The following article, “An Interview with Connie Cleveland of Dog Trainers Workshop“, was published in the May/June 2012 issue of the Golden Retriever News. Interview by Edell Maria Schaefer.
Born into a show dog family (since her mom was Betty Drobac, Heron Acres Goldens) and being a very visible contributor to the GRNews as an obedience columnist since 1995, Connie is an inspiration to us all for her enthusiasm, good humor, and expertise. If you ever have an opportunity to see Connie’s seminars, her field or obedience performances, or to train with her, don’t miss the opportunity.
– Edell Schaefer
Most people come into the sport of dogs in their adult years, but you were born into it. What do you remember of your earliest years as a child in a “show dog family?”
I wish I could say that it is a pleasure and an honor to be asked to write a column for Historically Speaking. But, it is just plain frightening! It means that someone considers me historical! For the record, I don’t consider myself historical. Even having done the math, and figuring out that it’s been 42 years since I walked into my first dog show ring, I still consider this a hobby, perhaps more accurately described as a passion. It just happens to have become my life’s work.
When did Golden Retrievers enter the picture?
I have never known life without dogs. My mother, Betty Drobac, had dogs before me. She trained her first dog, a springer spaniel mix, with Blanche Saunders in New York probably around 1950. Her first pure-bred dog was a Puli. “Ace” was one of the first Champion Puli in the country. The story is that I learned to walk holding on to him. That must be true because I remember seeing my first Puli at a show when I was 8 or 9 years old and asking Mom why it was so small. I remembered Ace being slightly larger than an Old English Sheepdog. I guess if you’re a toddler, and holding on for support, that makes sense. Mom earned Ace’s CD title, but couldn’t get him to retrieve. She said it was at that time she fell in love with Goldens, even in the mid- 60’s they were delighting everyone with their willingness to do obedience.
I was the youngest child, and as my brother and sister got older and developed their own interests, Mom felt at liberty to pursue her interest in dog training and showing, especially since I was willing to tag along. She bought the family our first Golden in 1967. In 1970 she bought me my first dog, a Maltese. In 1971 our Golden died quite suddenly, so she found another Golden puppy, the last left in a litter. He became CH. Shawn’s Golden Boomerang UD TDX. He started the history of show dogs in our family.
I showed my Maltese in Junior Showmanship at the age of 8. Soon after, I showed him in Novice obedience. I still remember my first leg, and my score, 171. I was the happiest person at the dog show. By the time I was 11 or 12, Mom and I would go to dog shows together and share our Golden, “Boo.” We’d pack a picnic lunch and be there all day as I showed him in junior showmanship and conformation. Mom would show him in obedience. Boo started my love affair with Goldens. He was a quintessential Golden – happy, fun-loving, and the origin of the Heron Acres motto, “whatever the game, we’ll play.”
It sounds like your Mom was pretty influential. Tell us something about her and your dad, and the other people who influenced your involvement in dog sports.
Today we talk of soccer moms; I had a dog show mom. She was fascinated by every venue and I was a willing participant. Together we explored them all, including tracking and field work. Tracking was my least favorite, probably because as a track layer I was expected to remember where I had walked. I was a pretty sharp teenager, but that was unreasonable. I finally figured out that if I remembered where I dropped the glove, and the dog got lost, I could just make up where the track was. As long as I ended up at the glove, no one ever knew the difference. I don’t know how much longer it took Mom to train those dogs to track with my half-hearted help, but they seemed to figure it out.
Both my parents were amazing athletes, and coaches. I was a competitive tennis player until I was 16, and played the piano for 12 years, so I grew up knowing what it meant to practice. My father taught me that if you wanted to be good at something you needed to find a person who had done what you aspired to, and learn everything you could from them. It was true on the tennis courts, so I figured it was true in the dog world as well. I had no fear when it came to approaching people and asking for help. Betty Gay (Gayhaven), Marcia Schlehr (Kyrie), Sylvia Donahey-Feeney (Birnam Woods) were all Fort Detroit Golden Retriever Club members that were willing to answer my questions. One of my fondest memories as a teenager is literally sitting at the feet of Torch Flinn (Tigathoe) at a national specialty in the late 1970’s and getting her to regale me with stories of the field dogs that I had only read about.
When did you get your first Golden?
