Kea, the Official PyleStyle Mascot, Gives Us a Lesson on Education

Kea, the PyleStyle Mascot

An Overlooked Secret to Getting Kids to Love Learning

When you’re just a little kid trying to develop some complex skill, your surroundings matter almost as much as who your teacher is. That’s why your earliest experiences with, say, reading books have such a profound impact on your attitude toward the practice as you age.

But Alicia’s parents didn’t originally get her dog Juneau to help provide a warm and enjoyable environment for her piano students—her family simply loves huskies. Still, it wasn’t long before she realized how good a well-trained dog can be for putting nervous or frustrated students at ease.

Juneau’s markings give him a look of severity, so he can be intimating at first glance. It happens pretty quickly, though, that most of Alicia’s youngest students start bubbling with glee every time they enter the home studio at her parents’ house, asking first thing, “Where’s Juneau?!”

Back when they first got Juneau, Alicia knew he would need to be gentle at all times and not get overly excited around people or other dogs. That’s why she went to Mike Rowland, who put the husky through a training course for the American Kennel Club’s “Good Citizen” certification. In fact, Juneau has been through the program three times—not because he didn’t master the curriculum on his first try, but because he just loved the classes.

Huskies are a work breed after all, so they really need to be given a lot of fun challenges to tackle.

Juneau is seven years old now, and he’s calmed down considerably. As Alicia says, “Heza good boy.” And she’s rightfully proud of him.

Starting all over again

Kea with her favorite bear

When Alicia and I moved into our house together last fall, we both saw our new fenced-in backyard as a great place for a dog to roam and play. We discussed having Juneau come live with us, since it would be easy for her to take him back to the studio with her whenever it was time to greet her young students.

Unfortunately, Alicia’s dad had long since grown much too fond of Juneau to let her take him away from where he was already living.

Then, sometime in November, Alicia saw the first pictures on social media of a puppy who would soon need a home. The father was a Siberian husky and the mom half husky, half Alaskan malamute—and their offspring was pure cute.

I’d lost my digital marketing job shortly after we moved into the new house, and now that I was doing freelance gigs I was home most days. As soon as we made it through December—PyleStyle’s most hectic month—we had a decision to make.

My thinking was that, yeah, everybody is warning me about how rambunctious huskies are. (“They make terrible pets,” my friend Kevin said bluntly—but this was the same Kevin whose dog Collin used to get a running start and jump up to hit me in the, um, lap with his paw every time I came in the door.) But we have a fenced-in backyard, and Alicia claims to know all about husky training.

Plus, it’s Alicia we’re talking about; she’s the most hyper-functional spaz in the tristate area. This dog would be teaching college courses before long.

Meanwhile, Alicia was saying she wanted to get the dog so I’d have someone besides her to hang out with every day; that way I wouldn’t get sick of her as fast. (What she really meant by this was that she thought a dog would help cheer me up as I struggled to get my footing in the gig economy.)

So, on the night before New Year’s, we brought home our new pup. The first time we’d gone to see her, she picked up Alicia’s keys from the floor and walked off with them. I’d been thinking of names to honor my dog Nikki, who died some years ago. Now we had it.

We named her Kea.

Establishing dominance versus channeling energy

Kea with her Uncle Juneau

Kea with her Uncle Juneau

Knowing the burden of training Kea would fall disproportionately to me, I searched out a book using two criteria: 1) it should be in line with the practices Alicia had described to me like using a crate and baby gates, and 2) it should be based on the best animal behavior science.

The book I found was Training the Best Dog Ever by Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz and Larry Kay. It recommends both crate training and what the authors call “puppy-proofing” your house, which includes barriers and baby gates. The specific training methods are based on positive reinforcement. So it met my two requirements—or so it seemed.

It turns out there are two schools of thought when it comes to the best way to train a dog. The more traditional one was expounded by the famous German shepherd trainers at the monastery of New Skete in New York. This approach was then popularized by Cesar Milan in the reality TV show The Dog Whisperer.

As far as I can tell, Milan places even more emphasis than the monks of New Skete on the importance of being your dog’s “pack leader.” Dogs are descended from wolves, the reasoning goes, and so the key to getting them to behave is to let them know you’re the alpha of their pack. If your dog is, say, peeing in the house or chewing on furniture, it’s because you haven’t overridden their innate sense of supremacy and made them submit to you as the leader.

