Maria Alojaman doing dog destressing

In Conversation with Dog Trainer and Canine Behaviour Consultant, Maria Alomajan


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NZ based accredited dog trainer and certified dog behaviour consultant Maria Alomajan is the only trainer in the country applying Canine Emotional Detox training to her work. These qualifications were earned via the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants and Companion Animals NZ respectively. Recently she spoke to PD about why stress relief for dogs plays a critical role in behaviour modification.

In this interview Alomajan also shares some wonderful moments in her journey. From researching tracking, shelter, laboratory and companion dogs to where she finds inspiration for her work.

Canine emotional detox

a dog client
Maria Alomajan is the country's only dog trainer applying Canine Emotional Detox to her work. 

Through our conversation it becomes apparent there's a link between stress relief for dogs and successful behaviour modification. PD spoke to Alomajan about what the link is and why it's important. 

As we all know from human examples, stress can be a killer. All sorts of negative things happen when a body is under chronic stress and sadly, many of the dogs I see are in this state.”

“It’s not a criticism of their families, in fact the opposite. People aren’t taught to look for things like stress in their dogs and the fact that someone has approached me means they know something is wrong and they’d like help figuring it out.

Dogs who are chronically stressed can’t come down from this state by themselves, in their environment, so they need to help decompressing before we can expect them to learn alternative behaviours.

Canine emotional detox (CED) is by far the best protocol I’ve found to aid me in this work. Developed in the US by a wonderful lady named Diane Garrod, it’s an intensive three day process designed to de-stress dogs and help their central nervous system get back to homeostasis, neutral. This is important because stressed brains can’t think, they can’t learn and they can’t process information so as to consolidate short to long term memory, all the things we’d like them to be doing while working on behaviour change.

To me, de-stressing the dog first, before implementing a behaviour modification plan makes sense and it is far more efficient for both the dogs and humans involved. It is systematic, gentle on the learner and provides us teachers with a clear path forward. Plus, you’ve set the learner up for success.

Sometimes, once the stress has been resolved, so have the behaviour challenges and there’s no need for further modification, and that’s lovely for both dogs and humans. Sometimes it’s just the starting point, but we have a clear path forward and the guardians have deeper knowledge about their dogs and how to move forward to a more joyful, harmonious life together.”

Reducing unwanted pets in NZ

On the topic of keeping pet families together, you’ve worked with rescue dogs from pounds, laboratories and shelters. In your opinion what can the pet industry do more of to help reduce the high rates of abandoned and unwanted dogs?

“Pet retention is a huge issue. People surrender and abandon animals for a number of reasons. I can only comment from my experience. If people are feeling overwhelmed helping them see a path forward and lending a friendly ear can make a huge difference.

I’m aware that the cost of hiring a dog trainer and behaviour consultant in NZ can be prohibitive to some people. Having a sliding scale of charges may assist people in seeking help before surrendering their pet.

I also believe in volunteering or offering free services and advice in a safe and limited capacity.

Outside of my industry, advocating for housing to allow pets is a huge one. This would help support people to be able to keep their animals rather than abandoning or giving them up for adoption because of where they live. It’s heartbreaking and not difficult to change. And food banks, I’ve seen many people go through tough times who have to give up their animals because they can no longer afford to feed them.

These are two ways, as a community, we can encourage pet retention.

The other big challenge for people is pet medical bills. I encourage all pet guardians to have insurance for their pets. It’s like breaking an already broken heart, when a loved family member is in serious need of medical attention, but the family can’t afford it and they feel they are out of options.”

Training with tracking dogs in Africa

NZ dog trainer Maria Alojaman with trackers in Africa
Outside of NZ you’ve also done some interesting things. Tell us about training with tracking dogs in Africa?

“Funnily enough, tracking involves lots of running, something I failed to think about in my excitement to meet these teams. And let’s just say, I’m no runner.

But on a more serious note these teams are amazing. They’re working in some challenging environments and sometimes for days on end. They’re rotating the dogs and doing an incredible job of tracking poachers and saving endangered animals.

