Agility for special needs dogs? Absolutely!

  People ask me all the time if special needs dogs (deaf, blind and deaf-blind dogs), can lead a normal life.  Shelters rarely put them up for adoption, breeders tend to kill them at a young age (although this is never admitted), and rescues tend to have very strict limitations for any potential adopters, if they even do take one on. My question is, why? Why not give them a chance to lead a normal life?  I own special needs dogs, and I have been training them without any issues for many years.

Why would it shock or amaze anyone that a dog that cannot hear or see could do agility? Why do people think it is impossible to teach obedience to them? They adapt and can be conditioned, just like their seeing and hearing brothers and sisters. Other dogs do not see them any differently and I strongly believe we need to learn from our canine loved ones.

In April of 2012, I was asked if Charlie, a deaf-blind dog, could enroll in our basic agility class. Of course I said yes! I have fought for, and stood behind my deaf dogs for years.  I would never deny an owner or their dog, the right to reach their full potential.

A colleague of mine asked me how I would teach a deaf-blind dog agility; my answer was, “he has a nose, I will use it.”  It is the first thing a dog relies on, and their most powerful sense. If we teach dogs how to find the slightest traces of drugs that are masked by other scents, or people lost for days; why not use it to train them in other ways too.

So Charlie enrolled in our basic agility class with four other classmates that could see and hear. We taught him how to maneuver the obstacles by different scents; carefully thought out as to what effect they would have on the dog (relaxing, exciting, non-offensive).  He performed all of the equipment and learned them at the same pace as his classmates.

His owner asked if I would consider doing an all special needs agility class, so again I said of course. I love all dogs and when I decided to get into this field, it was to help all of them; so why would I exclude special needs from any activities? I know my deaf boxer Flinn and my deaf-blind dog Gaia have no idea they have a disability. They adapt, as should we.

Fast-forward to July 2012 and I had my first all special needs agility class starting, three deaf-blind dogs, and one bilateral deaf dog.  I could not have been happier to see how involved the owners were and how much the dogs enjoyed the class.  On August 4th, in just 6 short weeks, the class graduated. A very special moment for the dogs, the owners, myself and hopefully for the special needs dogs sitting in shelters waiting to be adopted.

Below is a picture of the graduating class, I am very proud of all of them and I look forward to getting more information out there in hopes that others will do the same. Open your classes and doors to our special needs, adopt them out, let them lead the normal lives they deserve to have.


Congratulations Flinn, Boomer, Charlie and Lucy. ( And their parents for giving them this opportunity!)

Painting by Stephanie Conrad of The Pet Studio- ( I will cherish it, thank you)

For more information about how to train your special needs pet, please email

hugs to your furbabies,


Request that our city-funded TLAC facility be used exclusively to shelter Travis county homeless pets.

The Austin City Council will meet this Thursday, May 24, to amend the license agreement between the City and Austin Pets Alive. In light of the last weeks crisis of overcrowding at the shelter, Travis County Animal Advocates is asking Travis County residents, rescue groups and animal advocates to write to the Mayor and City Council members to request that our city-funded TLAC facility be used exclusively to shelter Travis county homeless pets.
We need your support. Please email or call the Mayor and City Council members and, if possible, please come to the City Council meeting on Thursday, May 24, to voice your opinion on this important matter. Here is the letter sent by members of Travis County Animal Advocates:

As a member of Travis County Animal Advocates, I am writing to request that you consider the following four important points when you vote to amend the City’s temporary license agreement with Austin Pets Alive on May 24:

1. Please amend the agreement to allow the Town Lake Animal Center (TLAC) facility to be used as an Adoption Center by all rescue groups.

