FREDERICK — Indie, the German shepherd mix, was about 11 months old when his owner, Ali Smith, noticed some unusual behavior.
They were at a park in England — Smith’s home before she married and moved to Carroll County — when she watched her typically playful pup leap and pin another dog down.
“It was almost overnight he changed,” Smith said.
She started researching dog trainers and dog behavior but wasn’t thrilled with trainers’ methods. They were too correction-based, and Smith felt it wasn’t the best solution for Indie.
So Smith, an accountant with a physics degree, started training Indie herself. She grew up with dogs but didn’t have any experience outside that.
“I trained myself to train him,” she said, matter-of-factly. “With him, I slipped into helping big, scary dogs be less scary.”
It was a natural fit.
Fast-forward a few years, and Smith is working full time as an award-winning dog trainer who specializes in puppies, with a client base that includes Frederick County. She wants to help other dog owners be better prepared and learn skills she wishes she had known sooner. She’s trained more than 1,200 dogs and offers in-person training, plus educational updates via email.
“I don’t train for perfect dogs,” Smith said on a recent sunny day in Baker Park, with Indie beside her.
If anything, Smith says she trains people to train their dogs.
Though Indie isn’t perfect, he’s greatly improved. Going on 4 years old, Indie didn’t let out so much as a bark when other dogs passed by, though they caught his interest. He showed great affection toward Smith and a few News-Post reporters who came to meet him.
Smith strives to be in tune with her dog. As she detailed their shared learning experience, Smith’s eyes roved around the park and back to Indie.
When Indie pointed his snout in the direction of a food truck, Smith asked him to do a few tricks in exchange for treats. The distraction worked, and Indie’s attention reverted back to his owner, his tail wagging happily.
From Smith’s experience, dogs learn better from redirection and rewards than correction. To train Indie, she began to associate what scared him — other dogs — with positive things like treats or play.
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As Indie showed signs of tiring at the park, Smith moved to the shade and poured her companion some water, which he lapped up eagerly. Dogs learn best when they’re comfortable, she’s learned.
Smith is of the mind that there is no time too early to start training your dog. Much of their brain volume develops early in life, she said. To help guide puppy owners through this critical time, Smith developed Pupdates, a 52-week email service that guides owners through that first year, offering advice on sleep, play and more. Smith also gives owners a heads-up about those “teenage” years, when dogs get hit with a rush of hormones and undergo what’s described as the “second fear phase,” around 12 months old.
“And that was exactly what he got,” Smith said of Indie, around 11 months, when he exhibited his unusual behavior. She also suspects breeding had to do with Indie’s troubles.
Equipped with a better understanding of dog behavior (and a bag of treats), Smith demonstrated the trust she and Indie have built. Unclipping Indie from his leash, Smith instructed him to stay. She walked away, roughly 15 feet, and stuck her hand in the air. Indie lunged forward, pounded his paws into the grass and jumped. His nose just barely kissed Smith’s palm.
In addition to her success with Indie, Smith’s cultivated clients locally and won a few awards for her work. LUXlife Magazine named Smith Best Puppy Guidance & Support Advisory Service Provider in Maryland, and Best Pet Training & Obedience Classes Provider in Maryland, and Feedspot ranked her blog, Rebarkable.com, as the best pet blog to follow in 2021.
With all of these accomplishments, what’s next for Smith?
“I’d love to open puppy classes,” she said. “I really enjoy working with people in a group.”