Interestingly, the courts in Kenya will accept a tracking dog’s identification of a perpetrator. I think that’s really advanced and is perhaps something NZ could look at doing.

The dogs themselves were so great and I adored them all. Their handlers were amused to have a female in their midst. (And someone not worried about the dogs climbing all over her). I write about them in my book Dogs in Action, Working Dogs and Their Stories.”

Poacher to tracker

“I met one team in the Chyulu area of Kenya. There was one older man, a handler with the amazing Big Life Foundation dog unit who was very shy to speak to me. It turned out he used to be a poacher and was embarrassed to tell me that. (I’d been asking all the men what they did before they were dog handlers).

I assured him that it was indeed my honour to meet such a brave man. One who had been offered an alternative way to support his family and had accepted it.

A challenge the dog teams face that I reached out to contacts to see who might have a solution to the issue, is Tsetse flies biting the dogs, this is fatal. The climate is so hot that full suits (like those worn by dogs working around bees) aren’t an option. It’s an ongoing challenge if anyone reading this has any ideas.

Being out of a jeep on the ground where I normally wouldn’t be allowed to roam because it’s simply too dangerous (read lions, leopards, hyena etc) or in the jungle was really exciting. The, mostly Masai, handlers and rangers I met know nature like I could only dream to. I loved learning from them.

My goal is to get back there as soon as I can. Believe me, the invitation to stay and train dogs in Kenya was extremely tempting…”

On becoming a NZ dog (and cat) trainer

There are a wide variety of options available when it comes to training. Can you tell us about why you became a trainer and what motivates you to work the way you do? What inspires you and what helped you make the choice to work with animals?

“I had a puppy who needed help…and that’s how it all started. This amazing journey. Also, I am naturally curious and a keen observer of behaviour. Since uni, I have been fascinated with brain and behaviour, it’s one of my most favourite topics, that I could talk about for hours.

I also love learning, so I am continuously studying and applying what I learn in the hopes of making the world a joyful place for our pets to live in. That’s something I’m very passionate about.

And to this day, every time I see “that moment”, the moment the animal pauses instead of reacting to the world, the moment they stop to think, or there’s a hint of connection, or their tail wags, or they take a step closer, it’s only a flash, probably negligible to most people, but that’s the hallelujah moment.

It makes me do a crazy dance on the inside every single time and brings a tear to my eye, because that’s the moment I know this dog is brave and this dog is going to be OK, so long as I can teach their human well enough.

My philosophy is to teach and learn from animals. Something they’ve taught me that’s valuable for pet guardians during training is to laugh and enjoy the learner in front of you. In my opinion animals can have, what we would call, great senses of humour.”

Why use fear and force free dog training?

We find out what made Alomajan choose the methodology she applies and look at the credentials she has accomplished along the way.  

“With a solid foundation of knowledge and skill, understanding how behaviour works, I choose to approach it from a place of trust and kindness towards the learner in front of me. In my experience, this is the most beneficial approach and makes the most sense to me, both innately and based on what I have learnt.

I do not want to evoke fear in my learner, nor do I want to force them into doing something. Neither are conducive to learning and both are detrimental to the animal’s welfare. If it is necessary to evoke behaviour change, then I choose to apply the science in the least intrusive, most ethical manner possible.

The reason I say ‘if it’s necessary to evoke behaviour change’, is because all behaviour serves a purpose. Therefore it is important to the animal and you can’t just jump in willy nilly and change it. You can’t just take it away from them.

First you need to understand what purpose it serves and if changing it is the best course of action. If so, we replace it with an alternative behaviour that serves the same purpose, or we change the environmental antecedents so that doing the behaviour loses its function, it becomes irrelevant, inefficient and ineffective because it is no longer being reinforced.”

Alomajan holds numerous certificates from courses attended in person and online, taught by some of the world’s best, including Ken Ramirez, Dr. Ian Dunbar, Jean Dodds, Sophia Yin, Patricia McConnell, Diane Garrod, Roger Abrantes, Steve White, Ken McCort, Nikki Tudge, and Jane Killion to name a few.  

