Good Life

Dog trainer’s greatest trick is bond with furry friends

Amanda Homan, of Ferguson Township, poses with her dog Kona. Homan is competing in the Shutzhund/IPO event in Germany.
Amanda Homan, of Ferguson Township, poses with her dog Kona. Homan is competing in the Shutzhund/IPO event in Germany.

They say that behind every great man is a great woman. The same general premise also holds true for man’s best friend.

Amanda Homan can still remember some of the first tricks she taught her first dog back when she was a little girl.

Mind you, this was before she graduated Penn State, before she spent the bulk of her post-graduate income traveling to different parts of the world and before she had the opportunity to confer and compete with some of the top dog trainers working in the field.

Back then she was just a 14-year-old girl with a blank slate in the shape of a chocolate lab.

Tricks were a must — spinning, speaking, sneezing on command — plus that immortal classic, “give paw.”

These were the seeds of things to come, the precursor to what could amount here on the page to a handful of extemporaneous musings on foreshadowing, destiny and fate rather than a simple observation with infinitely more heft.

Amanda Homan is a dog person.

“I work for them as much as they work for me,” Homan said.

Only one of them gets to fly in coach, though.

This weekend, Homan and (one of) her dogs, Kona, are in Europe competing in the annual Schutzhund/IPO competition, which puts German Shepherds — and the requisite trainer — through their paces.

The event is made up of three categories — obedience, tracking and protection.

“It encompasses every aspect of the German Shepherd,” Homan said.

Each phase is worth 100 points and unless competitive dog sports are taking their cue from golf, the goal is to get as close to a cumulative score of 300 as possible.

Whether Kona excels in each of these areas remains to be seen, but Homan is a competitor of proven mettle.

Training dogs is her livelihood — her bread and butter — and she’s been devoting herself to the craft and little else for the better part of the past nine years.

It began not so much as a career calling but as a hobby through which she gradually realized she could make a living.

As an undergraduate, journalism — yes, journalism — seemed like a far safer bet, even if she never could quite decide in what direction it would take her.

Homan bought time after graduation by tending bar at a local watering hole. Time, as it turns out, is not altogether cheap, but it is a bargain compared to the expense of traveling around the world learning about dogs.

Enter the clients.

Homan works with both the casual pet owner and pups with their eyes on the prize — the prize in this case being a victory in the arena of competitive obedience, not a chew toy or some kind of low-calorie canine snack.

Not every little German Shepherd is going to grow up to play in the NFL. This should be clear upfront.

Dogs, like people, have temperaments that either complement or cut against the grain of certain jobs.

In the “protection” category at Schutzhund/IPO, for example, judges are looking for a controlled presence —less John Rambo, more James Bond.

Some German Shepherds fit that profile more naturally than others.

“Every dog is different and needs different training,” Homan said.

If temperament of a dog plays a role in its development, then the same can also be said for dog trainers.

According to Homan, it takes close to 400 repetitions of a specific task before man’s best friend can fully understand man’s best novelty acts. As you might imagine, this requires a fair amount of patience and possibly a coffee break or two.

For a trainer, the skill set required here extends beyond a base of knowledge or even the old adage that practice makes perfect. This is something instinctual.

“You need the timing and the feel to make it work,” Homan said.

Homan continues to take clients through her business, Complete Canine, but it’s her own bag of tricks that she’s eager to put to the test.

“If I didn’t compete with my own dogs I would cease to exist, I think,” Homan said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready