Ashland's dog (and chicken) whisperer

"Max. Achoo!" dog trainer Colleen Shanahan instructed Max, a fluffy white Maltese.

The little dog gave an enthusiastic sneeze, which prompted Simon, a papillon-chihuahua mix, to pull a Kleenex from a box.

Shanahan praised the dogs and doled out little treats, part of her training technique that emphasizes positive reinforcement.

The owner of Ashland-based Dog Gone Fun! said she wants dog training to be fun for both pets and owners.

Teaching dogs tricks isn't just cute, it can have a positive effect on their behavior, she said.

"It's challenging them intellectually and focusing their energy so you have a relaxed dog. A lot of little dogs, especially, have barking and anxiety issues because they're under-challenged," Shanahan said. "It also helps build your relationship with your dog."

She brought out a plastic toy piano and put it on the floor of The Grove in Ashland, where she was teaching Simon, Max and Ledo, a chihuahua-terrier mix, a medley of tricks.

"Simon, want to play the piano? Yahoo!" Shanahan said enthusiastically.

Simon swiped the piano keys with his paws, earning more treats. Soon he tried to turn the tables on his trainer and earn a bonanza of treats by keeping both paws on the keys, but Shanahan wasn't fooled.

She has plenty of experience teaching animals to play the piano — including a chicken.

In 2007, Shanahan attended a camp in which trainers learned clicker-training skills by practicing on chickens. She said the chickens all had different personalities and learned surprisingly quickly.

Last year, she got to put her chicken training skills to use when she taught Buffy, a chicken owned by friends, to peck at a piano.

At first, Buffy didn't want to learn and didn't seem to care about the treats Shanahan offered.

"I'd go and the chicken wouldn't do anything because the owner kept feeding it breakfast before I got there. First I had to train the human," she said.

With a little hunger to help motivate her, Buffy eventually learned to "play" the piano. The results are posted on YouTube under the title "Clicker Training Buffy the Chicken to Play Piano."

Shanahan said she starts out by teaching people to use a clicker to reinforce positive behavior when training their animals, but the clicker can eventually be phased out.

In addition to amusing tricks, Shanahan teaches animals — and their humans — practical behavior during group and private lessons in Ashland and Medford.

Many dog owners, especially those with large-breed animals, struggle to stop their pets from pulling on the leash while walking.

Shanahan has people in her classes pledge that they will never walk forward if their dog is pulling at the leash. She teaches people to even walk backward to thwart the unwanted behavior.

"If you never give in, they'll get on board with you because otherwise they won't get a walk," she said.

As for dogs that won't come when called, Shanahan said owners always have to be positive and praise dogs when they do return, no matter how angry the owners have become.

To nip the problem in the bud, she said it's best to thoroughly train a dog to come when called before giving it too much freedom off leash.

In addition to dogs and chickens, Shanahan has trained parakeets, parrots, cats, horses and other animals.

With any animal, she said patience and a positive approach are key. Even professional trainers have to be adaptable.

"Dog training really is an art form. You have a plan and it doesn't work, so you have to change it," she said.

A former preschool teacher with a degree in elementary education, Shanahan said that dogs, like people, need recognition when they are behaving well.

She pointed to Simon, who was resting quietly with his head on his paws while another dog was learning a new trick.

"Most of us notice when our dog is doing something wrong. We forget to reward what we like," she said. "Thanks, Simon, for being quiet."

Shanahan is offering a variety of dog training and dog play group classes this fall through the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department. Several start this coming weekend.

For more information on the classes, download the parks department's fall recreation guide at

For more information on animal training, call Shanahan at 541-601-7601 or visit

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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