As you may have heard, since March our City shelter has been experiencing record high animal intakes. The Austin Animal Center (AAC) has been managing TLAC as an overflow adoption site, and consistently has had to keep 50 to 60 dogs there to keep from having to euthanize them due to lack of space.
We’d like to request that the amendment to the license agreement include available space for other rescue partners that have a need for kennel space. We’d like to see this great central location be kept as an offsite pet adoption location for all members of the community who can then come together to help Austin’s homeless pets find new loving homes. TLAC is a great City resource and has a long history in our community and we’d like to see it be kept as a City institution and resource for Austin’s homeless pets.

2. Please continue the language in the current license agreement that prohibits bringing homeless pets from other counties into the TLAC facility.

Our community is at risk today of not being able to sustain its No Kill status. From what we are seeing due to the high animal intakes and the level of adoptions dropping, it is going to be near impossible to maintain No Kill for May and possibly into the summer months.
Austin cannot afford to have pets from outside our community enter our facility and take potential adopters away from those pets that the City is trying to adopt out. We need all the available adopters in Travis County to adopt homeless pets from Travis County and not ones from San Antonio or the other surrounding counties that APA serves.
We would like to see City Council go back to the original plan of using the TLAC facility as an Adoption Center for animals that come from the city shelter. Any rescue group or organization that uses our community’s TLAC facility should agree not to house pets from other counties at this site.

Now that the pets being pulled from the AAC by APA are no longer just pets on the euthanasia list but are highly adoptable pets, TCAA would like to see the TLAC facility used as a high-volume adoption site for all AAC Rescue Partners. The location and popularity of the TLAC site would increase the adoption rates for all our Austin pets, thereby leaving space for pets in need of medical/behavior work at the AAC.

The AAC has already begun working on medical and behavior programs for challenging cases, and is in desperate need of extra space in order to meet Austin’s goal of staying No-kill. By keeping the TLAC facility strictly for AAC overflow and for highly adoptable pets, this would help not only the city, but APA as well. APA has stated publicly on numerous occasions that they need to bring highly adoptable pets from other counties to fund their organization. While this may have been true when they only pulled animals from the euthanasia list, this is no longer the case now that APA pulls highly adoptable pets from AAC.

3. Please strengthen accountability and reporting requirements for animals housed at TLAC.

No-kill efforts require accurate tracking of animals for accountability of the community’s investment and to ensure No-kill goals are met. We propose monthly reporting of animal status to the Austin Animal Center that not only includes intake into the TLAC facility and adopted and fostered from the facility but also includes adoption “returns.” We would like the reporting requirement to include brief description of: sick animals in rehabilitation, animals euthanized and animals that died. These reports should be required from any rescue involved in using the TLAC facility.

4. Standardized health policies to reduce the risk of disease spread among animals and to protect the community adopting animals:

If an animal welfare group agrees to accept community budget and space allocations and is part of the community animal welfare plan, then they must follow the minimum standards of care established by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) in the 2010 white paper: Guidelines for Standard of Care in Animal Shelters. These guidelines are the current national “Gold Standard”. This will aid in the control of communicable diseases, protect community adopters, and provide a healthy, safe environment for the animals.

In closing, I would ask that you, our City leaders, negotiate an agreement that best serves the interest of the Austin community and keeps only Travis County homeless pets in the TLAC location.
Thank you.

Below are the email addresses of all the council members. Please help us help Austin stay No Kill.,,,,,,

Some more testimonials….

THANK YOU! Without Training by Tara I doubt I would still have my dog. I was having terrible anxiety issues with my adopted greyhound and my neighbors and hoa were threatening that I might have to kick him out. Not only did Tara come by to do a home visit and consult, but she really helped calm me down when I thought there was no solution. She said, and I believed her, and it turned out to be true, that it was a fixable problem. The basic class over several weeks was the solution. The situation is 100% better and I am so grateful. Also, the class was affordable, who could ask for more?! THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH. A+

-Seth & Accomplice

We had an individual training session with Chris at Training by Tara this past weekend, and the results have been wonderful! We got our sweet dog Leo from Town Lake about a month ago, and he definitely needed some training 🙂

We came to Training by Tara to work on leash walking & basic manners.
Leash walking with Leo use to be a mess – he was always pulling and trying to chase everything that moved. But since we implemented the leash walking techniques that Chris taught us, it’s been so much better. Leo also use to misbehave around the house – i.e. trying to jump up on the table and steal our dinner 😛 Since learning the “out” command with Chris, Leo’s been doing much better (and so have his humans!)

