Ben Kersen gets positive results with his ‘praise-and-play’ approach
Simple, clear and positive — that’s the personal style and professional approach of dog trainer Ben Kersen. He’s taken his straightforward methods and an understanding of canine nature and turned them into a way of life.
With megaphone in hand, Kersen has been serving up tidbits of wisdom to thousands of dogs and their owners for almost 20 years.
“Snap if they’re pulling, praise them if they’re with you, ” he calls out at a training class. “Let’s take a moment to praise them.”
But don’t get the wrong ideas. Kersen is no pushover. If there’s one thing he says sets him apart from other trainers it’s his attention to detail.
“I aim for perfection,” he says. “My Dad said to me years ago, ‘If you’re only going to wash half the car, you might as well leave it dirty because it looks better.'” That drive has garnered him praise from many, including some of Hollywood’s best trainers.
Ben Kersen and his Wonderdogs — border collies Shae, Shiloh, Fozzie and Hannah — have performed across North America and are regulars at local parades and fairs. The dogs leap effortlessly into the air to catch Frisbees, twirl around on their hind legs and respond to head and eye commands from hundreds of feet away — sometimes in unison.
Despite media appearances and a tempting offer from a major movie studio, this dog lover hasn’t forgotten the key to his success: Have fun and stay positive.
And Kersen has used that approach to help scores of local dog owners improve their relationships with their cuddly canines.
“Other trainers work on the dog. I work on the owner.”
Kersen, 38, didn’t start with formal training but simply the will to try and a dog in need of direction. A young man new to the West Coast, he found himself with time on his hands and a Doberman to train. He knew no one who trained dogs and nothing of the techniques of well-known experts. Maybe it’s a special way with animals that sets Kersen out from the pack, or perhaps it’s just his simple-yet-comprehensive style that does the trick.
” I developed my own technique, doing what comes naturally, ” he says. ” I just did what seemed right, what seemed consistent and what would make sense to the dog.”
That common sense approach worked with his first dog and continues to work with virtually every dog he’s worked with since. Regardless of the breed, size or age, he believes all dogs can be trained. There’s a lot to be gained by the owners as well.
“Other trainers work on the dog, I work on the owner. With the training they’re learning consistency and follow-through and lead roles and confidence,” he says.
“The theory behind the obedience training is very simple. Keep it as fun as you possibly can. Use praise, play and toys. But if your dog is pushing, you have to push back.”
Kersen’s “one-word, one-time” philosophy is central to his training methods: use one-word commands and only use them once. He says consistency is the key to success.
He also has a unique approach to the use of the word “no”. He believes it’s best to reserve the “n” word for behaviors you never want your dog to do, for example, chewing the furniture, jumping up on guests or biting.
Perhaps it comes right down to his understanding of dogs.
“He thinks like a dog thinks,” said one satisfied dog owner before she and her pooch started their fifth session with Kersen and his trainers. Halfway through the 12-part training program, she’s noticed a remarkable change in her dog’s behavior.
One return customer was so pleased with the results with her first dog that she enrolled her second dog, Buddy, a 125-pound Field Labrador. When Marlies McNicol first met Buddy a few months ago, she put the techniques Kersen taught her to work right away and saw big results fast. Once an abused dog that jumped up and bit and snarled, the Buddy that McNicol brings to class now is a friendly and well-behaved dog.
McNicol’s older dog, Tasha, is now so well-trained she goes to work with McNicol’s husband at the Department of National Defence and is known as the office mascot.
Sharon Horbal and her seven-month-old Blue Heeler, Sage, have also made great gains in just a few classes. At the end of one class, Sage responded to a simple “come” command from 100 metres away.
“I had huge expectations for her but that was beyond what I expected from her by only the fourth session.”
Horbal checked five other trainers before she enrolled in Kersen’s program. She says she was impressed with his “praise-and-play” approach and the way his own dogs act as role models for the “students.”
When teaching owners to relate with their dogs, Kersen never forgets to emphasize the positive. “It’s a frame of mind. If you think positive, it’s amazing what you can do.” His new video Is Your Dog Driving You Crazy? provides owners with the foundation needed for successful training-the walking exercise, the sit command, the come command, the down command and creative solutions to common problems. And the emphasis is always on providing your dog with a positive, stress-free training environment and plenty of motivation and enthusiasm.
“Any fool can train a dog to respond through force or through fear, but that’s not what my technique is all about. My technique is motivating the dog,” Kersen says.
“The reason we make it positive is so both the dog and the owner have fun, so it’s not a chore like going to work in the morning. It’s kind of like good therapy in a sense,”
Among Kersen’s successes are aggressive dogs that have learned to obey their owners and play safely with other dogs and bored pooches that have learned to have a lot more fun.
The most touching testimonials come from owners who were on the verge of having their dogs put down because of uncontrollable behavior. Those are the cases that mean the most o Kersen, who says many dogs are put to sleep each year for common problems that can be solved with proper training.
“If I can make even a small dent in those numbers, there’s a success right there,” he says.
What it comes down to for this unwaveringly optimistic dog trainer is “saving dogs’ lives and bettering the relationships between people and their dogs.”