Please tell us about yourself
One of the pioneers of dog training in India, Pune girl Shirin Merchant is the only Asian to gain the accreditation from the prestigious Kennel Club of England Accreditation Scheme for Trainers. In the trade for over 16 years, Merchant, based in Mumbai, is the brain behind Canine for Care, the very first organisation in India to train dogs for searchand- rescue missions and as companions to assist differently-abled people.
Merchant isn’t your typical dog trainer. She’s a Mumbai-based, world-renowned, new-age consultant who is one of India’s few, if only, qualified practising canine behaviour counselors. She helps dogs (and the people who live with them) live happier lives. In the 20 or so years that she’s been in business, she’s seen it all – over 6,000 dogs with breeds ranging from the feisty Pomeranian to the shy Samoyed – including angry dogs, sad dogs, naughty dogs, and thousands more dog owners, some of them plain bonkers.
What did you study?
Merchant completed her B.Sc. in Zoology and Animal Biology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai in 1999. She’s always loved animals, having grown up in a home where there were always dogs around. Twenty years ago, she met John Rogerson, one of the world’s leading animal behaviourists and trained under him. He inspired her to take up training as a profession, and she went on to be the youngest member of The Northern Centre for Animal Behavior, England, and The Pet Behavior Institute, England. Today, she is Rogerson’s associate.
At a time when there were barely any women in the trade, you took up dog training as a career option. What inspired you? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
As a kid, I grew up around dog lovers. My family had one, when we lived in Pune (I now have eight). But the turning point came 16 years ago, when John Rogerson, one of the world’s best canine trainers and behaviourists did a workshop in Mumbai. I was one of the few girls attending it and won the Best Handler award there. John suggested I visit England for further training as there were no training schools in India. I studied at the Northern Centre for Animal Behaviour and The Pet Behaviour Institute in England for four years. When I came back and started working, I was just 20. Trainers around me were all men and mostly in their 50s, who looked down on me. But I let my work do the talking.
Your Canines Can Care foundation is a year short of completing 20. What are its biggest milestones?
I started Canines Can Care when I got back from England. The training scenario was lagging behind by ages. There were a lot of notions to be broken — from the mindsets to old fashioned training methods like using choke chains, and trainers taking pets away from their owners to train them. We began by introducing ‘reward-base training’. We taught our assist dogs to respond to 50 commands like — covering a person with a blanket, switching on lights, opening and closing doors, and even dialing an emergency number. I remember this one dog named Magic, who we trained to assist an eight-year old boy with a spinal cord disability. If he collapsed, Magic was trained to put his nose between the legs and the chest and leverage himself and push the boy back up. In case the boy fell, Magic was trained to run and get his mother or the nearest person around. We were also actively involved in the Bhuj earthquake rescues in 2002. We are now taking our dogs to corporate training sessions on communication, and leadership skills. We are among the only three organisations in the world that do this.
How much time do you need to put into training a canine? What qualities does one need to train a dog?
No two dogs are same. But basic training for a pup less than six months old can be accomplished in two to three months. For search and rescue training as well as assistance training it can take up to two years. As far as qualities go — all you need is love. Knowledge can be gained.
What’s the most satisfying part of your vocation? Have you had any bad experiences?
The best part of the job is to see my clients laugh or cry with joy when they see the change in their pet post training. Also, when I see the gratitude in the dogs’ eyes when it succeeds in understanding and solving a problem. I remember a hyperactive one, also called Magic, who would drive people nuts. I trained him and gave him to a paraplegic girl, who had lost her parents in a terrible accident. Magic became a pillar of strength for her. Dogs, like human, need a purpose in life. My worst experiences have not been with dogs, but with their owners and their attitudes. Although I have come across some quirky ones too — like the guy who wanted me to train his dog to push his mother-inlaw from the balcony, a mastiff who bit only pretty women on their bums and a Parsi lady’s dog who barked only at dark-skinned people.