And the best part is, our training session was on Saturday and today is Tuesday 🙂

My favorite thing about the training was the emphasis on positive reinforcement, and you gotta love Tara’s advocacy for misunderstood breeds.

Leo & I definitely recommend Training by Tara! 2 paws up!

-Anna G & Leo

1 word, Amazing! Our dog Sophie was having issues about lunging after bikes and SUV, she also pulled like crazy on the leash. 

1 session for an hour and 4 weeks of us training her and Sophie is SOOO much Better, in fact, I might even say close to being perfect. 

If you are looking for a great trainer at an affordable price who will teach you and your dog everything she knows from decades of experience, GO HERE. 

1 thing I didn’t know about her and her company is that she trains rescue dogs and then adopts them out. You can get a fully trained dog for the same price as going to an animal shelter.. wow

-Chris M & Sophie

Update on Bruno: I did manage to get one of the techs to come around the counter so I could “say hello and touch” with Bruno and then again to hand her the leash.  Thank goodness Bruno was on his best behavior b/c she was not attentive to my request to hold the leash close with limited length dangling.  I’m very proud of him.  3 weeks ago, this same tech took his leash from me and Bruno froze up and growled at her.  Of course, my confidence IN him and myself has increased greatly so I was almost 100% (99.99999%) confident when I handed the leash to her today.

Looking forward to many more training classes with you and your team.

-Becca M & Bruno

Hey Tara- thought I would share a milestone (or 2) with you: Carley hasn’t lunged or shown aggression on her walks in two days. Today she even had a dog come running toward her barking, a bicyclist rode by 3 times, and multiple “older” grey haired men that she normally lunges at, she has just walked on by!!! One day at a time 🙂 Thanks for all your help!!!


Thank you Tara for opening our eyes to the fact that working dogs need a job. You have taught us patience, love and respect for the stubborn staffie!

-Angie, Steve & Keely

 MASSIVE thx to @Trainingbytara Blue & I just had our life COMPLETELY changed by this wonderful woman.

-Deb O’Keefe

Listen to what some people are saying about us:

I wanted to write to you tonight and tell you that Cheyenne and I just got back from the GREATEST WALK EVER!  We practiced everything that Tara taught us today.  And it worked!  She stayed on my left side.  I was the one with the well behaved dog while others were fighting to keep their’s calm when we walked by.  It was AMAZING! 
A very special thank you to Tara, for the professional service that your provide.  You are the greatest!  After only 2 sessions, I can’t even begin to tell you the difference.  I am in control.  And, Cheyenne is happy, too!  She doesn’t have to be nervous or anxious.  She knows I have it all under control.  Thanks so much.  We’ll keep practicing!  I’m ELATED!  Nice job.  You are very professional and provided exactly what we were looking for.
Sheri B 5/09
Took Montana and Sawyer for a long walk today and it’s like I have 2 new (and greatly improved) animals! No tugging. No lunging for squirrels. No barking at passers-by (not even the mail man!!!). They’re keying off of my every move!

And the same techniques you taught me for Montana (my *former* alpha) are working wo…nders on Sawyer, who until now has run from me when I’ve so much as looked at him. All of this from a one-hour session. THANKS A MILLION! And we’ll see you again soon.

