. Frances Gia is my 20-month-old harrier who enjoys Treibball, hunting for food, and doggy playdates. Carmenis my 13-year-old Chihuahua/terrier mix foster dog. Carmen is a long-term foster who is learning that people are safe. Lastly, I have a 20-year-old blue front Amazon parrot named Oliver who has been clicker trained!
What do you consider your area of expertise?
I love working with fearful dogs, leash reactivity, and puppies.
Why did you become a training professional?
Once I discovered that I could impact the quality of a dog’s life through working with their pet parent, I was hooked. I find I don’t do all that much “training” anymore, but more behavior counseling. Dogs aremisunderstood, and our cultural ideas about them are hurting them. Dogs need a voice, and often it’s their dog trainer who is speaking up for them. I love being that person for a dog.
What species do you work with?
I work with dogs and occasionally parrots. I wish more people would consider training for all the other species of animals they live with other than dogs. Cats, birds, gerbils, horses, and goats would all benefit from training. I believe that training is basic animal care.
Are you a crossover trainer or have you always been a force-free trainer?
I am a crossover trainer. Once a clicker was put in my hand, I never turned back. Teaching manners with a clicker was an easy shift, but working with leash reactivity and aggression with marker-reward training was a huge paradigm shift for me. Emma Parson’s book Click to Calm changed the course of my life.
What drives you to be a force-free professional, and why is it important to you?
For me, force-free training is in alignment with my values and ethics. It is also very effective. I put my head onmy pillow better at night knowing that I work with clients who want to treat their dogs humanely, grow theirrelationship, and meet their dogs’ individual needs.
What awards, competition placements, have you and your pet(s) achieved using force-free methods?
I love Chirag Patel’s quote, “Husbandry is my agility.” I don’t participate in competitions with my dogs. Everything I do with my dogs is to enhance the quality of their life and for enrichment. I like to say we arewinning at life. I enrolled Frances Gia in Treibball because it was the only group class I could get her into that fit my schedule. I just wanted her to work around other dogs. As it turns out, she’s good at it! Who would have thought a hound would love a herding game? We will never compete—that’s just not my thing.
Who has most influenced your career and how?
How can I choose just one person? In my early years while volunteering at a service dog organization, a trainer named Crystal Saling gave me a recommendation that changed the course of my life. Being a self-taught trainer and having some mentorship at this service dog organization, I was interested in formal education in dog training. Crystal was a Karen Pryor Certified Training Partner. She recommended KPA and that’s the path I took. It was joining the KPA program that expanded my world and who I would learn from in my journey: Nan Arthur, Emma Parsons, Laura Monaco Torelli, Debbie Martin, and Ken Ramirez, to name some. In my mostrecent years, I have been influenced a lot by Kim Brophey, Leslie McDevitt, Ellen Naumann, and countless other smart and generous people doing amazing things with animals.
How has the PPG helped you to become a more complete trainer?
I have a lot of formal education now from a lot of different organizations. As much as I value all of the certifications that come with that education, the one place that I feel most at home is with PPG. As trainers, I think many of us are looking for colleagues with whom we can grow and collaborate. Yes, I can do that with trainers outside of PPG, but I sometimes find my values and ethics don’t always align. I feel strongly about the Guiding Principles of PPG, so much so that I not only want to be a member, but a PPG volunteer advocating for those principles. I currently serve with PPG’s Advocacy Division and its Advocacy Panel. In a time when aversive tools are very prevalent in dog training, I feel I must do my part to change the future of dog training.
What are some of your favorite force-free techniques for commonly encountered client-pet problems?
I love Leslie McDevitt’s pattern games, and I use them with almost every client. I incorporate them into all of my group classes and use them with my reactive dog clients, too. I am also a huge fan of Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT), and I am a Certified Behavior Adjustment Training Instructor. I use the principles of BAT often with all kinds of dogs. It’s one of my favorites for puppies and leash-reactive dogs. I also love a good whistle recall.
What is the reward you get out of a day’s work with people and their pets?
