Organization helps develop better skills for local pet owners

Organization helps develop better skills for local pet owners

K-9 Obedience Club of Jacksonville offers unique programs, training and exercise

On an August Sunday morning at K-9 Obedience Club of Jacksonville’s covered outdoor pavilion, five excited young dogs mostly focused on their owners’ faces. Those owners, two men, two women and one couple, came from all over Northeast Florida to attend their sixth in a seven-class series. Owners listened closely to Family Dog Class trainer Juli Wilkison.

The patient Ms. Wilkison, coached them with steady humor, through basic puppy manners, leash walking, dog sit and stay. Wilkison’s goal was to teach owners how to use positive reinforcement (constant praise and tiny treats), to train their young dogs. The goal is calm dogs who remain obedient regardless of other people, animals, noises or distractions.

The epitome of a multi-tasker, Wilkison was also attuned to a nearby large crate where two of her own pack watched in obvious puppy frustration. The two dogs she refers to as her “youngest children”, were Peggy, a bundle-of-energy, biscuit-colored Pit Bull puppy and Wesley, “Mouth of the South”, her extremely vocal Border Collie.

Wilkison has trained dogs for thirty years. She said that many owners wrongly believe it only takes one or two classes to fully train a puppy or adult dog. Successful training depends upon the breed-type of dog, its temperament, intelligence, personality and maturity. Experienced trainers say that the smarter the dog, the harder and longer it takes to train, because they think for themselves and want a say in everything. It may require months or years to train owners and dogs, depending upon their goals. Ongoing consistency is absolutely necessary  to maintain that training.

She said the instinctual prey drive of dogs varies in ferocity among breeds. Prey drive is the dog’s automatic, instinctual response to anything that moves fast;  it can never be trained out of a dog. Wilkison explained that a dog’s brain registers every moving car, bike, or person jogging, as a really big squirrel that must be chased. 

The first priority in successful dog training is to build a strong bond between the owner and dog, which becomes the permanent foundation for trust and any training. Instructors work with owners to teach their dogs to remain attentive and obedient at all times. Dogs learn to control any aggression or negative behavior and to remain calm towards other people, pets or when confronted by unexpected events. Other goals are to control prey drive and behavior in any setting, under any circumstances. Training success also requires adequate daily exercise and activity appropriate for age and breed, which directly impacts dog behavior.

Dog training ensures the safety of dogs, owners and everyone else.  Many people, walking pets or not, have experienced an unpleasant or dangerous encounter with an off-leash, out-of-control dog. Also, some irresponsible owners take their leashed dogs into public despite known risky behavior: lunging, pulling, jumping, growling or aggression.

Wilkison’s personal worst-case-scenario example of the critical importance of dog training, was when a troop of Girl Scouts suddenly squealed with delight and ran straight for her dogs. The potential for lightning-fast disaster is clear, if an unprepared dog owner has an untrained, unsocialized dog.

Happy, healthy, well-behaved dogs are a joy to own and can comfortably accompany owners or mingle with other pets and people in public places, including parks, beaches or outdoor events. Wilkison, who works in a veterinary office, warned about other dangers from untrained/unsocialized dogs. The greatest number of injuries her veterinary clinic sees are dog bites and wounds that occur at dog parks. Also, many owners board their dogs, only to return and find bite or other wounds their dog incurred during inadequately supervised group “playtime”.

Greg Barber and German Shepherd Nala, 6 months.
Greg Barber and German Shepherd Nala, 6 months.

Greg Barber, an experienced German Shepherd owner, brought his purebred Nala, six months, to Wilkison’s class. Nala was quiet, laser-focused on Barber and responsive to commands throughout the hour.

“Nala is like a typical kid…she behaves well in public, but at home?  That’s a different story; she’s not quiet at all. She’s our companion dog, and runs or walks early mornings with my wife Sheila. We scheduled an at-home trainer before I found K-9 Club through the Facebook group, German Shepherds of North Florida, and decided this class offered more socialization. Instructor Juli is extremely knowledgeable … Nala has done very well.” Barber is a retired U.S. Navy veteran. The Barbers work for a business machine company.

Terry and Laurie Smith with rescue Terrier mix Lola.
Terry and Laurie Smith with rescue Terrier mix Lola.

Terry and Laurie Smith brought Lola, their young terrior-mix rescue, who got a one-way ticket to obedience classes after she jumped their fence and chased a squirrel through San Marco. Luckily Lola eventually ran out of steam and now the Smiths are also considering agility classes for their little athlete.