Today was the first day in over a year that Hulk has been to Petsmart. I write this with tears in my eyes because I can’t even believe how amazing he was. Not only did he successfully stay with a stranger for two minutes, he was surrounded by dogs..big dogs, little dogs…Old Hulk would have been lunging and barking…not a peep. We just walked right by the dogs with no problem….The kicker was how good everyone was saying he was. I am not sure if anyone has ever told us that about Hulk in public. He was sitting for petting and just impressed Danny and I so much. He got to pick out whatever he wanted for doing such a great job….I know that you guys do this everyday and maybe you know how you change people’s lives and maybe you don’t. I hope that you know we are forever in your debt and can’t thank you girls enough for all your work with Hulk (and all of our babies). I can’t thank you enough for all that you have taught us. Hulk wanted me to also tell you thank you because now he can run errands with Mom again, which he used to love to do.
Thanks for all that you do-
Andrea, Danny, Storm, Hulk, kitties and fosters
We would love to hear from you! Thank you in advance for your testimonial and remember to give a big hug to your furbabies from me!!

Our story about the Gatesville Rotties.

 We had been asked to take on a mom and her pup, that we named Sophia and Outlaw, in February this year. They had been part of the hoarder incident in Gatesville TX, only 2 of the over 260 dogs taken from a desperate situation.  We were happy to help in any way possible as always.

 Sophia, at 10 yrs old had a son, a beautiful little guy that brought so much to my life in the short time he was here. She had been forced to defend her son in a pack of dogs that most likely would have killed him for no other reason but the scarceness of food. True to nature, this committed mom put aside her own hunger and cared for Outlaw, protected, defended and loved even in her weakened condition.

  The day we picked her up we were expecting a neglect case, mainly because we have seen so many hoarding cases in the last 20 years; I was surprised, I was heartbroken and I was outraged. The back of the transporters truck opened up, and out popped a very thin, very nervous old girl barely able to stand, peeking out to assess the strangers in front of her. Cautiously she sniffed my hand and stiffened up- has she ever experienced any positive human interaction? This old girl so weak and frail still managed to stand over her only pup, ready to defend him if needed. It took a little time for her to approach me, but as she did I noticed Outlaw curled up on the floor board completely content. A tiny ball of fur, no bigger than his mama’s paw.     


  We changed vehicles and started our journey of rehabilitating this desperate family. Immediately I convinced myself I would not be keeping them, I already have a large pack and recently lost two of my very best dogs that happened to be Rottweilers; I knew I was not ready yet.

  The drive lasted two hours, the entire time was spent comforting Outlaw and reassuring Sophia I was no threat to them. All the while, repeating to myself I did not need another male nor did I want to become attached to a breed that I had experienced such unexpected and untreatable diseases with over the last two years. No, they were not staying- I firmly argued with myself.  

  Fast forward to March, exactly four weeks later, I have completely fallen in love with Outlaw and fought with myself that I can manage training this baby and making him my next “go-to boy” for my business. I mean I was already teaching him things other dogs learn at an older age, and he was smart- a little sponge. Completely eager to learn anything I threw his way- a real baby genius. I started making future plans, thinking about going back to competition and titling him as I did my very first Rottie.  This boy could go even further; after all it would be so easy for me now. I already have 20 years experience; I have already had the chance to learn from my past mistakes and I have the patience at my age to take things slow; teach him perfection. He had the same drive as my last Rottie, and I never had a male Rottie before! Yes, we would be a great team; showcasing the breed, how loyal and gentle they can be.

 It was not long before we received an urgent email regarding a litter of pups from the same case in need of bottle feeding. Three baby girls, three weeks old that had been taken off nursing their mom due to her sickness. We of course, said we would take them in temporarily until they found fosters.

  We now had a ten year old mom, her ten week old son- which I decided to adopt, and three bottle fed babies. Lack of sleep and formula was our life for three weeks. That may not seem like a long time, but at our age and with our schedule, a couple of hours of sleep a night for three weeks means zombie time. We faithfully set the alarms for two to three hour feedings, and still managed to run our business normally. It is amazing, looking back now, that we stayed sane.

