Alexis Toriello knows about dogs and international conflict resolution in equal measure. Though the career she was in previously didn’t lead directly into our Park Slope neighbor’s current life as a dog trainer, Alexis says there’s at least one thing the two fields have in common: communication.
In that spirit, we were pleased to speak with Alexis about her new in-home dog training business Zen Dog, her childhood in Park Slope and what it’s like to live here again as an adult with her own family, and Riis, the rescue pit bull who changed her life.
PSS: How did you go from international development and conflict resolution to dog training?
Alexis Toriello: During high school I had a couple best friends from Morocco who lived between New York and Quebec. I spent the three months between high school and college with them and their family traveling around Morocco. I speak French fluently, so that was the language I used while there — but I quickly became obsessed with speaking Arabic instead, even though I didn’t know a word of it — but it was the language people actually spoke. The more I connected with the country and the culture and the people, the more I wished I was speaking to them in Arabic, not French, the language of their colonizers.
When I got back to the U.S., I started studying French, and during college spent about six months in Morocco again studying Arabic at the Arabic Language Institute in Fes. After college, I moved to Egypt, living between Alexandria and Cairo for a total of a year and a half. While I was there, I was working as an intern for Human Rights Watch — the Counterterrorism Division and the Middle East and North Africa Division. In 2009 I enrolled in Georgetown University School of Foreign Service’s Arab Studies Master’s Program, where I earned a Graduate Certificate in Refugee and Humanitarian Emergencies.
For three years, I worked for the U.S. Institute of Peace in their Media, Science and Technology Department, working specifically on projects using media for conflict resolution in Iraq. I traveled there three times to implement these projects, which included activities ranging from shooting the first youth reality TV show to training Iraqi journalists in content analysis.
I have always loved dogs and have had dogs in my life since childhood. The dog that changed my life, though, was my current dog Riis, named after New York photographer Jacob Riis as a shout-out to my home city while I was living in D.C. He was a rescue, a pit bull, and a handful. Severe anxiety, sensitivity to touch on his body and paws, and extremely fearful of people and novel objects. Not to mention, quite reactive (barking, growling, lunging) at dogs on the street even at an early age. We needed help, but the traditional training dogma (no pun intended) wasn’t working for us. We read and were advised over and over to yank the leash, correct him verbally, use bark collars and choke collars, and that shock collars were perfectly humane. Unfortunately, we didn’t turn away from these techniques because we saw them as inhumane — we turned away from them because they were making our dog’s problems worse.
Finally, we met a trainer who used positive training methods. Force-free, mark and reward training that taught by developing a dog’s confidence and the bond between them and their people. I was stunned by the progress my dog made, and immediately fascinated by dog behavior modification.
What’s your background in dog training?
I’ve been training dogs for four years now. I started out with a number of invaluable mentorships with established trainers in the D.C. area whose methods I liked and respected. I also trained shelter dogs from the very beginning, so I’ve had tons of hands-on experience at the Washington Humane Society, where I worked as a volunteer Canine Behavior Specialist for two years, and with a number of smaller local rescues. The Washington Humane Society’s behavior department grew significantly while I was there, and I got to help it develop — now, they’re continuing doing amazing work. I also helped to select and train dogs for the organization Pets 2 Vets in DC that took shelter dogs and trained them as therapy or service animals for war vets.
Most recently, I worked for NY Animal Care and Control as their Behavior and Enrichment Coordinator, helping to build their behavior department, which was a wonderful opportunity, but recently resigned from my position there to open Zen Dog in Park Slope and to focus on my master’s degree in Animal Behavior at Hunter College. I’m also conducting a study with a colleague on treating dog-dog reactivity for a leading behaviorist, the details of which I can’t reveal right now, but it will be very exciting!
Although it’s a pleasure to work with any dog, given my past experience working in shelters, I’m partial to pit bulls and am passionate about helping to dispel the mass misinformation in our culture and the media about pit bulls as inherently dangerous dogs.
Have you found there are any similarities between your former career and your current one?
I’m fascinated by communication — be it in another language or with another species entirely. In my former career it was invaluable that I spoke the language of the people I was working with. Now, understanding human and dog body language is a large part of what I do — just another form of communication, and as such, it’s rewarding.
What is your dog training philosophy, and how might it differ from some others that are out there?
People often ask if my philosophy incorporates zen concepts, because of the name of my business. The reason I chose the name Zen Dog is because I find that my approach goes well with zen principles. Most notably, I emphasize compassion, tolerance, and acceptance in that I employ entirely force-free methods, meaning I use no coercive equipment or techniques so the dogs I train will never experience pain, discomfort, fear or intimidation at human hands.
Instead of teaching clients that their dogs are meant to submit and obey, positive trainers teach tolerance and acceptance of their “dogness” first and foremost, and approach behavior issues by teaching more efficient, incompatible behaviors so that the dog is not frustrated by a “don’t do this” message but instructed by a “do this, it’s easier and more rewarding in the end.”
