PITTSFIELD — Leea Foran didn't own a dog while growing up, because the apartment complex she lived in didn't allow them. But, whenever her family visited someone who had one, "I just spent my whole time with the dog."
She spends a lot of time with dogs now, too.
Foran, who grew up in the New York City borough of the Bronx, is a certified dog trainer and behavior specialist who owns Foranimals of Lenox, a dog- and cat-training business she started 24 years ago, after leaving the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, where she served as an educator and a counselor for over 20 years.
Foran is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior.
We spoke with Foran recently about how she became a trainer, how she developed her teaching methods and why pet owners require training, too.
Q: How did you become interested in training animals?
A: It's a long story. I've always had a passion for working with animals and working with people. My intended path way back when was to go to vet school and be a veterinarian (Foran holds a degree in animal behavior from Ohio State University), but life had different plans for me and that never materialized.
My relaunching to be fully involved in starting my own business and starting all of this came after I was no longer working and living at the Kripalu Center. I left there 20 years ago and started to launch a new career for myself.
Q: What led you to dog training?
A: I had a dog at the time who was in need of many things. That's the story for many dog trainers. ...
I did much studying and training with some of the best trainers in the country. My real desire was to create a business where people would really be able to understand their dogs better and have a positive relationship with them. ... I wanted to focus on a positive-reinforcement approach to training.
Q: Why did you gravitate toward that approach?
A: It was what I believed in. ... The approach to training has changed greatly over the last 30 or so years. There's more scientific research on how dogs think, and that they do have feelings and emotions.
I want all the relationships in my life to be based on trust and respect, rather than force or fear. A lot of my training at Kripalu was about an approach to good communication and good relationship-building, It was certainly a natural outcome for how I wanted to treat dogs and for people to be with their animals.
Q: Was fear the most prevalent method for training dogs when you started out?
A: In the past, the approach to training was punishment-based. If the dog didn't do it right, then correct it in some way. The punishment could be something very mild, it could be, "No, bad dog," or it could be very abusive. There was a whole range of things that you could do. ...
The trainers that I worked with and the approaches I was studying were based on a better understanding about what's going on with the dog and how we can partner with them to create a mutual, joyful experience of working and learning together not completely excluding punishment.
There's a time and a place for making corrections and helping a dog learn in a different way but to [provide] every opportunity possible to do the least invasive and most enjoyable and rewarding way of working together.
Q: How does that approach help train dogs?
A: I think one of the big things is that it helps a dog enjoy learning and partnering with you. ... Dogs aren't that much different than us. If we're enjoying the learning process, we learn better, and that learning is retained longer and stronger. When we can make it fun, the owners also want to participate more.
Q: All sorts of books have been written about why dogs and humans bond so well. What's your opinion based on your experiences?
A: There are a very large amount of things that we have in common.
Dogs have been studying us for centuries. They're watching us and studying us and learning our language and learning how to read us. We need to reciprocate a little better than we often do. But, there are traits that are common.
There are ways of thinking and feeling. ... Because of the years of cohabiting that dogs and humans have done, there is a cooperation that exists and there's a common language that exists. ... All that has drawn dogs closer to us and has had us enjoy their company more.
I think there's been a sort of mutual benefit that both species have received. It's drawn us closer together, and drawn our emotions and ways of thinking closer together.
Q: Were you a dog person as a kid?
A: We always had cats. ... I didn't have a dog until I was an adult.
Q: What's the easiest breed to train?
A: I don't think I'm going to answer that one, because I don't think there is an easiest breed to train.
Q: Is there any breed that's really hard to train, or are you going to give me the same answer.
A: Yeah, I'll give you the same answer.
I don't want to pick on any one breed of dog. I think the ones who are hardest to train are those breeds that just aren't so interested in what you're doing. Some of the northern breeds, like huskies, or some of the Oriental breeds, like Akitas, a lot more of the "They'll do it their way, please" kind of breeds. They're harder to train.
Q: Is your business focused mostly on dogs?
A: I train a small amount of cats, also. Oftentimes, cat owners just sort of live with their cats and feel the problems will just go away. It really doesn't occur to them that they could have training for their cats.
Q: Is training the owners also a big part of what you do?
A: For people who often have the dream of becoming a dog trainer because they love dogs, it [can be] a real eye opener that you really have to love people, too, because it's really about training people using the vehicle of a dog.
We're really training people to understand the dog, and to have patience and passion for the learning process so that both they and the dogs learn the mechanical skills of training well ... being consistent with the training process and giving it time to grow and mature ... it's very much a process of training people.
Q: What will dog training look like in the future?
A: On a practical level, the future of dog training may go more and more online, just like many other things are going in that direction. There's certainly been more of that over the last five years than ever before.
There's classes to take online, learning online and more workshops to do online than in person. As COVID-19 continues to interrupt our lifestyle, it may be more of a necessity to go in that direction.
Q: But, do online classes work?
A: I think it will work for those folks who have dogs that aren't well-suited for an in-person class. They have too many focus issues or reactivity issues, and working in a group is not conducive for them to be able to take a class online. Learning everything that you could in a class and having that done safely in your living room is very valuable.