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An ounce of prevention saves lives

Agua Dulce dog trainer Jennifer Gray helps adopted pets stay in new homes

Posted: May 21, 2013 6:25 p.m.
Updated: May 21, 2013 6:25 p.m.
Jennifer Gray, left, and SueAnn O’Connor work on a sit command with O’Connor’s dog LuLu.  Jennifer Gray, left, and SueAnn O’Connor work on a sit command with O’Connor’s dog LuLu. 
Jennifer Gray, left, and SueAnn O’Connor work on a sit command with O’Connor’s dog LuLu. 

SueAnn O’Connor of Valencia has had a lot of dogs in her life, but never one quite like Lulu.

An avid rescue volunteer and foster for such organizations as Pet Orphans, Love That Dog, and Best Friends Animal Society, O’ Connor took in Lulu when she was a seven-week old puppy. The Dachshund Pomeranian mix had been found on the side of the road with several litter mates.

Not only was she malnourished and flea-infested, Lulu immediately copped an attitude with O’ Connors rescue Shih Tzu mixes Suzy and Minnie.

"Lulu was really aggressive when it came to her food and my dogs. She was fearful of everything, she’d bark at anything that moved when we were walking. My neighbors would call me about her excessive barking," O’ Connor recalled. "I’d never had a dog that I couldn’t correct before. I needed help."

O’ Connor, an admissions counselor at Animal Behavioral College in Valencia, turned to her colleague Jennifer Gray.

Gray is an Animal Behavioral College certified positive reinforcement dog trainer and owner of Sunny Day Acres, a training and dog boarding facility in Agua Dulce. Additionally, Gray is a long-time rescuer with a generous heart, offering her services at dramatically reduced rates to dog adopters in need.

"I had so many acquaintances and friends telling me that they were going to get rid of a dog for chewing up Grandma’s couch. I would say, ‘Really? I can fix that,’" Gray said. "Usually certified trainers charge $75 to $150 for private sessions, but if people can’t afford it, I’ll charge $40 an hour or work something out."

If necessary, Gray will even train for free. "It’s about the dogs. The likelihood of a dog being put down is much higher if it’s returned to a shelter," she said. "Puppies can do a pet store training class, but an older dog with issues usually needs more than that."

Gray has also been known to barter, recently offering her services to a dog owner in Lancaster in exchange for landscape labor. "He had a truck and I had some trees on my property that needed to be removed," she said. "It worked out for both of us."

As part of the training process, Gray offers her canine clients time at The Sunny Day Acres property. Located on three picturesque acres, it provides a controlled environment for dogs to learn how to play properly, run to their heart’s content or acquire agility or search and rescue skills.

"Regular dog parks are an accident waiting to happen. You have a bunch of dogs with a majority of owners socializing with other humans, not watching the dogs. With happy go lucky dogs, it might be OK, but not every dog is," Gray said. "At Sunny Day Acres, our dogs can socialize once we temperament test them, but we monitor everyone in the play group and their owners are definitely paying attention."

The most common behavioral issues that Gray encounters are perceived aggression, such as growling or bearing of teeth, and integrating a new dog to an already existing pack.

"It can be a big adjustment coming from a shelter to a new home," Gray said. "I teach the owners as much as I teach the dogs. It’s about proper interaction and socialization, like not letting a baby crawl across the floor and eat from the dog’s bowl."

Such education is vital to a successful adoption placement, according to Mike Harmon, Los Angeles pet adoption center manager at Best Friends Animal Society in Mission Hills.

Harmon estimated that of the 7 to 10 percent of dogs returned to the no-kill facility, approximately 50 percent are due to issues such as a lack of house training, excessive energy levels or not getting along with another pet in the home.

"The rule of thumb is that it takes on average 2 weeks for an animal to adjust into its new home. Having training as part of this process gives the dogs and humans the tools to make the transition smoother," Harmon said. "I see that a lot of times people just need one or two training sessions to get them on the right track. It builds the foundation for success and it’s also a great way to develop the relationship between the dog and the adopter."

Gray couldn’t agree more. "I’m a firm believer in animals rescuing people. I see how adopting a dog changes whole families. They have a good time with the dogs and as the dogs get better, so does the whole family," she said.

For Lulu, getting better meant teaching O’ Connor new tricks, such as avoiding reinforcement of the dog’s more annoying behaviors.

"Every time Lulu barked, I would just ignore her and turn away. Eventually, she stopped," O’ Connor said. "Jennifer also suggested I walk Lulu by herself. As she became more secure, she wouldn’t bark or go after anything. She just stayed by my side."

After several months, Lulu was able to walk with O’ Connor’s other dogs and became a more amiable member of the pack as the aggression towards her canine housemates stopped altogether.

"Lulu’s great now, just a fantastic dog," O’ Connor said proudly. "Training is so important. I recommend Jennifer every time I help place a dog into a new home."

For more information, contact Jennifer Gray of Sunny Day Acres at (323) 683-1800 or visit


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