The Dog Listener

The Dog Listener

Unleashing ‘Pawsitive’ Results at Training Center

By Emily Rust

Just outside of Council Bluffs, Iowa, Kelley McAtee, BA’02, is helping dogs overcome behavioral issues by looking at more than just their behavior. She’s trying to sniff out and treat the underlying cause, for she believes that dogs have emotions just like humans.

Today, she’s helping Lexie, a black-lab mix who McAtee says is struggling with separation anxiety. Though her owner, Christine Sibenaller, is only yards away, Lexie is visibly trembling at the sight of Sibenaller walking away. While some dog trainers might only correct the behavioral issue, McAtee suggests that Sibenaller check Lexie’s thyroid. It can seem a little unusual to check an animal’s vitals, but for McAtee, getting humans to better understand their dogs is her personal mission.

“When she’s looking back, put pressure on her to not look back,” McAtee yells across her front lawn, as Sibenaller leads Lexie on a long leash. The key for Lexie, McAtee confides, is to take away her freedom and slowly give it back, so that Lexie will learn to trust her owner and, in turn, be less anxious.

McAtee opened Dharma Dog Training in Omaha in 2014, and recently moved the training facility to nearby Council Bluffs for additional space. She says common issues among the dogs she sees include anxiety, codependency, jumping and aggression. Oftentimes, owners bring their dogs to Dharma only after failed attempts at pet stores or other training facilities that focus almost exclusively on positive reinforcement.

“Most of the time, we’re the last option,” McAtee says.

The name Dharma is drawn from the Indian religions, and for McAtee it signifies finding one’s life purpose. The training center is a culmination of McAtee’s lifelong love for animals and desire to create social change, which began while she was a sociology major at Creighton.

 “I was studying Martin Luther King Jr., people who were creating change on a larger level,” McAtee says. “When you see something that’s wrong in society, and the system is broken, how do you create social change?”

She began studying the Council Bluffs animal shelter, which the city had begun managing in the 1970s. At the time, animals were not given medical treatment and were euthanized if they were not able to find a home after three days. McAtee decided to focus an independent study at Creighton on the shelter, rallying others to get involved.

McAtee’s initial concerns led to the creation of the nonprofit Midlands Humane Society in Council Bluffs, the first humane society in southwest Iowa since the 1970s.

McAtee continues to guide Lexie and Sibenaller through the yard, recommending that Sibenaller practice long-leash walks with Lexie six times before their next session. By the end, Sibenaller is able to walk away from Lexie with the dog exhibiting less visible distress. McAtee has created a trust between owner and canine, a goal of her relationship-based training company.

“Everything that’s happened in my life has led me to this,” McAtee says. “When I was young, I was a rebel without a cause. I was very angry when I saw all these things happening to animals in our society, but I didn’t know what to do about it. This actually gave me a purpose.”