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The Art of Training

Building trust is the first step
By Jeannette Cooperman, December 2010, Updated February 2022

For 30 years, Marilyn Pona, founder of Assistance Dogs for Living, has been training dogs: rescued, traumatized mutts; show dogs; obedience-school dropouts; neurotic dogs in danger of exile from their families; and service dogs of every kind.


“There’s one thing nearly every trainer does too soon,” she confides. “Train.”



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The usual impulse, she explains, is to jump in and try to impose control immediately. Pona learned patience from her work with service dogs: When you’re transferring a dog from his trainer to his new person, you can’t rush it.


What are the signs that tell you it’s time? When ears and tail change position, the body relaxes, breathing slows, and the dog is not hypervigilant or showing any stress signals—that’s when you know the dog’s finally getting a calming message: This is all that’s required of you. Be with me, in this moment. Pona shakes her head ruefully. “People want to go out in their khakis with their whistles and teach their dog tricks. After this kind of quiet moment, they’ll say, ‘But we didn’t do anything.’ Well, if you missed what we did, I don’t even know how to explain it.”


An orthopedic surgeon brought in his dog, who was showing aggression toward other dogs and humans. The dog got right up in Pona’s lap and kissed her. The surgeon said, “I can’t believe this—he’s tried to take down every vet and trainer in town.” She replied calmly, “Well, he’s introduced himself to me.” She’d been seated in her wheelchair when the dog entered the room. “I always relax my breathing when I meet a new dog, and I don’t reach out of my body space,” she says.


She doesn’t even talk directly to the dog; she lets him approach her, circling closer and closer. “If the dog doesn’t look at me and solicit my attention, I wait. If he just stops and looks up, I’ll avert my eyes and keep talking to his person. Then, if he stays near, I might touch him. But here’s my personal rule: One of my fingers or my thumb has to be touching my knee when I touch him. That way, I’m in my body space, not his.


“It’s all about building trust. He’s testing me to see if I’m going to try to push myself on him. Often, when I’m working with a new dog, especially a highly reactive dog, for the first 15 minutes we don’t do anything. This stops that tendency to say, ‘What is going on? What do we do here?’ We do nothing. We have to train dogs to do nothing. Because most of the time, asking the dog to do nothing is the basis for them being under control.”


In the beginning, a dog will resist even a simple request to “Come, stand next to me and be calm.” A dog is another species, and his own language is going to interfere and make him wary. What you’re really doing at this point is taming, Pona says. “Taming is noncommunicative. It’s just sitting next to each other until you feel comfortable. Failure to do this is why rescued dogs are so often returned to shelters, and why people’s relationships with their dogs don’t deepen.”


Often, when someone at wits’ end calls, Pona will say, “Just bring the dog into your body space and stop correcting. Too much correction or cueing can actually be feeding the behavior you are trying to stop. You start to think, ‘God, this dog is not getting it.’ And you’re right: The dog is not getting that you want him to be calm. When you say that and mean it, they understand, and it’s such a joy to watch. Then you can proceed with your training, because now the dog trusts the safety of being in your body space.”


A volunteer at a rescue organization called her recently. There was a problem with a Pit Bull mix trying to fight with the other dogs every time she walked past them. The volunteers there don’t like to use leash corrections, and Pona readily agrees. “It would have been counterproductive anyway, especially with a Pit Bull,” she remarks. “They are so headdriven and body-tough that when they are focusing on something, you could jerk them all day and it would be a mere annoyance. You’re not teaching them anything.”


What she wanted to teach the dog was simply to be quiet and walk near her leg. “Every time she would bristle up or go into an alert, I would have her back close to my leg. Finally, she gave me the eye contact I’d been waiting for. I said, ‘Okay, she’s ready. She understands what I want her to do. But let’s go outside and walk her and sit with her a bit and keep this going.’ We walked for a while and then sat on a stone wall, with her at my knee. I stroked her from the ear down, with one finger only, requiring nothing of her but being in my body space.”


Earlier, Pona had watched the volunteers gush over this Pit mix, and she’d seen the dog flash stress signals. “They were overwhelming her, and she was trying to soothe herself, yawning, licking her lips.We could have bounced a dime off her skin, it was so tight. But after we sat outside with her, just doing nothing, she relaxed. I got her to continue making eye contact, establishing some lines of communication. And then we went in and walked right through the dogs.When a particularly hyper Sheltie mix kept jumping and barking at her, she actually looked the other way and kept walking.”


The volunteer watched in amazement. “I never even saw you correct her,” he said.


Pona shrugged. “There was no need. I’d taught her, ‘Stay by my leg and be quiet.’”


That’s the whole point: Once you relax with each other, you can communicate.


For more on Pona and Assistance Dogs for Living, visit

Jeannette Cooperman has written several nonfiction books and a murder mystery, A Circumstance of Blood (Endeavour Press, 2015)—and yes, there’s a dog in it. She was a staff writer at St. Louis Magazine, she goes home to a century-old farmhouse in Waterloo, Ill., where she and her husband live with a standard poodle named Louie.