Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Nonprofit stops dog owners from barking up wrong tree

Your Dog’s Friend nonprofit helps dog owners understand dog behavior

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Debra Ekman (right), of Potomac, walks her dog Zip through some exercises to relieve his anxiety at the Silver Spring home of Pam Wanveer. Wanveer is teaching a summer workshop aimed at calming old or anxious dogs through Ekman’s nonprofit organization, Your Dog’s Friend.
On a visit to a West Virginia cabin in the early 1980s, Debra Ekman, of Potomac, was dismayed to find a dog wrapped in a tarp and left to die in the woods.

She rescued the shepherd mix and named her Gini, and over the next 20 years, took in another 16 abandoned dogs.

But knowing that she can’t take every needy dog home with her, about one year ago Ekman, 55, founded the nonprofit Your Dog’s Friend.

Its mission is to keep dogs out of shelters by educating dog owners about dog behavior.

‘‘People choose a dog because it’s cute and that’s not the way to choose a dog,” Ekman said. ‘‘When you get a dog there’s a responsibility that comes with it. Too many people don’t seem to realize that.”

According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, a group of animal organizations that work together to help homeless pets, the top five reasons people relinquish their dogs to shelters are: moving, landlord issues, the cost of pet maintenance, no time for a pet and inadequate facilities.

Ekman’s goal is to stop those issues from landing a pet at a shelter.

The nonprofit offers free advice and classes on selecting a dog, life with a new dog, common behavior issues and dog health.

This summer, those topics will be covered in a series of five summer workshops at the Potomac Community Center taught by Ekman and other dog instructors.

Ekman, a certified dog trainer, said she knows that having a new dog can be a tough adjustment, especially when the dog hasn’t been cared for properly in the past. She learned the hard way how to care for Gini, the first dog she ever cared for.

‘‘Our first dog was a terror to begin with, partially because we didn’t know anything,” Ekman said. ‘‘Little by little she turned into the most incredible dog. I used to run with her everyday; she was like my best friend.”

Ekman now cares for 10 rescued dogs with the help of her husband and their two sons when they are home from college.

‘‘[The dogs] are wonderful, loving companions,” she said. ‘‘Having 10 dogs is like having 10 children. They each have their own personality and they each have their own relationship with each other.”

After volunteering at the Washington Animal Rescue League and the Montgomery County Humane Society, reading books about dog behavior and taking an online course through the Animal Behavior College to become a certified dog trainer, Ekman said she knows how to cure most dog behavior problems.

‘‘Until I studied animal behavior and training I had no idea how much I didn’t know,” Ekman said. ‘‘Most of the things people have trouble with can be solved pretty easily.”

Although she has fond memories of Gini, Ekman sees that the 10 dogs she has now are better behaved because she has the skills to train them.

And she wants other people to know that troubled dogs can turn into well-behaved, lifelong companions.

Silver Spring resident Susan Conbere, called upon Ekman when she was choosing a dog and later when the dog developed problems snapping at people.

Ekman recommended resources to her, including Tellington Training (TTouch), a technique to calm old or anxious dogs with confidence exercises, bodywork and wraps. And to Conbere’s amazement, it worked on her dog.

‘‘She’s a wonderful resource and by God does she care about dogs,” Conbere said. ‘‘It’s just her whole life. She immediately bonds with these animals. She’s just like a fish in water with these dogs.”

TTouch is being offered as one of the five summer workshops that Ekman hopes will enable people to make good decisions while choosing, living with and training a dog.

‘‘I hope that people will learn what they need to know to make their dog their lifetime companion,” Ekman said. ‘‘I want them to know that it’s important to choose the right dog, that there are better ways to relate to and train their dog and that most behavior problems can be prevented or resolved.”

If You Go

Beginning Sunday, Your Dog’s Friend will sponsor five free summer workshops for future and current dog owners at the Potomac Community Center, 11315 Falls Road, Potomac.

For more information or to register, visit or call Debra Ekman at 301-983-5913.