India’s renowned canine behaviourist SHIRIN MERCHANT divulges what it takes to have a well-behaved dog and more…
One of India’s first canine behaviourists and trainers, SHIRIN MERCHANT is also one the best known and respected in the field. She speaks to Citadel about her journey, what it takes to have a well-behaved dog and more…
Just like fingerprints, no t wo people are the same. Our genetics, our experiences and our environment, all play a role in how we will turn out. The same is for dogs. What they see or feel around moulds them into the canine they become. Shirin Merchant, India’s best-known canine behaviourist and trainer, would surely know about this. Her life has been surrounded with living with and around dogs. For, not only has she grown up with dogs, she has worked with them on behavioural issues as well as training them as pets, aid and assist dogs and also guard dogs from 1995. “When you work with dogs, there never is a boring day. They always find a way
to make us laugh. It is very amusing to meet dogs who have trained their humans to perfection and to see the humans dancing to every whim of the dog,” laughs Shirin, when we caught up with her in Pune at her annual carnival, ‘The Unleash’!
She is unarguably India’s premier canine behaviourist and trainer. In fact, Shirin can be called a pioneer in her field. There is no doubt about it. She began training at a time in the mid 1990s when people looked at her work rather strangely. “Back then, there was little awareness and people thought I was a nutcase to talk about behaviour. My training method was different from the way dogs were trained. My work was not considered scientific. Now, things are the opposite,” smiles Shirin Merchant, while reminiscing about the early days. Having studied with John Rogerson in the UK, Shirin brought a refreshing change to dog training in India, with reward-based training, and offered behaviour analysis of canines in need. Married to Junaid Merchant, also a behaviourist and trainer, they make a special effort to avoid talking about dogs all the time!
Of course, change is the only constant, they say. “With all the travelling and the internet, more reading, people understand what trainers are working on now. It’s mainstream now. Initially, I didn’t even charge for my work, but then I realised that people take you for granted. I just kept proving myself and finally realised that I should charge to be taken seriously,” she adds intently. In a couple of years, Shirin started her own training classes and there has been no looking back since. “I met tons of people and was often asked for behaviour and training consults pan-India. I couldn’t be everywhere, so the classes were introduced,” she explains. Shirin also trains aid and assist dogs. “It is a cause that is very close to my heart. I do undertake training of assistance dogs for the physically challenged.”
In Shirin’s vast experience, the biggest challenge is that there is a host of information available on the internet. People identify what they think is the problem and treat it according to data online. The internet has proved to be bane in her case. “Often, they complicate the matter and then run to a behaviourist and spend money. I hate the internet for this reason, as do veterinarians who get a pet who has been wrongly given medicines by the parent because of their research on the internet,” she sighs. Most professionals would agree on this point. In Shirin’s early days, the problem was that old timers then (and even now) had knowledge that has been handed down so they are very rigid about accepting a suggestion or even a change. “Then, nobody got a dog on
a whim or because they wanted to show off. Now people have money and they want a status symbol,” she adds. One just nods one’s head after hearing that. Most of these so-called pet parents send their assistants/maids/butlers to trainers. That irritates Shirin no end. “It’s a silly mind-set that to feed and walk the dog, you need somebody else. When they come for a consult and I have questions, it is the maid or the butler who replies, since the owners are clueless. Then why do you get a dog?” scowls Shirin. Head nodding continues. She highly recommends that people who don’t have time to be hands-on with dogs get a stuffed toy or volunteer at a shelter. Dogs need time, energy, commitment and patience.
Dogs thrive on exercise, love, and of course healthy food. These are their very basic needs. “Their daily grooming, exercise and food habits must be well looked after. Besides that, take them for a trek sometimes, give them breed related exercise, let them dig up the garden, roll in the mud, scratch the bark of a tree. Let them be happy,” she emphasises. The good thing is that now there are lots of pet friendly resorts or home stays where you can take your pooch along. Restaurants too welcome you with pets. So holidays are bound to be fun.
To select a good trainer, just look at his or her own dog and how well behaved that dog is. If the trainer has no control on his/her own dog, how will they train yours? “A good trainer must be passionate about their work, not the money. You should also have people-topeople skills, not just their dogs!” Shirin opines on what would be the base of a fantastic trainer.
The domestication of any animal involves a certain amount of compromise from both ends. A trained dog has an easier life than its untrained counterpart. A well-behaved dog that is polite around guests won’t be banished to another room when they visit, a dog that walks well on a lead is a pleasure to take out, and a dog that will come back when called can be given the freedom of running loose in a park. An untrained dog, in contrast, can be a liability to his owner and to society. Every year, thousands of dogs are put to sleep or abandoned by callous owners due to behaviour problems that could have been put right with a bit of training. Training need not involve complicated commands; simple basic commands such as a recall, a sit and a stay are all a dog needs to adjust to life in a city. A dog is never too old to learn. With patience and understanding, you can teach a dog of any age to learn new commands. Although a dog’s crucial periods of learning are during the first year of life, an old dog can often pick up new commands with ease. However, like elderly people, older dogs can become set in their ways and it may be hard to get a dog to change a behaviour he’s practiced for years. So, it’s not that old dogs can’t learn; it’s more like old habits are hard to break.
TO HUG OR NOT
Humans express affection by hugging, Shirin clarifies, but should keep in mind that hugging is a primate behaviour. Canines do not view a hug as a gesture of affection. While most dogs learn to accept being hugged, people who do it with strange dogs are putting themselves at risk.
From being invited to present lecture in the USA, to a lecture at TEDx, to being the only Asian to have an international accreditation from the Kennel Club of England’s Accredited Instructor Scheme – the KCAI, in companion animal training and in behaviour training, to recently being facilitated by the President of India and the Ministry of Women and Children at the First Ladies Awards – for women who have transcended barriers to achieve a milestone and are declared to be the ‘first’ in their respective fields, Shirin Merchant has truly seen spectacular accolades come her way for her tremendous efforts. Her biggest reward is to see a welltrained dog and a happy family! That’s not just work talking; it’s passion. We believe her when we see her Cocker Spaniel Muffin; Shanti, the Belgian Malinois; and Maya, the Labrador, hang on to her every word!