Meet the Annapolis Valley's own dog whisperer.
Growing up a few houses away from her grandfather’s farm, Cindy Cavanagh doesn’t remember a time when she didn't love all kinds of animals, especially dogs and horses. Now, she lives with dogs, cats, a horse and a couple of sheep of her own near Gaspereau.
All of Cavanagh’s cats are rescue animals, as well as most of her dogs. Her dogs, she says, all came with baggage.
“I have had rescues who have been found abandoned and have separation anxiety and dogs with some aggression issues that are manageable,” says Cavanagh.
Her love for animals, especially rescues, propelled Cavanagh on a path to help other dog owners.
She says she became interested in dog training and behaviour while working as a technician in a veterinarian clinic. After observing how many dogs were surrendered, mainly because of behavioural issues, Cavanagh started questioning why these mostly young dogs were in so much trouble. This prompted her to learn as much as she could.
Through the clinic, Cavanagh took courses at Guelph University and in New York State, completing continuing education courses, attending seminars, and learning as much as she could.
“I sympathize with owners who are struggling. Having a dog with behaviour issues is stressful,” says Cavanagh, who admits that Lassie certainly doesn’t live at her house.
Many dog owners blame themselves, she says, and worry they are the only ones with a problem dog. They're often embarrassed to ask for help and come to appointments ready to be judged and blamed. Cavanagh is quick to tell them that no matter what the issue is, or why it is happening, they can only manage what is happening now.
Emily Kennedy of Kentville is one such dog owner.
“My dog Gertie is unpredictable at best, with a lot of issues with food aggression and anxiety,” says Kennedy.
On the recommendation of her vet and several friends, Kennedy contacted Cavanagh, who came to the house and spent at least an hour with Gertie, teaching the family a few games. Kennedy says they're starting to make some progress.
“I thought I was doing something wrong - and I was, but only because I didn't know how to read her,” says Kennedy, who now understands Gertie a lot more.
"Before Cindy came into our lives, I was afraid of Gertie because she was very unpredictable, and would become very aggressive at meal times. Now, she will sit and wait for the 'OK' before she digs in. It's nice to be able to feed her, without the fear of her becoming aggressive."
Besides helping clients with dog behavioural issues, Cavanagh is interested in dog obedience.
“With my sheltie Lucy, I was introduced to the world of competitive dog obedience and I was hooked. I met many like-minded people who were as passionate about training dogs,” explains Cavanagh.
Cavanagh now competes with her dogs in conformation, obedience, rally and agility classes, and she also dabbles in herding and scent work.
With over 30 years of experience working with and training dogs, Cavanagh has so many stories to share. The best ones, she says, are when the training pays off.
“From saving dogs’ lives by having them come when called from a busy road or knowing the owners can live with them because they have basic manners is so rewarding,” she says. “I love being able to alleviate the clients' stress, being able to tell them that this is not an unusual issue or that there is help available.”
The biggest mistakes that Cavanagh sees people making are getting a totally unsuitable breed for them or believing the dogs they see in movies or ads come that way. Unsuitable, she says, often means the dog has exercise requirements way beyond the owner’s capability to follow through with. Needing extensive grooming or getting a large breed that outweighs the owner, or dogs that need a job to do so they don’t resort to destructive behaviours, are also common problems.
“Remember,” says Cavanagh, “dogs in movies or ads are often more than one dog of the same breed that fill the role, or are dogs who have had extensive training.”
While it would just be easier if it was possible to ask dogs questions, instead owners will have to be content in learning to read their signs.
Cavanagh can also be found through Keep it Simple Dog Training on Facebook, where she and her business partner, Melanie Lunn, can be booked for consultations, obedience classes and now for canine massage.