Louisa Morrissey works like a dog to help dogs work better.
Morrissey, a certified professional dog trainer, has been teaching dogs skijoring — cross-country skiing while being pulled by dogs — for more than 10 years. She is now rebranding her dog snow sports business, Skijor-n-More, as High Country Dogs to focus more on dog training.
Morrissey, a Colorado native, works on basic behaviors but also trains dogs with aggression or other problems. She has five dogs of her own, all border collies, who help her teach workshops across the High Country.
“It’s an exciting time to be a dog trainer because we are learning leaps and bounds about how dogs’ minds work,” she said.
Morrissey was selected by trainer Victoria Stilwell, host of the show “It’s Me or the Dog,” to be a trainer in her Positively program, which emphasizes positive reinforcement for dogs.
“I reward what I want, I teach what I want, so I minimize the chances of what I don’t want,” Morrissey said. “There’s a difference between a confident dog who knows what to do, versus a dog who is always just getting corrected and there’s no learning.”
Morrissey said she likes to approach her training from the point of view of the dog, to see what’s best for that individual animal.
Julie Draguns has been training with Morrissey since her dog Sage was about 6 months old. Sage is 3 now, and has participated in rally, agility and skijoring classes.
“We earned Sage’s good citizen certificate during one obedience class, which was nothing short of a miracle for a young, curious dog with a short attention span,” Draguns said.
Morrissey also helped rehabilitate Sage’s weak leg through her “Dog Pilates” program. Draguns said they had tried physical therapy, but the therapist was unable to hold Sage’s focus. With Morrissey, she was able to perform a series of exercises that strengthened her leg.
“Her philosophy centers upon capturing and rewarding positive behavior, building the relationship between a dog and her human and having fun,” Draguns said. “I have been amazed at what I have been able to teach Sage to do and how well the training translates to real life situations.”
At High Country Dogs, the first private lesson is $75, then $50 after that. Morrissey also offers a package of four lessons for $195, and a puppy package with three lessons for $150.
In her training, Morrissey uses a reward system and positive language reinforcement to let the dog know when he successfully executes a behavior.
“I use treats as a reward, not a bribe, because then you can fade them out,” she said. “If it’s a bribe at the start, they never learn the behavior, you always have to produce it first.”
She uses hand signals and a “yes” vocal command for the dogs as well, to give feedback about behaviors. She said her training stems from a belief in treating the dogs with dignity, trust and kindness.
“Dogs do things because it works for them,” she said. “It takes time to change those habits. A puppy has a fresh slate, you can create good habits right away, but adult dogs have to gain your trust.”
Morrissey also works as the trainer at the Aspen animal shelter, and offers a free consultation to people from that shelter and the Summit animal shelter for people who want to adopt. She also has a “welcome home” package for people who are considering adopting a dog, to help find a good match with personalities and lifestyle. She said with so many dogs in Summit County, training is an important step to make any dog happy and healthy.
“The space and trails are narrow and during the high season in summer, everyone is outside and there are a lot of dogs and people in a small space,” she said. “Space is really important to dogs. Most dogs prefer a lot of space, time and patience.”
For Morrissey, the popular “dominance” theory when it comes to training dogs, that wolf-pack mentality, doesn’t work in her experience, because dogs have become such domesticated companions. Dogs also give clear, but sometimes subtle, communication signals, she said. If a dog walks away, for example, that’s a pretty clear signal.
“Dogs tend to want to keep the peace,” she said. “They might snip, turn their heads — it’s kind of like us with nervous behavior. They get frozen, there might be a fixed stare or growling, and that’s when you really have to walk that dog away from the situation.”
Morrissey will continue to do snow sports as part of her business. She said the name change really just reflects how her business has grown to meet her clients’ needs.
She said people seek out her services because they really desire to have a dog not just as a companion but as a friend as well. She works on specific goals each session for the owner and the dog.
“Change takes time,” she said. “People are impatient. It takes more than a half-hour TV show to fix a dog.”