MOREHEAD CITY — Carteret County has its own dog whisperer, though she doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“I am a people trainer, not a dog trainer,” says Pat Rapaport, owner of Hole in the Wall Dog Training Academy on Bridges Street.
Ms. Rapaport has been in the dog training business for less than a decade, but she has already touched the lives of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dogs and their owners. With services such as therapy dog training, her impact extends far beyond Morehead City and into schools, hospitals, military bases and other public venues across the eastern part of the state.
She’s currently training a therapy dog for the Morehead City Fire/EMS Department, a program Fire Chief Jamie Fulk initiated last December.
The department originally thought it’d have to raise the money – up to $15,000 – to buy and train the dog, but when Ms. Rapaport heard about the program, she offered to train the dog free of charge, and they ended up adopting a dog from a local shelter.
Ms. Rapaport said she first became interested in dog training when her husband was diagnosed with cancer in the early 2000s. As his disease progressed, she began looking into how she could use her dog as a therapy animal to bring him and other patients comfort during hospital stays.
She already had one golden retriever she had never trained, but when she adopted a new one, she decided to get serious about its training.
“I kept taking classes, and then one day I discovered the clicker and decided I really liked clicker training,” Ms. Rapaport said, referring to an increasingly popular training method that uses a clicking sound as positive reinforcement to encourage good behaviors.
“I started reading on dog training, I started going to some conferences, and then I’d watch someone doing with their dog, and I’d think to myself, ‘Well I could teach you to do that better.’ And it just evolved from there.”
She began volunteering training dogs to build up her skills, eventually moving on to providing private lessons before opening Hole in the Wall on Arendell Street in 2011. In 2014, she moved into her current facility at 1211 Bridges St.
The training academy was the first of its kind in Morehead City, and she remains one of only a few professional dog trainers in the area.
Drawing from methods laid out in the Karen Pryor Dog Training and Behavior Academy, an intensive, six-month program she graduated from with distinction in 2012, Ms. Rapaport uses positive reinforcement to train dogs. That involves rewarding good behavior with some kind of treat – food, toys, a bone or even just some extra snuggles.
Ms. Rapaport said she never trains dogs using force or fear, two strategies that dominated traditional methods for centuries.
“There’s no fear, we are totally fear free, which is a very important aspect,” she explained. “So the dog wants to come in here, the dog has no fear of coming in here, and that’s the way the whole training program is set up.”
New research into animal behavior suggests the methods Ms. Rapaport and other force-free trainers use are more effective at training dogs and result in happier animals in the long term.
“It might take a little bit longer, it’s a little bit more challenging, but your results in the end seem to very positive,” she said. “And the alpha theory is just a myth, it really is.”
Ms. Rapaport also recently became certified to coach service dogs, and she holds a number of other training certifications, as well. She said service dogs can be prohibitively expensive in some cases so she only trains dogs for service when an owner already has the dog.
As she’d already retired from a 30-year teaching career, Ms. Rapaport said, at first, she didn’t intend to get into dog training full time. Now, she often works all seven days of the week, but loves every minute of it.
“I didn’t go into this business to make money, I went into it because I have a passion for dogs, and I love people. I feel the more trained dogs we have, the better it is,” she said.
Perhaps her favorite part of the job is getting to train therapy dogs who then go into the community to spread comfort and joy. Ms. Rapaport has trained over 45 therapy dogs and their owners, who together are called a therapy team.
She also started up Coastal Carolina Pet Provided Therapy, the local chapter of Love on a Leash serving Carteret, Craven, Onslow and Pamlico counties. Love on a Leash is a national nonprofit organization that offers pet-provided therapy services to communities, linking volunteers and their dogs to whoever may be in need of some puppy love.
Therapy teams trained by Ms. Rapaport have gone into local nursing homes, hospice care facilities, schools, libraries, military facilities and anywhere else dogs can provide comfort and joy.
“To hear somebody say, ‘You made my day, this is the best thing that has happened to me today,’ … that alone is like Christmas every time you go,” she said.
Dogs with a variety of personalities can train to become a therapy pet, but in general, the ones who make good therapy pets are friendly, have a calm demeanor and accept other dogs.
“They first have to have good dog manners, so they’ll usually go through dog training. Then they will be tested for their Canine Good Citizen Test through the American Kennel Club… After that, you are then qualified to begin working on the dog therapy program,” Ms. Rapaport said. Dogs also need to be at least a year old before they are eligible to start training as a therapy dog.
Tiffany Ramsey said she plans on enrolling her dog Grayson, a 7-month-old black poodle, in therapy dog training once she is a year old.
“I like the idea of sharing the joy I find in my dog with other people and building relationships in the community with other people, and using the dog as a bridge to build those relationships,” she said. “I think dogs help people relax, and they’re more willing to open up and to share.”
For all dog owners, whether they seek professional training or not, whether they become a therapy pet or just one man’s best friend, Ms. Rapaport said a well-trained dog needs consistency, positive rewards and, of course, lots of love.
“Do as much stuff as you can with your dog. Walk with your dog, play with your dog,” she said. “Remember that your dog is part of the family and treat your dog as you would your children.”
Contact Elise Clouser at firstname.lastname@example.org; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.