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…

Citadel - - CONTENTS - BY UMA KARVE CHAKRANARAYAN citadel@mag­na­m­

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.


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!

Shirin Mer­chant

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