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PartnersMarch 25, 2019

How to harness a dog’s super power (and start a new career)


Two years ago Augusta Grayson was working in advertising, now she’s running her own dog training business. James Borrowdale met Augusta (and Frank the dachshund) to learn about Unitec’s Certificate in Animal Management.

Frank surveyed the park, narrow face framed by red-gold locks, his eyes following the active-wear-adorned man strolling through the gully on this overcast morning. Frank signalled his curiosity with a minor howl, and then buried his face in the grass, his bushy tail wagging slowly as he sniffed around for something to interest his palette, and then very quickly, among the bushes, he found it.

Frank is a dachshund – literally “badger dog” when translated from the German – and he was bred to hunt. And his view of this emphatically suburban scene – Basque Park’s half-hearted imitation of Stonehenge, a man who had emerged with a small dog in the crook of his arm, the way a child carries a doll – was swarming with detail unseen by those of us on two legs. In the cool, dewy morning, the ground clung to its multifarious scents, the kaleidoscopic network of competing odours Frank’s brain and physiology is wired to pick up. “It’s basically like an acid trip,” Frank’s trainer, Augusta Grayson told me. “It’s so overwhelming.”

Frank the Dachshund was bred to hunt, and that instinct needs to be managed (Photo: Yuki Zhang).

Two years ago, Augusta’s working day looked very different; then, she was putting in 12-hour days in the advertising trenches. Now, dressed in running shorts and a T-shirt proclaiming ‘I like dogs’, hanging out with characters like Frank – “pretty chill, a bit loud” – are how she spends her time. After completing Unitec’s one-year New Zealand Certificate in Animal Management (Canine Behaviour & Training) last year, Augusta set herself up as a private dog trainer. On this day, Augusta was working with Frank to help him direct his prodigious talent for following those scents into constructive – or, at least, not destructive – ways to pass his time.

Augusta grew up in the Hawke’s Bay, where she remembers local dogs roaming free. It wasn’t until a spell of freelancing from home on Auckland’s North Shore that she noticed the barking and whining of the neighbourhood dogs. Soon after she ended up working with an agency and Unitec was a client, and that’s when she came across the animal management course on the Unitec website. Finding that in combination with the distressing chorus that sound-tracked her freelance life persuaded her to sign up. Just over a year later, Auckland’s parks are, at least some of the time, now her office.

Augusta pulled the tools of her trade from her tote bag. A miniature orange road cone that she induces Frank to poke his nose inside to get him used to the restriction of a muzzle. A rope toy. A couple of miniature hessian sacks filled with hay tainted by her friend’s guinea pigs, a rodent about which Frank is wildly – and sometimes problematically – enthusiastic. She set up a course of cones, dabbed the ground at strategic points with the hay, and then hid it under one of them. Frank haltingly followed the invisible course, nose to the ground, and stopped to paw expectantly at the cone hiding the hay. “As a hound,” Augusta says, “Frank loves scent work, so I’ve been working on getting him into that so he’s got something to use up a bit of that mental energy that he’s currently investing in chasing swallows around the park.”

Frank is scent driven (Photo: Yuki Zhang).

Humans, Augusta told me, have something like five or six million olfactory receptors in the brain. Some dogs, like the beagles who drag their noses over your baggage in the airport, have as many as 300 million; Frank, Augusta says, would have something near that. She said that if humans could see as well as dogs could smell, we’d be able to see as far as Australia. Many of her classmates followed their dogs’ noses into working with the police or the Ministry of Primary Industries, protecting Aotearoa’s borders and safeguarding its biodiversity.

But Augusta, for now, is content with her private training, learning all she can from the dogs, like Frank, that she regularly sees. It was only in 1996 that sniffer dogs were introduced to Auckland Airport, but since then the kind of work a passion for dogs could lead to has proliferated – and Unitec caters to that increasing variety. “When I think about the people in our class and where they’ve ended up, there are people going into MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries), there are people going on to animal-management bachelors and stuff as well – they want to get into biodiversity. It’s really interesting. Dog dancing, dog massage, just all these different facets.”

Augusta had no knowledge of the arcana of the canine mind when she started the course – all she took to that first day was her love of dogs. It all came in one tightly compacted year of study, with Sparkle, her friend’s Staffy-cross, partnering her through the course’s practical components. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a year of tummy rubs – that was the running joke – but it was definitely more challenging than I thought it would be… I haven’t been in a science class in 17, 18 years and I didn’t know words could be that long, but it was really fascinating. It was much more comprehensive than I expected them to be able to get through in a year. I really felt like we got a good holistic view of animal behaviour, dog training and how they operate.”

Good dog (Photo: Yuki Zhang).

Scent work, like the exercises she ran with Frank that morning, became her major fascination over the course of the year. If dogs, she says, aren’t exercising that enormous part of their brains, they are almost certain to misbehave. It also gave Augusta insight into the complexity of the canine mind. Humans self-reflexively think of themselves as the top of the food chain, the mammal-in-chief, but there are so many ways in which dogs are objectively more intelligent than all of us. “I love being able to talk about scent and show clients how incredibly intelligent – a different kind of intelligence, sensory intelligence – their dogs are.”

Learning to recognise we are not always more intelligent than our four-legged companions is important for dog owners, Augusta says, so they can begin to subvert the erroneous belief that dominance-subservience is the best model for human-dog relationships. “There’s still a lot of dog owners, and especially in the city, who refer to being the alpha in the relationship. And that you have to put your dog down and be like the alpha wolf and all that utter crap. It’s been completely disproven time and time over.”

She describes the relationship as more like that of parent and child – you’re creating a positive environment for learning, setting clear guidelines and developing a relationship based on trust and mutual enjoyment of each other’s company (and pats).

“All punishment does is damage that relationship and doesn’t actually tell the dog what you do want them to do.”

Frank seemed bored by all the talk. He began to fidget, and then to bark. Augusta patted his head. “Are you done?” He seemed to assent. “Aw buddy, you’re checked out.”

And with that, Augusta and Frank said goodbye. Frank trotted up the hill to keep pace with Augusta’s stride, just two animals figuring out how best to interact with each other.

This article was created in paid partnership with Unitec. Learn more about our partnerships here.

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