  The puppies, our “angels” as we called them, found a foster to go to and even though we were tired, it was sad to see them leave.  We had named them after “Charlie’s Angels”, Alex, Nat, and Dillon. Perfect names for three strong little female fighters; they did survive a terrible beginning to life and they certainly brought smiles to our faces and warmth to our hearts.

  I began focusing all my time on getting Outlaw prepared for a life of endless possibilities, when I received an email from the rescue again. This time they were not looking for help, no one needed us to “rescue” them- no this time, we would need help.

  The new fosters had taken in the “Angels” and started to see them get weak. They were moved to solid food and they couldn’t eat without choking.  The veterinarian tested them and we received the bad news, they had Distemper. We were shocked, upset and in denial.  Surely I had nothing to worry about; I had stuck to my entire technician training and kept them completely separated. Isolated from Outalw and Sophia; completely. The vet explained that this strain was rare and it normally is seen when pups eat solid food- relief I thought, Outlaw has been eating solid food for weeks!  To be safe we made an appointment and had him and Sophia checked out. Yes! They were in good health- no need to test! I went back to training Outlaw in every area a pup could retain!

  One week later, Outlaw started coughing. Still in denial I convinced myself it had been from the trachea tube they used during the neuter. I kept him completely isolated from everyone in my pack- tending to him all day and comforting him with all the motherly love I had. I refused to believe it was possible, this would not happen. Our vet tested him with a wide range test to pin point his illness- it came back as the rare strain of distemper. I was devastated but I still refused to allow my new boy to be taken away from me. I contacted my best friend in hopes that her “voodoo” magic would help him- acupressure, massage, herbal meds- I didn’t care what it took. 

  Then he started showing neurologic ticks in his face. My heart felt like someone reached in my chest and physically grabbed hold to stop it. I watched this beautiful and amazingly genius pup twitch uncontrollably having difficulty even walking in just three short days. A glimmer of hope- we put him on Valium to subside the tremors.  It was short lived. Even on Valium, his tremors began to take over his entire body. As hard as it was, I made the decision to let him have peace.

  I held him in his last minutes, trying to stop his tiny body from shaking- the entire time whispering to him that he was the best pup I ever had. Assuring him he would never feel pain again, and thanking him for the few wonderful weeks he gave me. A few minutes passed and I knew he would never suffer again.  He would be cared for by my past Rotties now, loved and protected by them as they did for me.

  We arrived home and I got down on the floor to hold Sophia, in my own way, apologizing to her for not being able to protect him as she did. I sat there for what seemed like forever, comforting her and promising her I would never give up on her. The call was made that evening to the rescue that Sophia will be living her life out here with us. I did not have the heart to see her leave, the sole survivor of our efforts to help, the mother to the one pup that made me feel young and inspired again. No, I need her as much as she needs us.

   We love you Outlaw.

