It started with a growl.
Norman was just a pup when he started showing signs of “resource conservation” — the term canine behavior experts use to describe dogs being possessive — and sometimes aggressive — toward their food or toys.
“We couldn’t go near his food bowl,” said Jessica Green of Millersburg. “The first time or two I was like, ‘Oh, he’s just a puppy.’ But then you could tell from his look that he wasn’t playing.”
And Norman grew by the minute. A Mastiff mix, he weighed between 30 and 40 pounds at just 10 weeks old.
“Our concern was — he was going to get a lot bigger,” Green said, though she admits she has “a soft spot for large breeds.”
She went online to look for accredited dog trainers in the Harrisburg area, focusing on those affiliated with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). Their search yielded two options – only one of which offered the customized training Norman needed.
“My only hope was Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program, and luckily they had room for me,” Green said.
For several months, Norman and his pet parents – Green and her fiancé – worked with trainer Nathanee Miller, President of Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program.
One of the first things Miller focused on wasn’t necessarily Norman’s behavior — it was his parents’. Norman, like many puppies, was adopted in 2020 amid pandemic shutdowns and work-from-home lifestyles.
“We weren’t the most structured people in the world back then. But Naahnee gave us ideas on how to build structure into our lives because that’s what Norman needed as a pup,” Green said. “Now we purposefully take him for a walk every morning and midday.”
Miller also taught them to read Norman’s body language and demeanor. And you could say that Norman has let his guard down. 2-year-old Norman, who is now a big boy at 105 pounds, has stopped snarling to protect his food, although he is still working on a few other quirks.
“He’s not perfect, but he’s a lot better,” Green said. “The training has made life with our dog much more comfortable. We will forever be grateful to Naahnee and Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program.”
The experience was life changing in many ways. Green was so fascinated with behavior training for dogs that she now volunteers at a local animal shelter – Perry County Animal Rescue – once a week.
Green also showed her appreciation by donating to Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program. As a non-profit organization, the purely volunteer organization is dedicated to delivering quality training with no expectation of payment. Donations fund the organization’s relatively small budget of $5,000 a year, which covers everything from insurance to dog treats.
Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program was founded by Andrew Hyle in 2012 and initially offered free dog training at the Allison Hill Community Center.
When Miller came on board in 2016, she brought a wealth of knowledge from her experience as a former state canine supervisor and former director of behavioral care at the Harrisburg Humane Society.
“Working at the shelter and as a dog sitter, you see a lot of people who have a lot of communication problems with their dogs — things that can be fixed,” Miller said. And she wanted to help.
The most common problems?
“What dog owners typically refer to as ‘aggression’ — things like barking at other dogs or people, cars and bikes,” Miller said. “Separation anxiety is up there too, lots of behavioral issues.”
Miller recognized that Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program could fill several gaps in the community. Very few area trainers used the modern, relationship-based training methods she believed in. Dog behavior, she said, usually boils down to two things — context and communication.
“Either they haven’t learned a behavior or they don’t know what you’re asking,” said Miller, who works full-time at the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Today, 10 years after its inception, Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program has served hundreds of pet owners and their pooches, primarily in the Harrisburg area. But during the pandemic, the circle widened. Many pet owners across the country — struggling with pandemic-related puppies and struggling financially — discovered and contacted Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program. The magic of Zoom allowed Miller’s free workout to go nationwide.
“Natahnee’s mission at Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program is to ensure cost is not an obstacle to great dog training, and she keeps dogs in homes and outside of shelters,” said Rhonda Renwick of Harrisburg. “It hit my heart – I love the mission behind the program.”
Renwick, an IAABC-accredited dog trainer, juggles her career in electrical engineering.
“It’s very rewarding to see a dog live a happy life and break down some of the barriers they had at a shelter and allow a dog to just be a dog,” Renwick said. “Anxiety, breaking down barriers with other dogs, with people so you can have a happy, wobbly dog is so worth it.”
For more information visit www.greatdogprog.org. And check out the July episode of TheBurg Podcast where Nathanee Miller shares free advice on the top five dog behavior problems.
Look for the signs
It’s a common scenario: you’re in a park when a dog—off a leash—runs towards you. “It’s okay, he’s friendly,” calls the owner, mostly from afar. But does this pet parent really have proper control over their dog? What if you are afraid of dogs? Do you have children or a dog with you? How will your dog react?
For all these reasons and more, two local nonprofits—Harsburg’s Great Dog Program and Cumberland County’s Animal Assistance Program—are teaming up to place educational signs in area parks. So far, 10 parks in East Pennsboro Township are installing the signs, which explain why it’s best to ask permission before letting your dog approach others. A QR code links to free dog training and socializing materials on Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program website. More parks and recreation contacts are sought.
“Consent — just like with people — is key,” said Natahnee Miller, president of Harrisburg’s Great Dog Program. “I don’t want someone I don’t know to run up and hug me, and neither do most dogs.”
If you like what we do, please support our work. Become a TheBurg friend!