Like many mixed-breed dog owners, the Smiths were curious about Lola’s genetics.  They ordered an Embark Dog DNA Breed & Health Home Test Kit. They chose that specific test, which costs a little more, because it also identifies genetic health risks.

“I found an online coupon for $135 instead of $199. We swabbed the inside of Lola’s mouth, sent that off and within a month we learned that Lola is: 23% Mountain Cur, 17% Boston Terrier; 13% Rat Terrier, 15% FoxTerrier/Pit Bull and 32% super mutt,” Laurie Smith said. ”No genetic health issues – great news.”

Virginia Novak and Vizsla Bice’, 8 months.
Virginia Novak and Vizsla Bice’, 8 months.

Virginia Novak brought her family’s fifth Vizsla, Bice’, an eight-month-old female she will train through K-9 Club. She said that the club instructors’ passion for dogs, the hard work they put in, their professional knowledge, AKC credentials and experience, is invaluable. Novak is also interested in advanced training classes and will begin Rally Training in September with Gabriella, her 6 ½ year old Vizsla. Rally is a faster obedience competition; dog and owner independently complete a course of designated stations instead of following a judge’s commands.

Paul Nowicki and Lab mix rescue Yankee, 10 months.
Paul Nowicki and Lab mix rescue Yankee, 10 months.

The continuous entertainment of the Family Dog Class was provided by Yankee, a ten-month-old rescue lab-mix owned by Paul Nowicki, who said his dog “basically stays in the principal’s office.”  Yankee, intent on circling and lunging toward everyone else, kept Nowicki at wits-end despite double leashes, (“extra power steering” according to Instructor Wilkison).

Terri Reel, a twenty-year club member and canine trainer since 1985, was at the club to privately work with her Australian Shepherd, Bindi, 9 and her eighteen-month-old Shetland Sheepdog, Mica. Reel teaches Skills & Drills for competition and obedience classes: specific canine commands and movements much like dressage in horse competitions. Her classes are more technical and time-consuming.  Reel said that while competition teamwork between an owner and dog is thrilling and a beautiful thing to watch, they never forget that every dog is a beloved pet and companion first and foremost. Competition training is not for every owner or dog.

K-9 Club President and Trainer Ginny Ruskuski & Border Collie Jean, 8 months.
K-9 Club President and Trainer Ginny Ruskuski & Border Collie Jean, 8 months.

President Ginny Ruskuski, said the K-9 Obedience Club was founded in 1951 in Riverside Park, then moved to Powers Avenue in 1982. She said they are a nonprofit, all-volunteer dog-training membership organization sanctioned by the American Kennel Club (AKC).  The club offers a variety of dog-related sports, classes, AKC competitions, trials and events, including social activities for members. They welcome both purebred and mixed-breed dogs at their facility, which includes three regulation size rings and an agility field.  Ruskuski,  a thirty-year club member, teaches Advanced Puppy Obedience classes and holds AKC titles with her dogs in almost every category. 

The club welcomes new, active members who meet membership requirements.  Interested dog owners must first complete any class given by the club, or must have earned a qualifying score in a novice Obedience or Rally event.  Full membership information, class type and cost, instructor credentials and a  comprehensive calendar of activities is on their extensive website.  Upon acceptance, annual dues cost $35 per person or $45 for a family membership.

Weekday and weekend classes last six or seven weeks and are currently scheduled for September through December 2021.  Class size is limited, and participation must be reserved three days in advance with no walk-ins permitted. Observers are welcomed but must schedule in advance with each instructor.

Available classes include: basic to advanced Obedience for puppies to adult dogs, AKC STAR Puppy classes in basic good behavior and healthy socialization, Family Dog classes teach household manners and Pet Therapy classes for those interested in becoming trained and certified to visit patients in hospitals or nursing homes. More advanced classes include all levels of Agility, Rally & Obedience Skills or Beginner to Advanced Rally, Nose Work (drug/explosive detection) and many others.

The club holds annual fun events for owners and dogs, including holiday costume parties, fun matches and an annual Blessing of the Animals. K-9 Obedience Club members also give back to the community by donating use of their facility to two local nonprofit canine service organizations: Canine Companions for Independence First Coast Chapter (Southeast Region), and Southeastern Guide Dogs.


AKC Pals & Paws Dog Agility Trials
Jacksonville Equestrian Center
Sept. 25 – 26, 2021
Nov. 5 – 7, 2021

AKC National Championship
Orlando Convention Center
Dec. 18 – 19, 2021


By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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