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Top dawgs: Smart shopping for a trainer can lead to well-behaved pets

Published: Sunday, April 27 2008 1:15 a.m. MDT

Dog trainer Tyson Kilmer and his French mastiff, Cleo, enjoy a comfortable couch at the dog-friendly Hotel Monaco in downtown Salt Lake City.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

The expression "man's best friend" has become one of the most endearing terms for dog lovers to describe their canine companions, even though some owners might tell you their four-legged "best bud" can often behave like "the devil's own."

Parents typically have to be responsible for training their unruly kids how not to jump on the furniture. But dog owners can hire someone else to teach their pet how to behave.

When Oprah Winfrey has issues with her pet pooches, she calls her friend Cesar Milan, aka the "Dog Whisperer." These days, the California-based Milan is a household name in the dog-training community, with his own show on cable television, books on dog behavior and nationwide seminars on how to help dogs become "healthy and balanced," according to his Web site.

In addition to Oprah, Milan's clients include actor Will Smith and rapper Redman, whose mild-mannered pit bull, Daddy, is one of the most popular assistants on Milan's show. Another trainer whose celebrity status rivals that of Milan is Tyson Kilmer, a Canadian-born former fashion model who has become a hot commodity in the dog-training world.

Based in Los Angeles, Kilmer's roster of A-list clients includes Sheryl Crow, Rob Lowe, Viacom CEO Tom Freshton, Marilyn Manson, Mike Tyson and most recently, Utah Jazz stars Deron Williams and Ronnie Brewer.

Like Milan, Kilmer is involved in numerous ventures, including the upcoming launch of his own webcast, as well as a television show on "Animal Planet," the title of which has yet to be determined, due out later this year.

Jazz point guard Williams sent his puppies to Kilmer in California for training. When Kilmer brought the dogs back to Utah two months ago, he also brought two Rottweiler puppies for another client, in addition to his own personal pet, a 100-pound French mastiff named Cleo. They all stayed at the Hotel Monaco in downtown Salt Lake, where the well-behaved animals amazed guests and staff alike.

Kilmer's premium services come at a premium price, ranging from $2,500 to $15,000 — depending upon the level of training. But for Brewer and Williams, his services are well worth the cost.

While training celebrities' pets may be the way for some trainers, most dog trainers work with average families, whose pets have the same kinds of issues as their more famous counterparts.

In the Salt Lake area, prices for private individual training range from $52 to $100 per hour, with some trainers offering in-home instruction. For non-personalized classes, prices began at $75 for a six-week course for one hour per week to $210 for a four-week course meeting once a week.

Some trainers also offer an intensive "boot camp," where the dog stays with the trainer for four weeks. Prices begin at $400 and go up to $1,200.

Utah has no governing body that regulates trainers, which means the methods can vary widely, and so can results. That's why those in the business say buyers should beware.

A few trainers, including Marshall Tanner of Alpha Dog Training in Salt Lake City, say some cases of bad behavior in dogs may require canine drugs, similar to those given to humans who have behavior disorders. But other trainers disapprove of such methods.

Michelle Rizzi, owner of Handle with Care Dog Training in Salt Lake City, says she uses positive-reinforcement training that employs "treats and toys and lots of praise" to motivate and reward dogs while training. The dog is then gradually weaned off the treats, which she says keeps the process fun for the dog.

Because there are no unified standards for trainers, what is considered positive training might vary from instructor to instructor. Rizzi, who is certified by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, says that is why owners should question their prospective trainers thoroughly before hiring them.

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