Mom and Dad bought me my first golden, “Tara,” the summer after I finished eighth grade. She was a year and a half old, had her CD title and already knew how to retrieve. What a great gift to give a teenager! There had just been an issue of the Golden Retriever News with photographs of two Champion –Qualifed All Age Dogs- Ch Topbrass Ad-Lib’s Bangor*** and Ch. Toryglen’s Idling Jerome***. Throughout High School, I was determined to accomplish the same. After my junior year, I approached Jackie Mertens (Topbrass) for a summer job. At that time, Ch. “Tara” UD had placed in some qualifying stakes, but never earned the needed first or second. That summer was a dream come true for me. I still tease Jackie that I was the first of a long string of teenagers that she and her husband, Joe, took into their home. I credit Jackie with teaching me how to train consistently, and pursue excellence with my dogs. Indeed, Tara did go on to win a Qualifying stake and become the 7th golden bitch in the history of the breed to be a Champion and also obtain Qualified all-age status. Later, while I was in college, my mom earned Tara’s TD and TDX. She was Ch. Cimaron’s Dusty Dawn UDTX***. She was a teen-ager’s dream dog. She got me through adolescence, high school, and college. Today, my corporation name is Tara, Inc. and I do business as The Dog Trainers Workshop.
I was surprised to learn you have an engineering degree. How did you settle on a career path, and at what point did you develop a dog training career?
After finishing High School I announced that I wanted to train dogs for a living, and my parents were much less than enthusiastic. Careers came from college educations, and since there is no major in dog training, they made it clear that I needed to pick again. I was a few weeks from resentfully heading off to college when I attended my first Gaines Obedience Tournament. I was mesmerized by obedience done at that level. I wanted a dog that could do obedience like that. It was a brilliant choice, because as a struggling college student, obedience was less time consuming and less expensive than pursuing field training.
At college I discovered that if I got into the engineering school, I could get a co-operative work experience job and only attend school every other semester. Perhaps not the best way to pick a major, but it was the perfect solution for me. Not only did I not have to be in college full time, but I could earn money- enough for my own apartment which meant my dogs could come to school with me and I could get on with the business of training them.
Furthermore, the work experiences allowed me to position myself around the country near good dog trainers. After only a little research, I knew I wanted to work in Moline, IL, where I could train with Bob Self Sr. and Sharon Long while they were partners. I’d drive over and watch them train, and they would generously answer my questions. I lost count of how many pizza’s Bob Sr. bought for me to eat after training.
The summer of 1982, I took a job in New York, positioning myself near Diane Bauman and Ruth Rosbach while they were partners. When I met Diane, I was determined to learn everything she had to teach me. Wednesdays were my day off, so as soon as I finished working on Tuesdays, I’d head for “Heel and Toe,” their obedience school, and watch obedience classes. When classes ended, I’d ask Diane what time and where she would be training on Wednesday so that I could watch. When she found out that I was sleeping in my pinto station wagon, she graciously gave me a bed in her home. I had no shame, or shyness, I was simply doing what my father had taught me to do- learn everything you can from a person who has done what you aspire to do. Diane had done everything that I aspired to do with her golden, OTCH Meadowpond Fem de Fortune. I wanted my dog to look just like that.
How has dog training evolved over the years?
I had grown up in a dog training era that I refer to as “correct and praise.” Up to that time, training was choke chains and corrections, with never a thought to why dogs made errors. I give Diane all the credit for starting the revolution that changed how we trained dogs. She was a voice in the wilderness asking “Could we please stop correcting dogs for that which they do not understand?” She taught me that sometimes dogs were confused or afraid, and that they were not deserving of a correction. Conversely, some dogs were distracted or thought they had a choice and did need to be corrected.
Today I talk about effort errors and lack of effort errors. Effort errors are characterized by confusion and fear. Lack of effort errors are characterized by distraction and disinterest. That all began with Diane. If it weren’t for Diane’s influence, I’m not sure I would be training dogs today. My fascination with dog training grew because of the thoughtful and careful approach to training that she taught me.
Can you tell us about some of your most memorable dogs and experiences?
That fall, I returned to Michigan to finish my degree, and 6 months later earned my first 200 score and was well on my way to my first obedience championship with a daughter of “Tara,” who would become OTCH Heron Acres High Jinks TD WCX. Jinks finished her career with several tournament placements and two perfect scores.
I did finish college with an engineering degree, and after working as an engineer for a long, arduous 15 months, I took my first full-time dog training job training dogs for the physically handicapped and hearing impaired. In 1985, this was brand new territory, and there were no manuals telling me how to get dogs to pull wheelchairs and turn on lights. Besides that, I had to choose dogs, most often from shelters, that wanted a job. The learning curve was great, and I will be forever grateful for that experience.