Her credentials span from dog to cat training and include science based approaches to stress relief for dogs: 
  • Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant, International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants
  • Accredited Animal Behaviour Consultant, Companion Animals NZ
  • Accredited Dog Trainer, International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants
  • Accredited animal trainer and training instructor, Companion Animals NZ
  • Fear Free Certified Professional, Fear Free Pets
  • Member of Pet Professional Guild USA Canine Training Professional
  • Certificate of Excellence, Living and Learning with Animals from Behaviourworks Dr Susan Friedman
  • Cat Behaviour and Training mentorship, Katenna Jones / International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants
  • Learning About Learning conference and hands on workshop with Peta Clarke and Susan Friedman
  • Forensics of Aggression course with Jim Cosby
  • Stress and the Animal course with Dr Kristina Spaulding
Alomajan has also worked in animal behaviour with biologist, chemist and animal trainer, Bob Baily.  She is also a member (and a former committee member) of the Association Professional Dog Trainers APDTNZ.

Many of the courses above have focused on the brain, behaviour and aggression, as well as raising great puppies and training cats. Watch this video of the PD and Department of Conservation's Lead the Way launch event where Alomajan does a dog training demonstration: 

Shedding light on the role of stress relief in training dogs

The New Zealand pet care industry has many dedicated animal supporters who advocate for animal welfare. How can pet care professionals help pet owners advocate for the wellbeing of their pet when undertaking training?

“By empowering guardians to have a voice and to stand up for their pets. If it feels wrong, it probably is and they should walk away. Regardless of how good someone tells you they are.

Encouraging them to seek help for their pets early on, rather than leaving it until things are really bad. Educating people on where to find qualified professionals and what to be asking before trusting the welfare of their precious animals to anyone.

I also hope to see more good trainers who haven’t yet made the step to become certified or accredited, do so and I’d totally support them in that.”

Positive reinforcement dog training yields greater results for a dog's wellbeing, understanding, growth and development. Why then, do you think traditional dominance training methods are still so popular?

“I think as a culture we are ridiculously comfortable with punishment. It comes crazy easy to people, yet we find reinforcement really hard. That’s so messed up, and I could talk about that for hours.

So making that switch from negative to positive is something most people have to consciously do. If they are offered an “easy out” or a too good to be true “fix it” solution they are going to take it and often without question. I don’t think pet guardians are fundamentally bad, often they just don’t know better and they get sold a good story.

There are so many aversive tools still in practise. Often, these are applied in a way, involving physical and mental pain, to force and scare an animal to do or stop doing something. Things like slip leads, choke chains, prong collars, electric collars, tethering (especially to things like treadmills and bikes), physical bullying, stand-over tactics and scruffing are some examples.”

Dog training in NZ is unregulated

“This is because dog training is an unregulated industry. This means anyone can jump on in and give it a go. Hard to believe but it’s true. People can practice being a dog trainer in NZ without any qualifications, certifications or accreditation. As a result, education is lacking and where knowledge and skill end, we often find aversives begin.

Another reason “dominance” dog training still has a hold is simply a lack of marketing. Some of the greatest people I know are too busy doing the work, to get on the airwaves hollering about how great they are and how they can truly help.

They’re not interested in grandstanding or being on TV – they just want to help animals. Sadly, there are a lot of pet guardians who take their animals to see those who do the most marketing rather than researching who and why they should trust someone with their animal’s welfare.”

Becoming a PD partner

Canine Emotional Detox dog trainer Maria Alojaman holds up a book featuring her dogs (which sit alongside her)
In your opinion what is one of the best perks of being a PD partner that you’d like to share with other trainers and pet industry professionals who are wondering whether to partner up? 

“It was an immediate yes from me because I liked the message I was getting from the people at PD and I think it’s a great opportunity to educate more people and spread the good word.”

Whether you’re an NZ dog trainer, vet, breeder, retailer or another pet industry professional, find out about joining our pet care partnerships.

It’s as simple as learning about and potentially referring PD’s award winning pet insurance to customers so more pets can benefit from high quality medical care. At the same time your business can earn partner rewards. Contact PD to start your partnership journey today.

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