Need a smile? Meet this trainer and her nine well-behaved dogs

Susan Wozniak’s knack for working with dogs is rooted in childhood pain


Highlights

Susan Wozniak often walks large groups of dogs at Zilker Park.

The Austin dog trainer first bonded with dogs as a little girl, when she befriended a timid German shepherd.

The well-behaved dogs don’t chase squirrels, charge in front of Wozniak or melt down when another dog passes.

Wozniak doesn’t advertise her business and says dogs that need her find her.

As Susan Wozniak runs down the hike and bike trail alongside Barton Creek, nine wet noses bob and 36 furry legs churn beside her.

Not a single dog in this well-behaved pack sprints after a squirrel or charges in front of Wozniak or loses its cool when another canine passes. They stick to their leader like burrs to a pair of soft hiking socks.

As the crew moves along, crowds part, cellphones snap pictures and smiles appear. Nobody can believe that one person can keep such a comical-looking gang in military-precise order.

Meet Izzy, the curly-haired, caramel-colored alpha dog of the bunch. Behind her comes Kona, a Great Pyrenees mix owned by Jen Hall, winner of the 2017 Statesman Capitol 10,000; Aria, who was rescued from a shelter after Hurricane Harvey; fast-moving Belle, a Jack Russell; Roo, a miniature fox terrier that weighs only a few pounds; and four black and white border collies, Jolie, Tealea, Nick and Jasper, once dubbed “the Disaster” but now nicknamed “the Master.”

Wozniak, who is hardly bigger than the heftiest dog in her herd, has worked as a dog trainer for about six years. She came to it organically.

When she was a little girl growing up in New Jersey, her parents battled alcoholism, leaving her feeling isolated. While playing outside one day, she met a German shepherd that was as afraid of her as she was of it, and the two became friends. Eventually, the dog’s owners gave him to Wozniak.

Ruby Begonia Pitiful Jones Rabbi Banana Junior Gellis, or just Ruby for short, helped Wozniak overcome pain and build trust. They spent hours and hours together, and that companionship sparked her understanding of dogs.

“Ruby was my greatest source of comfort during that time, and he taught me how to connect with a dog in a profound way,” Wozniak says. She learned that patience, respect and consistency work better than harsh methods to keep rambunctious dogs in line. “Ruby taught me how to partner with an animal by using empathy, compassion and firmness.”

Wozniak’s knack for relating to animals stuck with her over the years. When people spotted her walking her own border collies, they marveled at their discipline and asked how she did it. She offered to work with a few clients, and a small business was born.

Today Wozniak owns five dogs of her own and works with a rotating cast of a dozen or so other dogs as clients. She doesn’t advertise her work or maintain a website. The dogs that need her find her, she says, calling it the Law of Attraction. (You can contact her through Instagram, where she posts as @austin_doglove.)

“A lot of what I do is consistency,” she says. “That’s my special gift, and the gift emanated from pain.”

Training dogs requires plenty of discipline, along with positive reinforcement, a confident posture and a handful of treats. Wozniak walks Zilker Park and parts of the Butler trail with a set of pink leashes clipped to her waistband, along with a squeaky ball and a passel of plastic bags to pick up any droppings.

“If I see a pile of dog poop, I’m going to pick it up, regardless if my dogs did it or not,” she says. She worries if she doesn’t, passersby may blame the mess on “that lady with a million dogs.”

Walk down the trail behind her and the crowd goes wild. She pulls off the trail when a bicyclist approaches, and reroutes her pack when she spots a pedestrian with an agitated-looking dog at his side.

“My goal is to not infringe on anybody’s space with my pack,” she says. “We work in public parks, but I keep the pack constrained.”

Wozniak and her dogs work hard during every 90-minute session, and the students must adhere to a set of rules. When she gives the command “with me,” the dogs line up at her side. She gives an order only once, and any dog that ignores it gets temporarily clipped to a more experienced partner. Missteps, though, are rare.

“It’s not a free-for-all,” she says. “It’s like school.”

Dogs are misunderstood, says Wozniak. They need social interaction, discipline and exercise every day. Not everyone has the luxury of time to do that.

“They are far better managed than my children,” a man on a bicycle says admiringly as he rolls past.

“How cute!” a woman says as she runs by.

“This is so beautiful,” Morgan Meiser says, pausing to chat. “You have them so well trained.”

Today’s outing includes some instruction, along with a dip in Barton Creek, lots of brisk walking, some pack running and several stops to sit on benches or ledges. As the session stretches on, little Roo lags behind, scampering to keep up.

“He’s building his base,” Wozniak says, using runner lingo to note that Roo, who has legs half the size of some of the other dogs and therefore tires out earlier, is working on his conditioning.

The most dogs Wozniak has ever handled at once? Eleven. All her charges are neutered or spayed. They range in weight from a few pounds to about 90, and they’re all ages.

“It’s awesome,” says Hall, who owns Kona. She’s waiting in the parking lot on the back side of Barton Springs to pick up her dog after class. “Our dog is not really obedient, she does her own thing. But she does whatever Susan tells her to do.”

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