“Alfie, sit. Sit! SIT!”
The dog was no better at listening than my children. It was time to find a dog trainer.
My one-year-old rescue pup Alfie and I then signed up for basic obedience training with Must Love Dogs’ Heidi Suarez, who holds group classes on Saturday mornings at her home in Prospect. There’s a series of jumps and balance beams set up in her garden for the agility class after us, but we’re here to learn the more rudimentary commands of sit, stay and come.
Heidi subscribes to a rewards-based approach to dog training, which, after building trust with the dog, encourages it to learn through play (and a lot of kibble treats) rather than using coercion through choke collars or worse.
“The first class is not about instruction, it’s about making a connection with your dog,” says Heidi, who has three dogs of her own.“If you reward a dog, it will get the message. If you force a dog, it will not understand. It’s the same with children, but it works better with dogs.”
By the end of the each class, Alfie and his fellow students look as exhausted as kindergarteners at the end of their first day at school. Training sessions don’t need to be long or difficult, explains Heidi. “If you practise five to 10 minutes a day, that’s all you need. Consistency is what matters.”
Heidi’s love of animals began early in life. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she and her family had all kinds of pets. When she was 12, her next-door neighbour gave her a puppy of her own, a “sato” (Puerto Rican mutt) called Brownie.
“He was terrible,” laughs Heidi. “He terrorised the neighbourhood, chasing cars and bikes.”
At school, Heidi studied human resources and business administration, never intending dog training to be her career. But when she started agility classes with her border collie Ginseng, her hobby quickly became a passion. They joined the Puerto Rico Agility team, competing all over the United States, learning new training techniques as they went.
Following a move to Miami, Heidi certified as a professional dog trainer and studied animal behavioral science to understand more about dog psychology. For dogs with specific issues, Heidi offers consultations, private lessons and board and train, which she recommends for help with potty-training.
If a dog has a trust issue, or has experienced a trauma, Heidi uses training to change its behaviour, encouraging it to be less reactive and more at ease around other dogs. She says it takes time and requires commitment from the owner for it to be effective.
Heidi has been working with Must Love Dogs since she moved to Grand Cayman in 2014. In addition to training, she also works with Healing Paws, taking therapy dogs into the Pines, where they bring comfort and joy to senior members of the community, and with the Kids Care programme in schools, where the dogs get to show off their tricks.
Dog agility remains Heidi’s passion, and she is proud to have introduced the sport in the Cayman Islands. She has a small but dedicated group of enthusiasts who enjoy training their dogs to race over obstacles, scoring points for both time and accuracy. Heidi herself still competes with her teammates from Puerto Rico and her dogs Hendrix and Rio. Her ultimate dream is a Cayman Islands agility team.
Watching Rio dance around Heidi’s ankles and leap to her every command, I realise Alfie and I still have some way to go if we are to graduate from our basic obedience class. But we’re having fun. The kids are next.