Thursday, August 13, 2015

Dog Training with Ola Zalewski

I’ve had the privilege of meeting several excellent dog trainers during my adventures with Riggs.  One of them is Ola Zalewski. 

Riggs had become a little scrappy with other dogs while on leash.  Okay, a lot scrappy.  As in, mortifying.  I was tense every time we hit the sidewalks, and that only made things worse.  By coincidence, I happened to read about the drop-in classes Ola was holding just down the road for “reactive” dogs.  And when Riggs pulled a particularly bad stunt one cold, winter night, I placed a Training 911 call.

Ola saw us the next day and assured me that all would be fine.  And it was.  I learned a lot in her classes, and am very impressed by all she does to help behaviorally-challenged dogs others have given up as lost causes.    

Ola has kindly agreed to make some appearances here on Animal Magnetism, and address some of our training questions.  First, let’s get acquainted.  Take it away, Ola!

How did you get started as a dog trainer?

When I was 10 years old, I announced to my parents that I planned to become a dog trainer . . . and they giggled.  At 19, I started working at a kennel in Scarborough, which was my first job with dogs.  After work, I stayed to help with the training classes as a volunteer.  I found it so fascinating that I began studying dog training.  I worked under two other dog schools for the next 10 years, until I was ready to start a business, in 2010, with a friend.  Finally, in 2013, with 17 years of studying, practicing, apprenticing and teaching behind me I launched “Paws Above.”    

While I’d always had a knack for handling and training dogs in obedience, I discovered my special talent was in working with aggressive, fearful and medically-compromised dogs. I was also drawn to fostering and rescuing dogs.  Rescues and shelters started calling me for assistance with their least adoptable dogs, and I became the “half-way home” for many unwanted and behaviorally challenged dogs.  Over the years, I have helped hundreds of dogs that were considered unadoptable find homes; I consider that one of my greatest successes.

What services do you offer?

Paws Above offers private and group obedience training classes using the standards of the Canadian Kennel Club.  We currently work out of locations in Toronto and Ajax.  In addition, we run “Social Gathering” classes for dogs with behavioral issues at each location.  Behavior issues may be as serious as fear and aggression, or as simple as bad manners!  Paws Above also offers agility class for confidence-building and fun.

Over the years, Paws Above has supported well over 30 rescues across North America by fostering, rehoming, or training foster dogs.  

What do you love most about your career?

Definitely my interaction with the dogs!   I am still fascinated by how dogs think and communicate.  Each dog is a mystery to be solved.  Getting to the core of a dog’s issue will help me rectify it and I find great joy in being able to do so.

I also love rescuing dogs from a kennel or shelter setting and assessing them in a “home” environment. Dogs get stressed very easily when caged or kenneled.  Taking dogs that have lived in a kennel their whole life and reintroducing them to a home environment with other dogs and rules prepares them for the real world.  I also get to work through their major issues like biting, resource guarding, fear and reactivity to dogs and people. 

What are the most common problems you see in your training practice?
If you mean the most common dog problem, it’s reactivity toward people or other dogs.  In layman’s terms, “reactivity” means lunging, barking, growling, attacking or biting, and it can stem from many sources.  Reactivity is the most common issue I see because it’s considered inappropriate and dangerous, and people look for help.

If you mean the most common problem with us humans, that’s a different can of worms! About 50 per cent of the calls I get really are less about dogs than people.  Some people use their eyes and their emotions when contemplating adding a pet to the family.  If people don’t do enough research, dogs can end up in homes that aren’t suited for them. 

What are some of the very best things we can do to have “good dogs”?

They are all “good dogs,” I truly mean that.  They all have their perfect place/job/purpose somewhere.  Even so-called “bad” dogs have their good qualities.  I find the good in every dog. They really are unique individuals with their own special qualities, and the key is finding the right match in a human family. 

In more general terms, here is some of the advice I give people:

·       Do your homework before adding any new pet to your home.  Research and research some more.  Ask yourself if you are committed and ready to provide a home that not only meets the animal’s basic needs, but all its needs—for at least a decade.  Take into account age, breed, and energy level.  Be honest with yourself.  A Belgian Malinois is a beautiful dog, but it’s also a hardworking, high energy natural born shepherd.  If you have a long workday and a quiet, low energy home, another dog would be better suited to your life. 

·       Exercise your dog.  Take into account breed, age and energy level and make sure that every day your dog’s exercise needs are filled.  This means psychological as well as physical.  Dogs have varying talents, wants and needs.  Find out what makes your dog tick and fulfill those needs, whether through running, obedience, tricks, agility, playing, retrieving, swimming or just walking.

·       Seek training and help.  There are many excellent dog trainers around, so look for one whose training approach suits you.  While introductory classes give you lots of information, keep in mind that dogs continue to enjoy learning throughout their lives.  Classes are a great way to have fun with your dog!

Ola Zalewski lives on a 100 acre farm with Jeff, 5 dogs, 35 chickens, and 4 goats.  You can learn more about Paws Above here


  1. Great post and nice to meet you virtually Ola! Hopefully one day you'll come to the West Coast (Vancouver, it's really nice out here, pawmise!) and meet Pedro. I think that though he is mostly a very friendly dog, he has grown up to be reactive when it comes to dogs his size or bigger (he loves the little guys) and he definitely doesn't like it when I hold babies or pet other dogs, doesn't get aggressive, but he is clearly jealous... I know, that sounds like it's me, not him. Anyway. Good to meet you through Sandy's Animal Magnetism! :)

  2. You're certainly not alone, Alessandra. Ola's classes were amazing and reassuring.

  3. A Dog Trainer who is prepare the dog with best training so if u need best dog trainer then Dog Trainers in Northern Virginia will be best for dog service .