I believe a lot of mistreatment of dogs comes from humans’ expectations of their dog’s behavior and the dogs not measuring up. The dogs are left with an empty emotional cup. My clients are relieved when I give thempermission to not have a perfect dog. I also give them permission to not “train” their dog. Let’s face it—mostpet parents are not great dog trainers. I try to teach my pet parents two to three things they can use for five to ten different behaviors with their dogs. My clients love the quote I borrowed from Laura Monaco Torrelli:”Feed two birds with one seed.” For example, let’s teach your dog to love to go to a spot for treats. Once they learn the magic spot is a treat dispenser, use that spot for everything: go there when mom is in the kitchen, go there when I call you in from the yard, go there when a guest comes over, go there to put your harness on, go there to wait for your breakfast, etc. When a client realizes how easy it is to get their dog to be better behaved with this one easy thing, I feel really good about how they will be filling their dog’s emotional cup going forward.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The favorite part of my job is being a witness to a dog’s world opening up. Recently, I wrapped up a three-session program with a new client. Nine months prior, the dog had been through a four-week board with a prong collar. The dog went home with the prong collar, and it had been used on the dog ever since. There was no other way to describe this dog other than flat. He seemed void of joy and afraid to try new things. After two sessionsof learning how to hand target to greet guests, and some food luring and stationing, his mom said she saw significant changes in his behavior. Of course, that made her happy. I decided to ask her if she noticed her dog’s flatness. She said she did notice and it bothered her. She said he wasn’t like that before the board and train. We agreed to turn her last session into a food-hunting game where we gave the dog permission to be a dog. He litup with joy. She said she had not seen that type of behavior since he was a puppy. She plans to do foodhunting games with him every day so he can feel free to explore and search the property for food and, consequently, add some joy back into his life.
What special work-related projects or activities are you currently involved in?
A unique service that I offer is shock-free snake safety. I live in Southern Arizona where venomous snakes are prevalent. Snake avoidance is traditionally done with a shock collar. I teach dogs to move away from a rattlesnake and perform an alert behavior to warn their pet parent that they saw, smelled, or heard it. Shock-free snake safety challenges the cultural fog around what is considered “training” for dogs to stay away from snakes. It is remarkable to me that people think a single learning event of shocking their dog is better than a dense reinforcement history for moving away from snakes. Yes, shock-free snake safety training does take longer than shocking your dog. One benefit of shock-free snake safety is that you can work with your dog year-round, strengthening the skills you’ve taught them. Also, you are not hurting your dog. To learn more about shock-free snake safety, I wrote an article in Pets and Their People in May 2023.
How have these special projects or activities helped your business, career, or service offerings?
I don’t know if I would say that offering shock-free snake safety has helped my business’s bottom line as much as it has helped spread awareness that hurting your dog is not necessary to train them, for anything. I actuallyface a lot of challenges and criticism for offering this training. It is not easy to be an outlier challenging what has always been done. I certainly don’t think teaching dogs to be safe around snakes with positive reinforcement is easy for the average handler. It takes a lot of training over time to get the results we want, and there are a fair number of people who are not willing to put the time into it. I am not the trainer for them, and I accept that.I’m here for the people who do want to put the time and energy into the training and who believe it is possible, because it is.
What’s next for you?
I am currently growing my training business in Tucson, Arizona. Building Bonds currently has eight trainers, including myself. In our group classes, we offer puppy, adult manners, Rally, Conformation, Treibball, and work with private training clients with issues like separation anxiety, aggression, fear, and leash reactivity. This past year I launched an online puppy course and a comprehensive online course for leash reactivity. I am slowly working toward my behavior consultant certification through the Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPG’s accreditation arm). I’d like to eventually step back from teaching group classes and manners to focus my time on my own dogs and help more client dogs with fear, anxiety, and aggression.
What advice would you give to a new animal training professional starting out?
My advice to anyone starting out in animal training is to get a formal education from a positive reinforcement training school and/or college-level behavioral science program; find an in-person mentor; and join the Pet Professional Guild. I also recommend dabbling in learning to train another species other than your chosen species. Get to know the veterinarians in your area. Offer to work with their staff’s pets for free or at a discounted rate. When they see how great you are, they will be referring their clients to you.
Kim owns Building Bonds in Tucson, Arizona.