Teaching old dogs new tricks
Be it teaching a puppy basic obedience or getting a troublesome adult dog to let go of its aggression, K-Nine Solutions is there to help Santa Barbara dog owners with any behavioral issue they face.
Described on the company’s website as “the last stop for dog owners who have exhausted every other option,” K-Nine Solutions abides by the practice of the “balanced trainer,” according to company founder, CEO, and head trainer Eric Smith.
The method consists of positive reinforcement to teach dogs desired commands as well as negative reinforcement and positive punishment to discourage unwanted behavior.
Mr. Smith explained the difference between the two punishments,
“With negative reinforcement I’m taking something away that the dog wants to increase a behavior that I want. And positive punishment is I’m adding something in to decrease a behavior that I don’t want.”
When it comes to negative reinforcement, Mr. Smith said there are right and wrong ways to apply it. While some trainers train purely with negative reinforcement, he views that approach as cruel and satisfying to no one.
“Our clients would hate it and we don’t like training that way,” he said.
A dog trainer for nearly 15 years, Mr. Smith moved from Boston to Santa Barbara five years ago and through a mutual friend met Justin Davanzo, the company’s president.
Formerly in the construction business, Mr. Davanzo brought his experience as a project manager to the company while Mr. Smith coached him in dog training. K-Nine Solutions began in Mr. Smith’s backyard and currently consists of two locations, one in Santa Barbara and the other in Santa Ynez.
Mr. Davanzo said K-Nine Solutions has experienced enormous growth within the past year, jumping from three employees to 16. K-Nine Solutions faces the challenge of Santa Barbara’s high costs, which breeds the challenge of finding experienced employees and retaining them, as the company can’t afford to pay huge salaries. When K-Nine Solutions does hire somebody new, proper training is a huge priority.
“When I go into a business where the employees clearly have been trained well, you notice it. And that’s what we strive for, that everybody gets that level of training so that all the clients feel treated equally and that they’re important,” Mr. Davanzo said.
Because the dogs aren’t the ones that sign the checks and leave Yelp reviews, client service is everything. This entails not only training the dogs, but teaching their owners what they must do to maintain the training once the dog returns home. Mr. Smith stressed how crucial this is and said not doing so is “to sell the client short.”
“What a lot of other trainers kind of leave out or, you know, neglect after the dog is worked with … they don’t follow through with the person and teach them what they’ve taught the dog, so the dog just reverts back to the way it was,” he said.
Sometimes owners fail to follow through with keeping up training at home and as a result get their old dog back, but for Mr. Smith it’s extremely rewarding when it all pays off and a dog’s behavior is permanently changed.
“It’s really gratifying when we take a dog that’s, you know, either human or dog aggressive and turn that dog around and literally save that dog’s life and save their relationship with their humans,” he said.
Mr. Davanzo expressed similar sentiments, which he often feels when he runs into old clients and sees they have better relationships with their dogs. Sometimes, they’ll tell him things like “Oh my god, you changed our lives.”
“That’s super satisfying when we see that, because we’re ultimately creating a relationship that lasts hopefully a long time,” Mr. Davanzo said.
Asked if certain breeds are tough to improve, Mr. Smith said bulldogs are most difficult just due to their nature.
“Very stubborn, they were bred to be that way,” Mr. Smith said.
While K-Nine Solutions is equipped to handle the most problematic of dogs, its services also extend to daycare, boarding and weekly pack walks, which help dogs get used to being around other dogs.
The pack walks have particularly helped the company increase its visibility and connect with the Santa Barbara community, which is ultimately what keeps K-Nine Solutions here, regardless of the challenges to doing business.
“We always wanted to be able to give something back and we’ve done that … I think we’re really doing a tremendous service for the community, so I don’t have any intention of leaving,” Mr. Smith said.