During that period, I trained and showed my next two obedience trial champions. Both were off-spring of CH. Heron Acres Sandcastle UDTDX***, a dog that my mother showed and cherished. They were OTCH Heron Acres Mr. Ryan MVP, and OTCH Heron Acres Sand Dollar TDX. Ryan was an amazing obedience dog. He almost never failed and he put up with me at a time when I was far too cocky about my own ability. He and four of my other dogs survived a house fire in 1984. He had an amazing heart; he never failed to put forth 100%, no matter what was asked of him. He and Dolly both placed in many divisions at many Gaines Obedience Tournaments.
OTCH Heron Acres Alecsander MH** was “Dolly’s” son, born in 1990. During Alec’s career, he earned around 1500 OTCH points, won the Open Division at the Gaines Classic, and then two regional Super Dog titles. Additionally, he introduced me to the hunt test game, a venue that started right after I had gone to college.
When did you decide to make the break and start a full-time training enterprise?
While my friends were waiting tables and running cash registers for spending money in college, I figured out that I could teach obedience classes for the local parks and recreation department and they would split the revenue with me. That was a great gig, and showed me how much I loved teaching. Throughout my tenure training service dogs, I taught obedience classes in my community to supplement my income. In 1991, many friends and students encouraged me to start teaching obedience full-time. It was a terrifying step for me, but certainly one I have never regretted. From a humble beginning in an empty athletic club, the Dog Trainers Workshop has grown to include a boarding kennel and indoor training facility. Currently, we teach 14 obedience classes each week. We also offer boarding, an in-kennel training program, and private lessons for fellow competitors and problem behaviors. I am currently teaching 10-12 obedience seminars a year. We are once again involved in training service dogs on a private basis- and have been able to serve people with physical disabilities as well as families with autistic children.
Many of us are familiar with your seminars and training tools, including a long history of articles for both Front & Finish and the GRNews. How did that come about?
I began writing for the Golden Retriever News as the obedience editor in 1995. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sylvia Donahey-Feeney for twisting my arm and encouraging me to do that. Also, to my mother, who herself was a published author. She, more than any English teacher I ever had, taught me to write. In fact, long before e-mail and fax, I would call her from college and ask if I could read papers to her over the phone for her critique.
I credit the writing I have done for starting my seminar business. Lots more people have read what I’ve written than seen me in the ring with one of my own dogs. The golden retriever community was my first audience, and instrumental in having me give seminars on competitive obedience. The articles that originally appeared in the Golden Retriever News have been republished in other training magazines as well as in my book “Dogs Are Problem Solvers- Handlers Should Be.”
The engineering degree that I fought so hard against has also proven useful, as it organized my mind and training techniques and lead to the DVD Series that I was able to produce with the help of fellow dog trainer and video expert Jerry Younglove.
Many find it daunting to train and compete in more than one venue, yet you have achieved high levels of success in two different performance areas – field and obedience. Please tell us how you negotiated that.
Meanwhile, and because Alec reignited my interest in field work, fifteen years after I had worked for Jackie Mertens (Topbrass), I called her and told her I needed a dog. I was simply looking for another chance at pursuing an OTCH/MH. I got much more than I bargained for. That puppy became FC AFC OTCH Topbrass Ascending Elijah. Saying Eli was the first Field Champion/Obedience Champion in the breed simply does not adequately describe his intensity, or his personality. He took me places I only dreamed of – National Retriever Championships, a trip to England with an American team of field dogs. Eli was the most unique animal I have ever had. As much as I worked with Eli, I always had the sense that Eli was teaching me a lot more than I was teaching him.
I never intended to become a field trialer. I simply followed Eli where he wanted to go. It was evident before he was 8 months old that he was a special dog with amazing talent. I couldn’t deny that and keep him in a hunt test arena. Thankfully, I had previously met Judy Rasmuson and when she saw Eli as a 6 month old she asked if she could buy him. I knew I couldn’t sell him, but I did agree to share him with her. That was the start of our partnership. Judy has made it possible for me to run field trials, first, by being an amazing teacher and coach, but secondly, by generously sharing numerous dogs with me. She takes them places that I simply cannot logistically go.
I cannot mention Eli without also mentioning Ezra, FC AFC OTCH Law Abiding Ezra. Ezra was my first Labrador Retriever. I have often been asked how Eli got so well trained and I would reply, “because of Ezra.” Day after day I would run Ezra, and he would make a test look simple, and I’d say to Eli, “If you are going to win, you have to do it like that!” Ezra held Eli and me to an incredibly high standard. How I happened to have two such talented dogs, eleven months apart, is a blessing I certainly didn’t look for or deserve.