For example, instead of: “Don’t pull forward on the leash or I’ll yank your choke collar. No, pulling sideways doesn’t work either. Yank. No, again, stopping in your tracks is not right. Yank,” we teach the dog what to do, i.e., “You will not get what you want by pulling on the leash, and you will be exerting a lot of energy doing it. If you stay on a loose leash, not only will you get the functional reward of moving forward, but I’ll also give you a piece of food, and you will have exerted far less energy which is you will instinctually like.” Basically, we teach respect for dogs as thinking, feeling animals and use actual science (learning theory and behavior modification) to inform our methods.
Our culture has a way of understanding dogs that is antiquated and misguided — led by certain TV personalities that endorse the use of dominance theory and “alpha” status, etc. Ever since dog trainers realized that you don’t have to beat dogs to train them (following the example of dolphin trainers who can’t beat their subjects), and since dog behavior studies have shown how unrelated the dominance hierarchy is to dog behavior, not to mention that dominance has very little to do with even wolf behavior, these ideas have been entirely rejected by the professional dog training community, to the extent that certification will not even be granted from the reputable certifying bodies if you adhere to them. But given that these techniques, that can have serious fallout behaviorally, psychologically, health-wise, and safety-wise, are still so prevalent, it is that much more important to present the alternatives to the public.
What’s one of the most common dog behavior questions you’re asked, and how do you answer it?
One of the most common things I hear from clients is, “My dog is not food-motivated, so he can’t be trained,” and the opposite, “My dog only listens when I have food, so he can’t be trained.”
In response to the former complaint, I say, impossible. No dog is not food-motivated. Your problem is most likely that you aren’t using good enough food, in your dog’s opinion. Just because humans think a certain thing is a “treat,” doesn’t mean your dog does. Dogs have individual tastes. The treat is only rewarding if your dog thinks it’s rewarding, not whoever put the marketing message on the bag. Be more creative!
In response to the second complaint, I explain the danger of using food as a bribe. Food can be used in three ways in training, two of which are good, one is not. It can be used as a lure (i.e. luring your dog into a certain position to teach them that that’s what you’re looking for), a bribe (showing your dog the food before asking for a behavior so your dog learns that seeing the food is a necessary part of the behavior cue and won’t perform without it), and a reward (dog doesn’t need to see any food around to pay attention to you — he’s learned from past experience that there’s a good chance you have something fun up your sleeve).
Of course, all my advice would be tailored to particular clients’ needs, but that’s a general example.
What’s one of the most memorable things you’ve experienced so far in your job?
I love helping people with dogs prepare for new babies. One of the most common reasons for relinquishing dogs to shelters is to make way for a baby, because people think their dogs won’t be safe to have around, or they’ll be too much to deal with. Having a 3-month-old myself, I’ve had the opportunity to test my own training personally, and it’s so rewarding to see the results! It can be so stressful for everyone involved when having a baby brings out new problems with your dog, and the saying is so true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Since you’re a dog trainer, is your dog Riis the most well-behaved one in Prospect Park?
The early times with my dog were challenging, as I described above. Now, he’s become a well-adapted member of our family — we joke that he was our first baby. With what I experienced raising this dog, I would certainly consider myself a “dog parent.” We go to Prospect Park all the time, and are always wowing people with his ability to stop on a dime, turn around and come running full-speed ahead to me when I call him, no matter what exciting things are happening all around.
Of course, he’s not perfect, though! And I love that about him. It’s what makes him a dog. He’s an animal, not a machine. I remind my clients of this all the time. If you want something that will never surprise you, will always do exactly what you say, and that you can completely control, certainly don’t get a dog!
You grew up in Park Slope — how did you end up returning, and what is it like to live here again?
I left Park Slope to move to Egypt in 2006 and haven’t lived here until just last summer except for short stints for holidays and such. My husband and I made plans to move back as soon as we found out we were having a baby — both our families are in Brooklyn, and we knew it was time to come home.
Prospect Park is great for dogs. For dogs who get along with other dogs, and for dogs who don’t — there are all those trails if you want a more solitary walk instead of “dog beach.” We also love taking Riis to Riis Park Beach in the Rockaways — he loves the sand and the waves. Also, the conservatory in Marine Park is a cool place to go. Not Park Slope places, but in New York you have to take what you can get.
Do you have any favorite places in the neighborhood these days, and are any of them places you went to as a kid, or are they new favorites?
Uncle Louie G’s! We’re frequent customers in the summer. And, the Soup Bowl in the winter. Love it. And, we maintain that Smiling Pizza (but everyone knows true Slopers call it Smiley’s) is the best pizza in town, hands down. That’s a place that brings me back to childhood, after soccer games in the park we’d always go there for a slice. We’re also big fans of the naturally flavored coffees at Java Joe — particularly the Mexican Chocolate!
As far as new businesses, as a new mom, I’m always in the new pharmacy that just opened up on 7th Ave, Greentree Pharmacy. They have great natural products at prices that totally burn Back to the Land. Neergaard on 5th has the largest collection of pacifiers that I’ve seen, I recently had a field day there. And finally, Monir Attar on 4th and Atlantic — I used their raw shea butter during my pregnancy and loved it as a moisturizer.