Love Mama Sophia and Mama T






Throwing Them into the Wolves

So I heard a very disturbing piece of information last night. Apparently there is a new technique to “fix” dog aggression/reactiveness that is floating around out there. I am sickened by it and I wonder if anyone is thinking about the risks here.
Let me give a bit of background here, the dog is a confident male staffie that has reactiveness towards other dogs. His original fosters had started a program with us to reintroduce dogs in a controlled, non-threatening and calm way and had come very far with his progress. He went from lunging at other dogs to showing avoidance on walks, he went from not allowing a dog near his back end to ignoring a greet from other dogs, and he had been showing such a relaxed state that he would lie down during our reactive class. Sounds awesome right? A dog that was finally realizing he did not have to protect himself, protect his handler and that other dogs were ok to be around.
That is where it stopped. Why? During this process, he had been invited to do a free training session with another trainer. Apparently the new fad out there is to muzzle the reactive dog and put them in a pen with a couple of others. Now not only does this make me sick for all the dogs, but it makes me sick to think the “let the dogs to work it out” state of mind is still out there. I mean, really?
First of all when you muzzle a dog, you immediately put them into a defense state of mind, then to put that defenseless dog into an open pen with free roaming dogs-off leash? What are you thinking? This dog that they attempted this with is very confident that he can protect himself and that he has to handle situations himself; which is why he has such an issue. He lacks the confidence in humans to be able to control and protect him in these situations. So by doing this method, my dear fur friend was once again shown that humans will not protect him, will not control the dogs around him, and those humans will put him in a situation that may harm him.
The end result of this session- he attacked the other dogs. They removed him, allowed him to calm down, and did it again. End result- he attacked the other dogs again. Now this dog that has a natural confidence that he can and must defend himself, has gained even more confidence in his own attacks. I wonder if the trainer took a history on the dog, did they know or understand how this dog was driven? I wonder if they have done research on real life cases or if they simply believe every dog will react the same. Just because you saw it on TV, or it worked for one dog does NOT mean this method is effective or appropriate to use; especially if you do not understand aggression or drives.

Behavioral Assessments in Shelters

  For a long time now, I have performed behavioral assessments for rescue groups and shelters to help them learn more about a dog’s personality and potential issues.  Recently, I had been asked what I feel about the different tests out there. I have been researching the data on each of them and decided to put them to the test. My first test was the Sue Sternberg Test or Assess-a-pet test. You may be surprised to hear the results.

The Sue Sternberg Test: Epic Fail

  Many of you may not realize that Sue Sternberg said her own dogs would not even pass her test, but sadly, hundreds of shelters use this as their standard testing for decisions on life or death of an animal.  How can we use a test that even the founder claims to see as a death test?  Interestingly, I found another article that talked about this death test. In it, they quote  Jean Donaldson as making the comment that, “We couldn’t get Sue’s test past the reliability issue, 4 out of the five dogs tested with the Sternberg test and deemed unadoptable, did fine.”

  Of course after reading this, I tested my own pack using this method. I had an intern perform the test as to not “taint” the results. Needless to say, my pack, the dogs that help others every day and live peacefully together, would have all failed her test. My biggest surprise:

  Takoda, my 2 year old f/s husky. Takoda has no history of aggression, is highly sociable and is used every day in private sessions to help other dogs overcome their issues. Hundreds of clients can back this.  The results of Takoda’s assessment using this test declare her:

  • Unsociable
  • Unsafe to handle
  • Dominant

  Had Takoda been tested using this method, she would have been killed. I can’t even begin to imagine how many dogs are killed unnecessarily because of this test. The Assess-a –pet test indicates whether a dog is “submissive” or “dominant”. There is no room for outside variables in this test; it is simply black or white.  

  For example, one test is to hold a dog’s muzzle closed for a count of 5, and repeat it 5 times. If the dog struggles to get away it is deemed “dominant”. This is a death sentence for the dog, instead of noting the dog may have some facial sensitivity and suggesting a program, the test than goes on to say if you could not perform it to hold on longer with a little more strength. What this test does is ignore the fact that we are threatening and provoking them and immediately suggests the dog unsafe to handle. The test may end here which means the end of their life as well.

  Another part of the test tells the assessor to ignore the dog and just hold the leash. If the dog does not acknowledge the assessor within 60 seconds, the note says the dog will unlikely tolerate handling, touching or unwanted affection. Really? Most of our pack members walked around for 2 minutes and did not acknowledge the assessor. Why? Because they were not being invited to. How many dogs that have received proper training, got loose from a yard and picked up by animal control, were tested and killed for not having the “social ability” within 60 seconds? I know many owners work hard at teaching their dogs to be calm around strangers, isn’t that what we want?  I think people need to be forewarned about this test and ask their local shelters what test they use. If your well trained calm dog is ever tested they may be killed for being polite.

  I will be testing other dogs with the other tests over the next few months, please stay tuned.

Tara and the “pack”