Part of the gang at Zoe MacBean’s Chemainus property includes O’Henry the mule and dog Taliesin. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Vancouver Island’s wingnut dogs need love and training, too

The challenge of a spirited canine has long motivated Chemainus trainer

So your dog’s a wingnut. You’ve been told the dog’s “stubborn” or “trying to dominate you.” You tried classes and your dog was super smart and caught on fast, but got bored easily and acted up in class.

When a little help beyond the usual sit down, stay, heel, come commands is needed, that’s the specialty of Wingnut Training.

Head Wingnut trainer Zoe MacBean (pronounced Mak Bayne) says people with dogs of a certain over-the-top enthusiasm can relate to the name on so many levels.

“Originally, it was just a reference to how my dogs’ ears looked in silhouette when they were happy and relaxed after a good training session,” said MacBean, 54.

Now it acts as a kind of filter that attracts the kind of people and dogs she likes to work with.

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“What makes my heart sing are the joyful ones that are just on the edge of being a little bit crazy,” she noted. “The ones that really want to be good and maybe just don’t know how to make sense of their world. Just because they’re genius doesn’t mean they have to be a total pain to live with and you don’t have to squash all that spirit to teach them functional skills.”

The true motivation of MacBean’s training technique is obvious. “Wingnuts, they challenge you,” she conceded.

MacBean and her family were living in Powell River and made a brief detour to Port Alberni before moving to Chemainus late in 2019. She found a group class location at the Saltair Community Centre that November for a few months before COVID hit. She hopes to return there for outdoor classes in the near future.

MacBean and her husband Brian share their small acreage with her daughter and a long-time friend/co-shepherd. They have goats, a flock of sheep for herding and hand-spinning and O’Henry the mule, who will tell you he runs the place.

MacBean’s own dog, Taliesin, is a five-year-old Blue Lacy from Texas who shares her birthday. The breed is little known outside the hill country as they are serious working dogs and generally not suitable as pets.

“All my life I’ve had very friendly dogs,” said MacBean. “Tally is, to put it nicely, not entirely neuro-typical. More bluntly, he’s an ornery little cuss and would really rather people left him alone to get his work done.”

He was a serious bear dog in Powell River as well as being a stock dog and tending dog (grazing sheep where there are no fences).

MacBean noted having a more reserved dog that’s actually a bit scared of people has taught her a whole new set of skills as she helped him learn to navigate social situations.

“It’s not about training out the fear, it’s about teaching him foundation skills and concepts that help him know how to handle those situations and how to tell me when he can’t.”

MacBean decided to become a trainer at age seven and has only taken other work when she wanted to learn more about training other species. She grew up in a college environment because her mother was a psychology professor and single mother at a time when child care wasn’t readily available.

MacBean used to earn pocket money marking exams and perhaps that was the start of her fascination with behaviour shaping. She was a foreman at a large stables in Vancouver’s Southlands district and had a stint in Seaforth Highlanders as an infantry reservist – because people training is important, too, she quips.

MacBean has lost count of the number of dogs she’s trained over the years and assures her students training gets a lot easier after the first 5,000. All jokes aside, MacBean said it’s really important to remember what it feels like to be a beginner. To that end, she regularly sets out to learn new things she might not be good at just to stay in touch with how overwhelming it can be to learn a new skill while holding on to an out-of-control animal at the end of a leash.

MacBean said the training relationship is a balancing act between what the owner wants and needs and what the dog wants and needs. Sometimes she suggests the owner aims a little higher with their training goals because many dogs need the challenge and satisfaction of a job. Just like humans, it can give them more focus, direction and self-worth.

MacBean added she’s an eclectic, concept-based trainer and draws on a wide variety of techniques learned from trainers and schools in Canada, the United States and England. Her go-to foundation program is a games-based approach.

“Anything that works and doesn’t harm the dog, the owner or their relationship is worth a try,” she indicated. “My job is to help owners find the dog they’ve always wanted inside the dog they have now.”

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Zoe MacBean and her dog Taliesin take a quiet moment for a break during training. (Photo by Don Bodger)

This is Zoe MacBean’s own wingnut dog, Taliesin. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Taliesin the dog and O’Henry the mule are happy to pose for a photo with Zoe MacBean. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Zoe MacBean with her dog, Taliesin. (Photo by Don Bodger)

It’s all about the technique for Wingnut Dog Training’s Zoe MacBean to get her own dog Taliesin focused on the task at hand. (Photo by Don Bodger)

This is how they do it at Wingnut Training, with Taliesin paying close attention to Zoe McBean. (Photo by Don Bodger)