September 21, 2019
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Hampden ‘dog whisperer’ applies passion, teaching skills to help daughter overcome fear of canines

Some theorize that the domestication of dogs goes back 32,000 years. That idea won’t surprise lifetime dog owners, but for mother and educator Julie Ireland, the special bond between dogs and humans was a recent revelation, and it has changed her life.

“You should meet Julie Ireland,” a friend of mine said to me. “She’s like our own local dog whisperer!”

I met Julie last week at her home in Hampden, where I got a first-hand look at the confident, intuitive relationship she has with her two Labrador retrievers, Tanner and Ellie. I was amazed to learn that Julie got her first dog only four years ago, and I wondered what prompted the change.

Julie, born and raised in the Bangor region, always loved teaching and working with children. She did “a ton” of baby sitting and taught swimming at the YWCA throughout high school and college. After completing a degree in elementary education at the University of Maine, she taught third grade and “absolutely loved it!”

Once she and her husband had two daughters, Nicole and Meghan, Julie opted to be a stay-at-home mom, but she still spent many hours in classrooms as a school volunteer. When her younger daughter, Meghan, started kindergarten, Julie took a part-time position at Eastern Maine Community College supervising field placement teachers. In that way, she could be home with her girls and still stay involved with education.

Then, Julie observed a troubling fear in Meghan. For no reason Julie could explain, Meghan developed a debilitating terror around dogs. It worsened to the point where Meghan was afraid even to play in her own back yard. Julie and her family had never had a dog, but she was determined to help Meghan conquer her fear.

Julie approached the problem studiously. She read about dogs, started watching TV shows about dogs, tried several methods for introducing Meghan to dogs in nonthreatening environments, and she worked out a plan to get Meghan to ask for a puppy of her own.

“My brother-in-law was getting a yellow Lab puppy, and I saw it as an opportunity. I visited the breeder, immersed myself in the puppies, and I even put a deposit down on the gentlest puppy, in the hopes that the plan would work.”

Sure enough, while cuddling her uncle’s new dog, Meghan said, “I want a puppy.”

In a flash, Tanner was home with Julie’s family.

It wasn’t instant success. Twelve-year-old Nicole was ecstatic over the new pup, but Meghan was still hesitant. Once she and her mom learned together how to understand a dog and be a gentle leader, Meghan fell in love with Tanner. The relationship between dogs and humans became a source of total fascination for Julie.

“Tanner rehabilitated Meghan.”

Tanner also led Julie down a new path. She devoured everything she could read and learn about the nature of dogs, how they interact with each other and with humans. She found her favorite training style with Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer of TV fame. She recorded episodes of the show and watched with the sound turned off so she could observe Millan’s body language. Then she signed up for a week long seminar taught by Millan in California.

Julie’s husband, Sean, who had accompanied her on the trip, overheard us talking about California.

“She was a standout in that class,” he said. “The teachers all told her she had a gift for it.”

“It’s definitely a passion,” said Julie. She came home and kept studying dog behavior, spending hours observing dogs in dog parks, captivated.

“Would I be able to do this with other people’s dogs?” she wondered. Then she realized that she had been using similar techniques in the classroom for years, controlling a room of 25 children with just a look. She knows how to use an authoritative but unthreatening presence to quietly command attention.

Another connection occurred to Julie while she was talking. Her teaching job at the Y often required her to introduce swimming to people who were afraid of the water. She’d conduct a whole class while holding a fearful child in her arms or ask the child to help her teach the others. She instinctively countered fear with patient understanding and mutual respect.

“Huh,” she said, pausing to think. “Maybe I’ve always liked to help people get over their fear of things. I never thought of that before.”

Back at home Julie started her own business of dog consulting, and word spread quickly, perhaps too quickly. Julie’s visits to other dog homes were taking her away from her own dogs and children. So for now, she has stopped taking on new clients.

But her newfound passion is firmly in place. Julie hopes to train Tanner and her new dog, Ellie, to be reading assistant dogs, or to start an advice column for dog owners. With her formidable energy and commitment to dogs and people, I have no doubt she will continue to find ways to educate and enrich both species.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.



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