Changing pawceptions

2011-05-16 00:00

“I’M commonly called the dog lady,” said Adrienne Olivier (59) with a gentle laugh. Born in East London into a family of serious dog lovers, Olivier grew up surrounded by them but believes that her passion is something innate. “I have three daughters and none of them shares my passion for dogs, even though they also grew up in a house full of animals.”

A shy little girl, Olivier received her first German shepherd on her 13th birthday and soon after she entered the world of competitive dog-obedience shows, following in her mother’s footsteps.

“I admire my mother. She has always had a tremendous drive and has never been afraid to try something new, even now in her 80s. She has always been ready to support and assist the underdog ... I think that she was a pitbull in her previous life.”

Olivier trained competitively for over 30 years and became one of the youngest dog-obedience show judges in the country at the age of 21.

As a child, she wanted to work with animals and save the abused and neglected ones, and had a dream to work with the Guide Dog Association. But fate had other plans, and after completing her matric at Kloof High School, Olivier went on to qualify as a teacher at Edgewood College of Education. She taught Grade 4 children for 12 years, but when she had her own children, Olivier’s career took a sidestep, although her work in training dogs continued.

From 1973, she trained numerous dogs to obedience champion status, as well as tracker dog and police dog champions. Five years later, she bred her first litter of German shepherds and later qualified her first breed champion from her own breeding.

She started training professionally in 1988, specialising primarily in puppy training classes.

“It’s my favourite because there’s such a happy relationship with the cute little puppy who is ready to absorb stuff.”

The training involves teaching people how to handle and care for their dogs and improving the handler’s relationship with the dog. “It’s about understanding their dog. While training the dog, the owner is being educated on how the dog sees the world and once you understand that, it’s easier and less frustrating to control it.”

According to Olivier, despite the old adage, you can train an old dog new tricks, and she has successfully trained dogs as old as seven years. However, she adds, a dog’s temperament is more or less set for life in its first 16 weeks.

“Dog training has evolved. It’s now all about motivation and positive reinforcement. There has been such an explosion of information on dogs that training now revolves around understanding the dog and the way that it thinks rather than the old, primitive ways that sometimes involved choke chains, compulsion and intimidation.”

The modern dog-training method usually involves lots of food. “Using food works with any dog, age or breed. The food lures it into completing the required action and then the food is its reward.”

In its simplest form, training a dog requires three steps: getting the behaviour by manipulating the dog with food, naming the behaviour as the dog completes the action and then cueing the behaviour. However, it’s not always that easy.

“I get a lot of people who come with unrealistic expectations, who are looking for quick fixes. It amazes me that people don’t think twice about sending their children to school for 12 years, but they expect their dog to come equipped with manners.”

To teach more complicated behaviours or to fine-tune the training, Olivier uses a clicker (which simply makes a clicking sound). The clicker marks the precise moment of an action and the dog associates the sound with getting a treat. Clickers are also used to train athletes and gymnasts, as well as zoo and marine animals.

“The mistake that we as anthropomorphic humans make is that we project human values and emotions onto the animal. For example, someone would call his or her dog spiteful for ripping up everything in the house. However, the dog is exhibiting anxiety. Dogs are social animals and when they are abandoned or left alone for long periods they become stressed and therefore exhibit stress-relieving behaviours. Then the dog is dragged to the scene of crime and scolded and hit, and people say the dog looks guilty. However, the tail between the legs and guilty look is what the dog does when faced with stress or aggression. It’s what is known as calming signals which is nature’s way of protecting the dog.”

The most rewarding part of her dog-filled life, says Olivier, is being involved in animal welfare. She is a committee member of the SPCA and the founder of the annual township dog show that has been running for eight years. She is the founder of Funda Nenja, a township dog-training initiative, which has been running for two years and has recently been registered as an NGO.

When not with her beloved pets, Olivier likes to read, garden, socialise with family and friends, and travel when she can afford it.

“If I could change one thing in the world,” she says, “it would be people’s attitudes towards all animals. There is far too much ignorance and cruelty resulting from that lack.” She adds that she hopes to make a positive change to the lives of dogs and their caregivers.

Olivier said: “A friend of mine said that the epitaph on my gravestone will read: ‘She did it for the dogs’.”

Watch the video:

Annual SPCA Township Dog Show

ADRIENNE Olivier founded the annual township dog show eight years ago, through her volunteer work with the SPCA education division. She tried to think of a way to teach township dog owners in a manner that was non-intrusive or threatening, and chose to affirm and acknowledge those who looked after their dogs by means of a dog show. Classes that are judged include dog in the best condition and best handler.

At the dog show, there is a clinic with SPCA staff where the dogs are dipped, dewormed and inoculated, and each dog receives a lead and collar. Volunteers also educate dog handlers.

“There can be anything from 100 to 300 dogs that attend. We see some dogs come in with strings, barbed wire and chains. It is a very successful project as it gets the SPCA into the community in a non-threatening way and gets role models in the community. It also shows people that there are resources available to assist with animal welfare ” says Olivier.

Township training: 'Funda Nenja'

A TOWNSHIP dog-training initiative, Funda Nenja translates as “learning with the dog”, which is what is being done every Friday in the Mpophomeni township just outside Howick.

Adrienne Olivier started the initiative almost two years ago. It has recently become a registered non-governmental organisation (NGO) and works closely with the uMngeni SPCA which assists with the medical needs of the animals.

“Dogs in townships were either chained or running around and we said for a long time that we need to start teaching them,” said Olivier.

The first class saw more volunteers than dogs but now there’s an average of 60 to 80 dogs attending the lessons every Friday afternoon.

The idea behind the initiative is to develop respect and compassion for all living things by promoting a bond with a dog, using dog training as a vehicle.

“We’ve seen attitudes change, children developing happy relationships with dogs and dogs becoming more trusting. We are also finding that people in the community are reporting abuse of animals. It has a ripple effect — healthy animals make for healthy people.”

Weekly classes involve teaching dog-training methods, educating handlers on animal welfare, the need for sterilisation and humane handling of all animals.

Every dog that takes part in the programme is fitted with a collar and lead, and the handler is given training treats for both the afternoon lesson and the forthcoming week.

Often dogs and their handlers are turned away due to a lack of resources.

People interested in supporting this initiative can assist by sourcing or donating dog food, old or new collars and leads, de-wormers, flea and tick remedies or with financial donations. Volunteers wanting to assist on Friday afternoons are most welcome.

• For more information, contact Adrienne Olivier at 083 636 0891 or e-mail

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