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Zen Dog Training Service Uses Compassion to Make Canines Cooperate

By Leslie Albrecht | January 17, 2014 7:15am
 Alexis Toriello's Zen Dog training service gets dogs to behave using "compassion and tolerance."
Zen Dog Trainer Gives Canines Compassion
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PARK SLOPE — Her canine clients don't meditate, but Alexis Toriello's dog training service promises to bring inner peace to pooches using the principles of Zen Buddhism.

Toriello emphasizes compassion and acceptance with her Zen Dog training service, which launched recently in Park Slope.

Toriello, who holds two professional dog training certifications, helps pups curb bad behavior using positive reinforcement and "force-free" methods. The technique is almost the opposite of the philosophy popularized by "Dog Whisperer" Cesar Millan, which posits that dogs achieve discipline when they're dominated.

"Force-free methods have been scientifically proven to be effective," Toriello said. "Methods that use coercion have been proved to be ineffective at best and most of the time harmful, and even dangerous."

Instead of trying to scare dogs into behaving, Toriello teaches dog owners to accept and tolerate their dog's "dogness," and to guide behavior using rewards instead of punishment.

A recent success story involved a client with an adorable terrier mix named Georgie that barked at nearly everyone and everything including children, bikes, bouncing basketballs and the doorbell. Using a method called "mark and reward," Toriello got the owner to teach Georgie that an approaching bike meant he was about to get a treat.

"Instead of yanking the leash [to curb bad behavior], you're building positive associations," Toriello said. "It helps the bond between you and your dog, and your dog is going to think you’re wonderful because you’re giving it treats all the time."

Toriello says she only uses techniques that are based on scientific studies, and she strives to give each client a tailored, holistic plan that incorporates diet and exercise. She also specializes in prepping dogs for the arrival of babies, a subject close to Toriello's heart because she had her first child two months ago.

Toriello, 30, grew up in Park Slope and graduated from the Berkeley Carroll School. During a stint in Washington, D.C. she got a master's degree in Arab studies at Georgetown University and spent three years working with the U.S. Institute of Peace on projects in Iraq.

But her focus changed when she got her own dog, Riis, a pit bull mix rescue dog that was very fearful and hated to be touched. "It was very emotional," Toriello remembers. "You fall in love with this dog and they become part of your family and you want to help them, but you feel helpless."

Toriello found a trainer who used positive reinforcement to transform the dog, and she found herself fascinated by the process. She started volunteering at the Washington Humane Society and eventually decided to launch her own training service.

Toriello, who moved back to Park Slope from Washington last year, said she's been surprised to see the number of dog owners in Prospect Park who control their pets with shock or choke collars, which she says do more harm than good.

"For such a progressive community, I would think there would be more people using...positive training, but I just don’t see it around the neighborhood," Toriello said.