Changing lives, one dog at a time

The owner of Paw & Order in Nelson is barking up the right tree, with a positive approach to dog training

by Danielle Brost
Nicole Courson with a group of dogs

Nicole Courson helps dogs gain a new level of confidence. — Photo courtesy Paw & Order

Nicole Courson understands the power of positive reinforcement. She uses it every day as the owner of Paw & Order, a Nelson business providing canine behaviour consultations and empathetic, positive training. As a certified dog behaviour consultant with a background in aggression and anxiety-based challenges, she has seen profound changes in the dogs she has worked with.

Courson’s commitment to both her furry clients and their humans, is part of what makes her company such a success. We wanted to know more, and she was happy to share. .

- Photo courtesy Paw & Order

How long have you been running Paw & Order, and what inspired you to do so?

I started Paw & Order in 2016, while I was still working for my friend's business in Trail. I mentored under the owner and head trainer, and worked for them training private clients, running group classes, and supervising their dog daycare for a number of years during which time they were very supportive of my starting something independently in Nelson.

I was inspired by my own love of animals (and dogs in particular) to pursue this work, and by colleagues and my community to provide more support to dog caregivers in our area. There is so much information available now on how to humanely teach and handle animals. Kootenay people love their dogs and deserve to access best practices for them, versus the media-popularized methods that do so much harm.

What education/certifications did you decide to pursue before starting your business?

I felt strongly, and still do, that this field needs to be regulated. Early in my career I volunteered at a place that advertised itself as "rehab for last chance dogs" and learned a lot about poor dog handling and how little regulation or education is required in this industry - literally anyone can wake up one day and call themself a dog trainer. Those people often do significant harm, including locally here. As I want to ensure I do the best work possible, I am certified and licensed by organizations that require continuing education.  There are a number of them, but prior to starting my business I prioritized courses and exams with the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants (Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant) and the Karen Pryor Academy (Certified Training Partner). I have received additional licensing and certifications since then.

- Photo courtesy Paw & Order

What approach do you take to dog training?

My foundation for all animal training is positive reinforcement, taking a LIMA (least invasive, minimally aversive) approach with my canine and human students. A trainer I admire used to say "be the coach, not the cop" and this resonated perfectly with me. I want to focus on building a strong relationship and communication between dogs and their people, so we can guide dogs towards great decision making versus policing their already-underway behaviour. I don't punish dogs. Intimidation, fear, and physical pressure do not improve the ability to learn skills, they stifle learning and behaviour. Old-school methods like leash corrections and "alpha" theory have been debunked completely and effectively. I use rewards, guidance and feedback, and a dog's own chosen motivators to change behaviour very successfully. I work with some very behaviorally intense dogs (including explosively aggressive ones) and this methodology is consistently the most successful.

What other community initiatives/events do you like to get involved in?

I love to participate in and donate to the local animal community, especially for dogs. I am often available for educational events or to volunteer with or without my dogs, and I donate training support to local rescues.

Unrelated to dogs, I am the current President of the West Kootenay Métis (Nelson) and the Volunteer Coordinator for Massif Music Festival. Both roles are very important to me and give me the opportunity to support my local community.

Could you recount a memorable or meaningful experience you've had while working with the dogs you train?

Oh gosh, there are so many. There is a moment that happens with a dog when they step off that ledge and fully commit to trust me. For some it's effortless but for dogs with a history of fear or aggression towards humans, it's trickier. I have lots of flashy stories of working explosive, aggressive dogs into trustworthy members of society, but some of my favourites are the quieter, more complex cases. A sweet little adolescent herding dog, a few years ago, was so terrified of everything that he could only be handled by his owners and one pair of grandparents. When we first met I threw chicken over my shoulder for him for weeks, because the pressure of even brief eye contact was too much. It was months of patience and meticulously planned interactions, and I'll never forget the day his whole face softened and he wiggled into my lap with absolute trust. I was able to help him attend his humans' wedding, and that dog now goes on off leash group hikes and his world is so much bigger and brighter.

Loki takes in the Nelson view. - Photo courtesy Paw & Order

What do you love most about living and doing business in Nelson?

I love the diversity of dogs, activities, and environments here. There are a thousand different ways to share our life with dogs and I love getting to explore and find the right ones with a canine/human team. I get to teach dogs to hike off leash in groups or solo, to walk on leash down a busy street, to chill on a pub patio or to ride a paddleboard, to run safely alongside a horse and then show off some circus tricks or sit quietly at soccer practice. Our lives can include our dogs to a high level in Nelson and I love making that possible in a way that is safe, fair, and fun.

What aspect of your work is the most fulfilling?

I love solving complex behaviour puzzles, I am endlessly fascinated and delighted by the intelligence and personalities of dogs... but the best part is helping to build a deeper understanding and rapport between a dog and their person(s). To understand and make the most of a friendship with an animal we have to honour what they are as a species, a breed, and an individual. When I can help a client see and celebrate that, and the language and trust between human and dog gets stronger and they meet in the middle, that's what really does it for me.

Do you have any plans for the future of the business?

More plans than time! This year I'm starting a patio manners program, and a horse trail ride program. I want to continue to offer fun classes like nosework, parkour, and tricks and I want to expand the options for young puppies beyond basic group classes. My passion for helping dogs and their guardians work through serious behaviour challenges, and for dogs to get to experience the diverse benefits of living here, will guide my future planning. Maybe a brick and mortar facility someday. I love the diversity of my clientele and their individual goals, and the creativity that inspires me to help them get there.

Buck overcame his fear through positive reinforcement. - Photo courtesy Paw & Order

So far, what has been the biggest challenge?

There has been a very effective campaign from TV and social media personalities to push an "alpha hierarchy" or "pack leader" attitude in dog handling, and it's so inaccurate and ineffective that it can be frustrating to still have to debunk it sometimes. I see it in uncertified trainers, dog walkers, and the general public. Domestic dogs are not wolves, and a group of unrelated dogs does not make them a pack - but our primate brains and human egos grasp for truths in that model. I bring this back to "be the coach, not the cop"—rather than quash poor behaviour, we need to look at where it's coming from and meet those needs another way. I hope for a future where I don't see someone leash-popping or neck-poking a dog and calling it training. I'd love to never hear the word alpha in this misplaced context again.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

If there is something your dog does that you dislike and want to stop, or that you like and want to see more of, or you're just wondering about making your life together better—email me and let's talk!

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