Sonny Piekarz: Dog Man with a Plan

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Here is Sonny Force Fetch Training with  Piper

The strongest single personality among a unique group of curmudgeons, iconoclasts and stong characters whom I met during my three-month journey visiting great dog trainers is dog trainer turned teacher of people about their dogs–Sonny Piekarz from Hay Creek Kennels.

What impressed me most about Sonny was his intensity with the dogs and his desire to improve his training/teaching technique.  His passion to rethink current practices oozes out of him.  He wants to build great dogs and wants to create systems to address the challenges dogs face with modern dog owners.  I visited him in his sparkling clean and orderly kennel which sat in the mixed farm/woodlands of north central Wisconsin.  He has 80 acres of property with his home, kennel for 32 dogs and training yards.  Everything was trimmed and shipshape—one of the nicest kennels I visited.

My visit was mid-October which was a quiet season for Sonny.  Spring and summer were intense times training young dogs, late summer and early fall meant tuning up hunting dogs and in January and February he guided and worked pointers at the Mariposa Ranch, a 45,000-acre quail hunting paradise for high end hunters, in South Texas.  Now was a quieter time and he was prepping his dogs for Texas and working on “project” dogs—biters, aggressive, antisocial dogs referred to him by veterinarians. “Mostly the problems with dogs are problems that we, the owners, create,” he explained.

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Sonny and Shannon in their office.  They have one of the cleanest and most organized kennels I have visited.

Have Dogs Changed?

 “Today we are training house pets to be hunting dogs. In the recent past they were dogs first.  They were sent to me to develop specific skills in their role as hunters: to be steady, to hunt with us, to move in front of us, and maybe to retrieve,” explained Sonny.  “Now I spend more time teaching people to be the leaders of the dogs. Many dogs suffer is because people want to be their dog’s friends, not their leaders. In our current PC culture, we treat our dogs like humans and it is ruining dogs.”

Sonny clarified, “People expect dogs to meet their emotional needs and be sensitive to them, but they don’t get that dogs think about survival in a pack animal environment. They crave a leader and without one they are confused and unhappy.” He said that dogs’ needs are primal and lethal. “Surviving by having security, food and a place in the pack is what motivates dogs.”

As I reflected on this insight, I remembered that human development experts theorize on what motivates humans. Maslow’s highest human need is “self-actualization” Gilligan asserts that it is “love or care for others.”  Sonny made a great argument based on years of study and experience that dogs are motivated by a far more basic need to survive and do the work of the pack which for a bird dog is hunting with his leader. “When we become aware of a dog’s true needs, we can accomplish so much more,” he remarked. Sonny learned most of this as an Apprentice to Ronnie and Rick Smith, two of America’s foremost dog trainers.

 Best Advice

“Rick says that we should treat our dogs like deaf children. What is most important is body language and touch. We need a “point of contact” to communicate with dogs.  I use the “Wonder Lead” to give me an almost primal connection to the dog so I can instruct them,” explained Sonny.  I watched him work and was blown away.  First, he puts his hands firmly on the dog’s shoulders and then holds their face in his hands and rubs firmly around the eyes and muzzle. Then he cues them with his Wonder Lead.  He took a three-year-old black lab who was sent to him because she was a biter.  She was not previously trained by him.  After working the dog through a series of agility training—jumping on tables, weaving through poles, and walking narrow planks, he asked what I knew about force fetch training.  Yes, I had done it with one of my Golden Retrievers and read extensively about it. Normally force fetch training requires a month of hard pressure on the dog. It is tough work to insure the dog will always retrieve which usually includes pinching the dog’s ear or toes with pliers to insure compliance.  Good trainers do it efficiently and effectively. Personally, I hated it.  Not that I minded pressuring my dog physically, but I felt like I discouraged my dog doing the traditionally force fetch training methods.

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Before Sonny started with his painless Force Fetch Training, he works the dogs through agility exercises so they learn to take commands.

However, in just 20 minutes I watched him take Piper through a series of exercises where he picked up and delivered the wooden dowel to his hand by queuing the Lab with the Wonder Lead. Sonny barely spoke to the dog during the 20 minutes. I was astonished. Sonny explained, “the more you talk, the more you interrupt because they are queued by your touch and body language.”

How Dogs are motivated compared to Humans      

 Sonny explained,” Dogs think in a tunnel where we think more broadly.”  This concept got my attention like an anvil falling on my toes.  Too often we treat animals like they are motivated by what motivates us.  My son will pet the animals and play with them all day and be disappointed when I come home, and they follow me around the house like I am wearing a Lady Gaga meat. From Sonny’s view, they do this because I am the family leader and survival means insuring they attend to what I want.  Too often human egoism and egocentrism means we think animals are thinking like us. This also explains phenomena like “doggie sweaters, doggie Chiropractic, dog spas, dog psychologists and so many of the ridiculous dog toys we give our pets.

 

Trainer to Teacher 

Sonny’s morphing from trainer to teacher is his attempt to meet people where they are at.  Dogs need leadership.  “Dogs need a dominant leader, so they can be a submissive learner. I spend time teaching people to make the dog accountable using touch, the Wonder Lead and consistent direction.”  He explained that many people try to love their dogs into obedience and cooperation and it always backfires.  Too much of the “support dog” ideas come from this wrong-headed thinking, instead, “if people can truly be a leader and train the dog, they will grow by training themselves, developing leadership.” He sees much of his mission now to teach people how to manage their dogs effectively.

 

The Business

 Sonny was cordial and direct in his speech—he was passionate about what he did and thankful to have made a good life out of working with people’s dogs but his underlying drive to do better struck me most.  “We are adapting our business to meet the needs of our clientele. People love their dogs but too often mistreat them by treating them like human children. We are doing more obedience training, short seminars, dog grooming and delivery to help our busy clients take care of their dogs.”

Detection Dogs

 Sonny’s newest interest is building great detection dogs.  With the increased threats in America from terrorism and weapons, trained dogs are our best solution.  The growing need for these dogs to protect our public spaces will soon include schools. Sonny has attended five government/academic seminars dedicated to this topic.  After meeting these folks, he discovered that in their current system too many dogs “wash out” because of poor preparation and also give false positives because they are rewarded and taught with treats.  “They often work the dogs at frenetic speeds which creates mistakes. Dogs need a quiet mind to be successful. Teaching them to recognize the needed smell; bombs, drugs, weapons, is the easy part. I taught a dog to find Windex on a car bumper in 3 days.  Creating attuned dogs is not happening.”

Sonny explained further, “They really need dog people helping them. I think using our bird dog training methods we can do better.”

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Sonny really likes athletic, big running dogs for his Texas Guide work.  “They must be ‘Special Forces’ level dogs to manage the work they must do every day.”

 Final Thoughts
I like people with big personalities. Sonny is one of those.  His clarity and drive told me that he would work to be cutting edge.  I wanted to stay in touch with this great teacher who has realized that the key to good dogs is good people who understand how dogs think.

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