LEWISTON — Buddy jumped for attention. Little Picshu tried to engage giant Gizmo in a wrestling match. Toby hid behind a chair.

It’s not the typical YWCA class — there was a distinct lack of pool water and an abundance of fur — but it’s becoming a popular one.

Puppy training.

With a little owner training thrown in.

“So many times, we want to blame the dog for bad behavior,” instructor Martin Neely told the small group of humans and canines gathered recently for a Monday-night class. “Remember what we said the first week? Rule No. 1, bad behavior is never the dog’s fault. Rule No. 2, even if it really is the dog’s fault, remember rule No. 1.”

Neely grew interested in dog training 27 years ago. He had gotten a German shepherd puppy because, as a 20-something Navy man who’d never had a dog before, he thought the breed looked “cool.” Annie, the puppy, was cool, but she was also destructive.

“The dog was tearing apart the house. I didn’t know anything about potty training. I was just ready to give the dog back, it was that bad,” he said. “Then I took a training class.”

He saw immediate results with Annie and discovered a passion for training. Years later, he became a trainer full time. He now lives in Lisbon Falls.

When the YWCA considered reviving its once-popular, long-retired dog obedience classes, it gave him a call. 

The first class, offered last fall, had just one member. The class after that had three. Demand and need this fall was great enough that Neely and the YWCA offered both a six-week class for newbies and a six-week intermediate class for past graduates.

In the new beginner class: Buddy, a German shepherd puppy with a penchant for barking and jumping; Gizmo, a giant but affable goldendoodle; Picshu, a 5-pound bichon frise who likes to play with the big dogs; and Toby, a Labrador retriever-mix who spent the first five months of his life confined to a shelter and is afraid of the world.   

Neely favors treats over yelling, clickers over choke collars. His philosophy for the class: Sit happens.

“We wait and catch the dog sitting. So the dog sits, they hear the clicker, and as far as the dog knows they’re sitting on the clicker,” he said. “They will choose to sit because sit gets you chicken. Whereas jumping on somebody might get you some attention, but sit pays more. So jump goes away, sit takes its place.”

It’s a lesson Buddy’s still learning.

“We’ve had German shepherds before. This one, he’s got a mind of his own,” said Buddy’s owner, Joyce Walter.

During one of the last classes of the session, each dog still had things to work on — coming, staying, leaving dropped food alone. Owners had to work on hovering less, bribing less and following instructions. 

“‘Good boy’ isn’t a release word. You say that all the time. A release word is a unique word that strictly means he can get up now,” Neely told Picshu’s owner, Joan Murphy, as she worked with the puppy on stay. “Go ahead.”

“Good boy!” Murphy said. 

But all — dogs and owners — had shown improvement over the weeks.

“It doesn’t take me quite as long to drag him through the front door here,” said Susan Geismar, owner of skittish Toby.

After five weeks, every puppy could sit on command, with a hand signal. They could each walk on a leash, pretty much. And they all — mostly all, most of the time — knew not to jump. 

Even with time left in this session, some of the owners were already thinking about taking the intermediate class.

“He didn’t know anything when we came in,” Tina Nason said of Gizmo. “And we didn’t know how to go about teaching him.”

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Contact Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or [email protected].

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