Burnt Hills

‘It’s all about dog reactivity’: Class aims to keep pets, owners happy

Get in the Zone with Animal Protective Foundation
Two dogs during the Animal Protective Foundation’s Get in the Zone class last week in Burnt Hills.
Two dogs during the Animal Protective Foundation’s Get in the Zone class last week in Burnt Hills.

BURNT HILLS — It’s hard to tell who’s training whom at the Animal Protective Foundation’s Get in the Zone class.

The course, part of the foundation’s Canine Academy, is geared toward helping pet owners better understand their dogs — helping them handle any behavioral issues, including aggression.  

During one Thursday evening session, Duke, a young beagle-shepherd mix, looked around distractedly at some of the other dogs in the class as owner Tom Gallagher, a Scotia-Glenville resident, tried to get Duke’s attention, repeating the command “focus.”

After a few seconds, Duke’s attention went back to Gallagher, and the pair continued to work through some other commands. It’s a step forward: strengthening Gallagher’s confidence in handling Duke and Duke’s confidence that Gallagher will give him direction. 

Get in the Zone classes are led by pet trainers Sheila Leguire and Kathy Snowden.

Both are heavily involved with the Animal Protective Foundation and know what a difference it can make when owners are able to read the behaviors of their dogs. 

“It’s all about dog reactivity,” Leguire said. 

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “pet problems” is the most common reason owners give up their pets, taking them to shelters or giving them away to others. Problems like aggressive behavior account for 47 percent of “re-homed” dogs. 

The six-week Get in the Zone course is aimed at reducing that number.

While Leguire and Snowden have been running training classes for several years, they began Get in the Zone in 2015. Rather than focusing on basic commands like “sit,” “stay” and “roll over,” pet owners are taught to better understand their dogs’ body language and respond accordingly. It’s tougher than it sounds, Leguire said.

“They can be appeasement behaviors or they can be aggressive behaviors,” Leguire said. It all depends on the situation. 

To help identify problem areas, classes are limited to four people and their pets at a time, though during the first class, Snowden and Leguire have owners attend without their dogs to talk about the issues that need to be worked through with their pets.

For Ron Delap of Ballston Spa, that meant figuring out what makes his young beagle, Bam Bam, snarl at other dogs and sometimes at people. 

“All of a sudden, he just snaps,” Delap said. 

Indeed, during a “meet-and-greet” portion of the class when the dogs were brought together to interact, Bam Bam snapped and growled at a pit bull mix named Bella. Bella, a much larger dog, turned her head and whined, but Bam Bam kept growling. 

While interactions like this are common, they can easily get out of hand, especially if an owner is walking a dog that’s stronger than the owner.

“Dogs shouldn’t ‘hold space,'” Leguire said. If an owner notices their dog staring at another and refusing to move, that can be a sign of aggression, usually followed by a lip curl and a growl.

One way to combat this is to walk the dog in a figure eight, Snowden said. It can distract the dog just long enough to dispel the tension.

Throughout the class, Delap walked Bam Bam around to the other dogs to try to get a better sense of what made the beagle so uncomfortable. Leguire frequently pointed out various behaviors that were warning signs, like the ‘wet dog shake,’ or a wrinkled forehead. She also asked Delap to relax his shoulders and try not to be tense when he walked Bam Bam. Dogs can sense that and react to it. 

“It’s a whole new language,” Leguire said. 

By the end of the class — held at Country Acres Farm and Pet Center — Bam Bam was a bit calmer, and Delap had a better understanding of what to watch for. 

Leguire said there are no problem breeds, just problem pairings. She urges people who are getting ready to own a dog to do their research.

“Sometimes the pairing is off. … You really need to make sure you can give them what they need,” Leguire said.

Some dogs can be physically too strong for their owners; others require a bit of extra care and attention. Prospective dog owners should have an idea of how much time and energy they can give before deciding on the breed. 

Craig Prince of Glenville, who takes Bella to the class, has owned several rescue pit bulls over the years and knows how to work with them. But he decided to take Bella to the class because it just helps to keep the training he’s already done with her fresh. So far, she’s proved to be a calming influence on the class, even if she is an overexuberant greeter, Prince said.

“[She] responds better throughout the week,” Prince said. 

Snowden and Leguire also give the owners homework every week, encouraging them to really work to recognize the various behaviors their dogs exhibited during the classes and to practice what they’ve learned. 

Toward the end of the class, Snowden asked everyone to have their dogs lay down and stay in one spot while she walked around, testing whether the dogs would stay or follow her. 

“If I could get him to stay down, I wouldn’t need the class,” Gallagher joked as he was trying to get Duke’s attention. 

Luckily, there is plenty of time left in the six-week class and plenty of opportunities to practice training for both owners and pets. 

For more information about Get in the Zone classes, visit animalprotective.org. The next round begins in January.


  • “If you know there’s a situation that’s uncomfortable for your dog, there’s no reason to keep pushing them through it,” Leguire said. 
  • When a dog is using its nose for information, that’s a positive thing. It’s when a dog is only using their eyes that can lead to aggressive behaviors. 
  • Walk in a figure eight if the dog starts to feel uncomfortable. Then try to get the dog’s attention back. 
  • Be consistent. If owners are consistent in the way they handle their dogs, it can help set up expectations that make them feel more confident and comfortable. 
  • Dogs shouldn’t “hold space,” or try to stand face to face for longer than a few seconds.

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