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They have protected his life and now are providing his livelihood.
Thomas Doehler, 35, owner of American K9 Training Services LLC, has found his passion in helping dogs live full lives, and dogs have given his own life meaning.
Doehler grew up in Webster and signed up for the Marine Corps at age 18 in 1997. He was drawn to the canine segment of the Marines early on.
“I never followed the path of everybody (else),” he says. “I love and I need stimulation. I (kept) getting drawn to the same types of people, and I literally think it took one demonstration in showing me what they do and I was hooked.”
He worked his way up from handler to supervisor to kennel master and was involved in the war dog program after 9/11. He was deployed to the Middle East to support American forces with K-9 explosive detection, tracking and patrol that September.
Along the way, Doehler completed nearly 700 hours of coursework in military working dog training and supervision. He also has worked in the Secret Service as an explosives dog trainer and in the protective detail for presidents and foreign dignitaries.
Doehler worked with the common breed of dogs in the military, the Belgian Malinois, a cousin of the German shepherd. Dogs were used primarily for odor detection, tracking and assessing areas for bombs. They unknowingly protected the lives of their handlers by sensing the presence of insurgents nearby.
“In my opinion, you can spend thousands upon millions on these high-tech security alert systems, (but) nothing beats a dog team a mile out,” Doehler says.
He found that humans often got in the way of the dogs during military maneuvers.
“The hardest thing to get rid of is the human instinct when you’re working with a dog, because we’re really the limitation to the dog,” he says. “We literally just have to let them go and be themselves. As a human being I sense that something might be over there, so I start holding him back; the person is actually half a mile that way (indicating a different direction), but my dog couldn’t pick up on it because I think it’s that way.”
After the military, Doehler became a police officer in Burlington, Vt. He left Vermont after an injury on the job, rejoining the canine Special Forces in 2005 and heading overseas.
Four years later Doehler came back to Rochester after he recognized the need for dog training in the family pet field here. With more than 16 years of experience as a dog trainer and handler, he launched American K9 Training Services in 2009 and has two employees.
Changing from the training tactics of the military to realistic expectations of dogs in everyday life was a challenge at first, he says.
“A lot of people think dog obedience,” he says. “I actually teach the opposite of obedience. I think from my background what helped me out is because I was in some of the most extreme circumstances with these dogs, I can literally have any situation occur and handle it.”
But training a family pet the same way a military dog is trained does not make sense, he adds.
In the military, “that dog is a weapon. If you send it, you have to know it can stop on a dime and come back—you have to have that control. It’s not realistic in our lives,” he says.
Doehler trains dogs to respond to calm, relaxed tones in their normal environment. He doesn’t follow more mainstream methods of training that focus on domination, rewards or isolation and take place outside of a dog’s daily environment.
Misconceptions about dog behavior abound, he adds. Two common ones: The owner needs to assert control, and the dog should never walk into the house before its master.
“A big common misconception (is) the paw on the lap,” Doehler says. “Every trainer from probably the ’80s on until present has said that’s a form of dominance. No, that’s a social creature that’s just trying to get closer to you. They love touch, they love the sound of praise—they do all of that. That’s all it is.”
Doehler finds the most challenging part of his job as a trainer is trying to bridge the gap between owner and dog. At times, intent on training their dogs, owners can miss out on the fun of having a pet.
“Instead of enjoying the moment, you don’t get to see it because you’re thinking about the next thing: ‘Oh, was that dog trying to pull one over on me? Was he trying to establish himself?’” he says. “Really the premise I take is, look, these are people’s lives; let’s work stuff around it. I really saw a need for training in real life.”
Human psychology is a major aspect of dog training, Doehler says. People have a tendency to overthink how to train their pets.
“I think like in anything you could find good and bad in any philosophy. Just really take time to find out what the best option is for you, your situation and your dog.”
American K9 Training Services will be the presenting sponsor of the Fast & the Furriest, a race, walk and pet festival on June 14 to benefit Verona Street Animal Society.
From his first dog, Brandy, a long-haired golden retriever that he had as a child, to the dogs he meets on a daily basis, Doehler has learned a lot from canines.
“I see things every day that, my gosh, I wish society could just copy,” he says. “You can get a dog that has severe social anxiety that’s a two-and-a-half-pound little Pomeranian, but somehow they’re making it work. It’s like, could we learn something?”
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