Trainer turns pets into professional canine workers
By Rob Chaney, Missoulian
Dec. 3, 2017 at 10 p.m.
MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — Fear smells different than apathy.
Just ask your dog. It knows.
Chris Williams knows too, because he trains dogs to find scared and apathetic people. He also trains them to detect bombs, dig out avalanche victims and sit on command. But tracking is his favorite lesson.
"It's the purest form of dog training," the owner of Run Your Pack explained. "You have to listen to them and just do your best not to hold them up. You're just there to give them confidence that they can do it."
And tracking trainers have discovered that dogs do much better at following the scent of an escaped prisoner on the run than a person with Alzheimer's who's wandered away from home. The lack of emotion, in this case fear, changes the cocktail of smells the dog examines.
On the other hand, discovering what drives a dog's character reveals loads of potential for both pet and owner. Run Your Pack straddles the line between "any dog can do anything" and "breeds do it best." Williams said his most important factor is finding what motivates a dog to perform.
"Some dogs, like shepherds and hounds, are bred to track," Williams said. "Some will track for food. They may not have the same willpower to push through adversity — at some point they say 'I'm tired and not that hungry. Other dogs have such a food drive, you can get a complete meal into them just by training. Liesel was that way. She didn't eat out of a bowl until she was a year old."
Liesel Weapon is a 1-year-old German Shepherd that Williams calls his "Swiss Army Knife dog." She can track a missing person by the scent left on a three-day-old beer can, and can capture that person with a flying take-down — what Williams refers to as "bite work."
"It's all very controlled," Williams said inside a yurt he uses to train dogs. "It's not about poking the dog with a stick and making him angry. It's using the prey drive to interact with equipment in a certain way. It's a very controlled, confidence-building exercise for the dog, not loose-cannon aggression. I take the bite suit off and we roll around and play together."
Williams lists three top qualifications on his website: "Runs well with dogs; Plays well in dirt; No, I don't train cats." More professionally, he also has certifications as a Top Tier K9 pet trainer and working dog trainer. He's traveled around the country attending dog workshops, including a recent to a Marines Special Forces clinic to see how tracking dogs can identify enemy positions without exposing their handlers to enemy fire.
Some dogs like Liesel love to track so much, they don't care if they get a reward. Finding the hidden person makes them happy. And some dogs will learn to do almost anything just to play with a ball: Find an antler shed, detect a cancer tumor, dig a truffle, then let's play fetch.
Kat Roos introduced her Labrador-pit bull cross, Scout, to Williams through his weekly tracking club. Scout was a three-time returnee to the Missoula Animal Shelter where Roos volunteers, mainly because the dog had more energy than many owners could release. After seeing how well Scout performed on tracking drills and got along with other dogs, Roos decided to let Williams provide some obedience training.
"Now I can walk her on a leash without pulling," Roos said. "She stays right by my side. "And when she's off-leash, she used to disappear for 40 minutes or more. That's not an issue now."
Williams offers free initial consultations with prospective clients and their dogs to see what sort of project might come together.
"I want to know what do you want out of your dog?" he said. "Is it obedience, rehabilitation, traditional dog training? What kind of lifestyle do you have? Do you mountain-bike? Kayak? Ski? Can we get your dog used to that?
The resulting classes can cost a couple hundred dollars up to $5,000 for some highly specific skills training. Some people bring their dogs to each class, while others board their pets at Williams' kennel.
"I just knew I wanted a working dog," client Shannon Corsi said of her golden retriever Reese. "And being an avalanche rescue dog works well with my lifestyle."
Working in a ski shop and doing freelance photography work, Corsi was spending a lot of time in the mountains. She brought Reese to Run Your Pack as a puppy for "imprinting" — steady exposure to the skills and environment of rescue work. That meant getting accustomed to sliding down snow slopes, riding in vehicles and tracking specific scents.
Williams grew up fascinated by dogs and wolves. In college he got a job training sled dogs for an Iditarod racer. While also pursuing a career as a producer for Warm Springs Productions outdoor video firm, he started learning everything he could about advanced dog training.
"I've found the fundamental issue for most dogs is confidence," Williams said. "Dogs aren't ready to understand the modern world. What does a car mean? What does a vacuum mean? As people, we're the captain of their group, so we try to expose them to positive outcomes. They want to know we have their back.
"And dogs love patterns. They love their jobs. To tell them not to do their job is stressful."