Are there any rising stars on the horizon?
The dogs I have owned since Eli and Ezra are hard to write about since they are still sharing my home and life with me. My second Labrador is AFC OTCH Candlewoods Brother Aaron, and my current Goldens are AFC Topbrass Caleb UD- at the time of this writing he has 48 OTCH points and all the necessary wins for that title. My younger golden is Goldstar Micah ***. He has a couple of all-age field trial placements and JAM’s and has not yet started his obedience career. Most recently I’ve added “Nathan,” who reminds me daily how much I love raising and training puppies.
Stepping back for a moment, what are your thoughts on how training and competition has changed over the decades? What qualities or characteristics are necessary for success?
Competitive obedience was in its heyday in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Largely this was due to the obedience tournaments and the exposure that gave trainers and handlers to one another. Competitive obedience is like dressage- to be great it requires teamwork and precision. Keeping dogs motivated to perform is the challenge, unlike many other venues. Hunt tests and agility are much less difficult to motivate dogs to do. It should be no surprise that the majority of people who love canine performance are attracted to those sports as they are much more self motivating for the dogs and therefore less frustrating for the handler.
No matter what the venue, becoming successful takes a lot of work. Malcolm Gladwell writes of the 10,000 hours needed to perfect a skill. In my world it’s 10,000 dogs. I tell people all the time, “The difference between you and me is several thousand dogs.” I have been teaching obedience classes full time since 1991. I can’t even imagine how many dog’s leashes have passed through my hands. I love training dogs, and I love teaching people how to train dogs. My best students have a background in sports, music, or art because those people know how to practice. It’s a skill to practice day after day with no guarantee that there will be any payoff…that is if you don’t think the journey in and of itself is a payoff.
I enjoy training much more than competing. It’s a good thing, because I spend much more time training than I do competing. Earning the title is often anticlimactic. By that time I’ve struggled through training problems, injuries, set-backs, personal life interference…it’s a wonder any of my goals are achieved at all.
Do you have any tips or suggestions for newcomers, or people who want to shift venues?
I don’t know how the newcomer sorts through all the information that’s out there. There are so many “methods” to choose from and so many people who are married to a theory regardless of whether or not it is producing results. My father’s advice is time tested and accurate, find a person who had done what you aspire to, and learn everything you can from them. We should be committed to the “why” we do things, not the “how.” Diane Bauman proved to me in the 1980’s that the “how” is in a constant state of change. At my business we are very aware of why we train dogs; Our goal is to increase people’s awareness of how dogs learn in order to 1. Improve the relationship between people and their dogs, 2. Enrich their lives through the use and enjoyment of trained dogs, and 3. Save dogs lives. We are committed to continue to learn so that those three things will be accomplished.
What keeps you motivated year after year? What are your plans for the future?
I have made my living helping people solve problems with their dogs. I love seeing people overcome a challenge that was going to keep them from reaching a goal. That said, I love starting a new puppy and doing my best to teach him everything that’s on my agenda without encountering any major training problems.
I have recently given in and started living in the 21st century. That means that I am embracing the web and the social media available to get dog training information out to the public and other competitors. I am currently documenting with YouTube videos the training that I am doing every week with “Nathan.” You can go to http://www.dogtrainersworkshop.com and click on the YouTube link to access all those video.
I have developed an on-line obedience class for pet owners and competitive obedience enthusiasts. This is a work in progress that I hope to continue to improve. The internet has opened up a whole new world and I am excited about all the new mediums for sharing information that are available to me.
I believe dog training should be fair and balanced. I love shaping behaviors, I love teaching and showing dogs what to do. However, the dog must also learn that those same behaviors are required. I believe that dogs that were not trying need to be corrected, but that corrections are not a random act of violence. A correction is something that the dog knows how to stop as well as how to avoid it happening again.
As a Christian, my world view is that God disciplines those He loves and rewards those who obey him. God has given me a microcosm of the world, namely the dogs, that offers an incredible representation of His relationship with us. I strive to be as loving, forgiving and fair as God is with us.
I am my father’s child. I am now historical, and to many, the expert. I have to giggle when I read that (let alone write it). That said, if I know something that you want to know, all you need to do is find me and ask. I will not deny you access to anything I have learned or anything that I am doing. After all, I owe a debt to all the people who did the same for me.