The other dog training methodology, the one I was learning which is based on positive reinforcement, focuses on encouragement of desirable behaviors, not on discipline for bad ones. From this perspective, bad behavior stems from an excess of energy your dog doesn’t know how to channel, or from anxiety aroused by a lack of trust in their owners.

The main difference is that while one school sees misbehavior as defiance, the other sees it as poor impulse control or confusion. These interpretations may not be mutually exclusive, but the emphasis matters quite a bit when it comes to how you respond when the dog chews up your couch—or in our case, when she tears up your landscaping.

This is hardly the place to lay out an argument for one approach to training over the other. Suffice to say, Alicia subscribes to the dominance theory and I subscribe to the positive reinforcement theory. She cites her experiences training Juneau and how well he turned out. I cite scientific studies and statements by professional associations of dog trainers.

Alicia forged a strong bond with Juneau through all the time she put into training him. So it’s hard for her not to take the disagreement personally. And, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I can be hard-headed when it comes to my insistence on taking a scientific perspective.

Long story short, our darling little Kea sowed some discord in the Junk-Pyle household.

The February Floods

One week near the end of February, I was working on finishing two articles for Fort Wayne Magazine and one for Input Fort Wayne. The weather, however, gave no heed to my sense of urgency. It rained a week and half straight. Our beautiful fenced-in backyard, where Kea was meant to roam free, was a swamp.

This was also when we discovered Kea was digging up our mulch to systematically extract the black cloth laid beneath it to block weeds from sprouting. It only took her a few weeks to have it all up.

Alicia and I put two new policies into place. When Kea was outside, we would need to keep an eye on her at regular intervals. And, when she was ready to come in, she had to go through the garage first. This is what Alicia calls “doggy detox,” a process of drying off and assessing the need for further toweling and de-mudding.

The crate training had gone well. The potty training was also a success, with a few exceptions. But Kea is going through her “puppy biting” phase with gusto. Now that the black cloth is all out, she only digs on occasion. But she can be very demanding of attention.

Which is all to say Kea is a real handful. And during the week of rain I was at wits’ end trying to keep up with her and see to her proper training, all while trying to fulfill my professional obligations.

Alicia saw this as vindication. With all her teaching and music booking endeavors, she was as busy as she’d been throughout December. And her thinking was that I shouldn’t be so worried about fostering and protecting a bond with Kea; I should be focused on setting boundaries. Overcome the defiance, her thinking went, and the bond will take care of itself.

What it seemed like to me was that just when the dog was being the most difficult to manage, I was being left on my own to handle her. Worst of all, Alicia and I were getting increasingly exasperated with each other’s wrongheaded notions. (She later told me it wasn't her intention to leave me with all the responsibility, but that she deliberately took a step back from the contentious issue of training to avoid putting unnecessary strain on the relationship.)

By the end of the week, I was thinking maybe my friends had been right. There was simply no way this husky thing was going to work.

A Ray of hope

Kea at Bicentennial Woods

Then the rain stopped.

Even better, Kea went through some rapid improvements. This may have been owing to her maturing, to the longer and more frequent walks I was taking her on, or to some other mystery factor.

Alicia and I still haven’t resolved our disagreements about whether Kea should be chained up in the yard to keep her from the landscaping, whether we should use a prong collar to enforce obedience, and whether it’s okay to leave her crated for long periods. “Your son is a softie,” she said to my mom one night.

Despite her owners’ differences, though, Kea continues to grow and improve. Her fearless energy made her a big hit at “Puppy Class,” a socialization program we signed her up for at Indian Creek Veterinary Hospital. And she was able to perform the basic tricks for treats amidst the seemingly irresistible distractions of other dogs. Somehow, she even managed to keep her puppy biting under control, at least until she got home.

Bottom line: Kea is a pain in the ass, but she’s also adorable, sweet, curious, and charismatic. We still have our work cut out, but eventually, we’re both confident, she’s going to be a great dog.

Kea helps me write

And now I understand why the presence of a dog goes so far toward making a home—or a piano studio—a warm and inviting place. A good dog isn’t something you can just buy, especially when it’s a high-energy breed like a husky.

If you enter a house and see a sweet dog coming up to greet you, one who’s excited to see you but not so frantic she loses control and jumps all over you, one who doesn’t growl or bite but is happy to let you pet her, one who is just a cute and friendly member of the household, well, you know there’s at least some degree of harmony in the home.

Even more, you know the people who live there have a lot of patience, as well as a profound capacity for loving devotion. That also happens to be the basic formula for an ideal environment for learning.