Alex Oldenburg formally trained and showed her first dog in the 8th grade as part of 4-H, a passion that would stay with her into adulthood. The Mapleton native and Mankato transplant began assisting with dog training classes for dog shows through 4-H before teaching her own classes.
Now the MSU graduate is celebrating two years of running MESSY Dog Training, a downtown business she started with fellow 4-Her Antonia Langr in 2016. The name comes from the names of the dogs who inspired them to become better trainers and pet owners. New opportunities this year led Langr to sell her half of the business to Oldenburg, who is in the process of assuming full ownership.
Oldenburg has a specific mission behind how best to train dogs, whether thatâs for dog shows, teaching tricks, or puppies learning how to behave.
âI wanted to offer classes with positive reinforcement dog training based in science and wasnât able to find that in the Mankato area,â Oldenburg said.
With that, the two saw an opportunity and a service they could provide. Between April and Sept. of 2016, MESSY Dog transformed from a concept to a reality. They leased a former auto mechanic shop at 127 E. Washington Street next to the Coffee Hag. In the evenings, the old garage fills up with an average of 20 dogs and their owners.
âShe teaches you how to teach your dog,â explained student Layne Haroldson. âItâs supposed to be one-on-one, you with your dog and you develop that connection. Sheâll learn our own strategies and develop them all into her training style that allows us to work on a personalized basis. Sheâs adaptable to her training technique.â
Haroldson, a high-school senior from Amboy who is taking post-secondary classes at Bethany Lutheran College, met Oldenburg through 4-H when he was in the fourth grade. Haroldson said Oldenburg takes the approach of positive reinforcement using a device that makes a loud clicking noise when the dog demonstrates model behavior.
âShe mainly teaches through clicker training,â Haroldson said. âThe click signifies to the dog that they did a correct behavior and theyâre going to be rewarded with a treat.â
Oldenburg teaches a variety of classes with a capacity of eight dogs and their owners per class. They range from basic socialization for puppies to teaching dogs tricks and skills for formal dog shows. Like humans, Oldenburg said that puppies have a critical period for socialization and learning.
âPuppies have a really critical socialization period that happens from the time they are about four weeks old until they are about 12-16 weeks,â Oldenburg said âIf they miss that there are a lot of problems down the road. Thatâs where we see a lot of dogs that are really fearful of things they were not exposed to. If we donât take our dogs places when they are little and take them out to see things and have different experiences then they tend to grow up a lot more fearful because they didnât have that exposure when they were young.â
The puppy experience class is geared towards exposing puppies to the unfamiliar. That can involve exposing them to new objects and getting them comfortable with new people and other dogs. The class is taught on a rolling admissions basis, allowing pet owners to enroll their puppies at any point before they reach 16 weeks of age.
As the puppies become dogs, they learn obedience skills like walking nicely on a leash, sitting, coming when called and remaining calm in public situations.
Train the brain
One aspect of dog training that Oldenburg thinks is often overlooked is the need for exercising the dogâs brain. To do that, she uses different puzzle toys that you put food in. The dog searches for the food using scent and basic problem solving skills. Oldenburg compares it to hide and seek with the dog using its nose. One technique involves the use of a snuffle mat. Itâs a piece of rubber with holes in the bottom and a fleece tied to it. The dog has to snuffle around and find the hidden treat.
âWeâre really good a lot of times about thinking about the physical exercise that our dog needs â giving them walks, playing fetch â but a lot of people miss the mental component,â Oldenburg said. âThis is why we get dogs that have problem behaviors of boredom and they chew things and they make up their own things to do because their brain was still ready to go.â
After getting a degree in biology with a concentration in zoology, Oldenburg thought hard about going to veterinary school. She decided against it because of the massive student debt it would accrue. She attends seminars and leans on her formal education and current theories about animal behavior when teaching her own classes.
That background also helps to get the word out to pet owners through the local vet community.
âA lot of the local vet clinics recommend us,â Oldenburg said. âWeâve gone around and talked with all of them, explained this is why we train the way we do. Our training falls in line with the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. It follows their recommendations for the use of punishment and the use of dominance in dog training. As veterinarians with interest in behavior, they really like recommending us to their clients because we do follow those guidelines.â
For Oldenburg, that means focusing on the positive instead of the negative when working with both dogs and their owners.
âWeâve come a long way from our understanding of dominance and weâve found thatâs not really how dogs think and learn best. They learn best in a rewards based system when weâre focusing on teaching the dogs what we do want, rather than telling them âdonât do this.â We really focus on using rewards and trying to get the best behaviors out of our dogs and minimizing the use of any punishment.â
Messy Dog Training
127 E. Washington St., Mankato