Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Jorie Stephens, a volunteer handler with the Canine Country Academy, congratulates Gigi for passing her final test in the C.L.A.S.S. (Canine Life and Social Skills) training program at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter. Gigi went through a six week training program and was just recently adopted.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gigi is walked into the room on a short leash. Her tongue is hanging out and her blackish, brownish fur looks well groomed. She eyes the room and momentarily circles it to acclimate to her audience, but soon she is completely refocused on her trainer Jorie Stephens.
On Thursday, Gigi became the first dog in Georgia to be awarded a bachelor's degree through C.L.A.S.S. (Canine Life and Social Skills), a program developed by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) to teach dogs basic obedience skills by using positive reinforcement.
Although the C.L.A.S.S. program is meant to train all dogs, not just shelter dogs, its goal is to give shelter dogs a "leg up" on a successful transition into a new home and family. It certainly helped Gigi and the other dogs at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter.
Gigi, a "mutt" resembling a fusion between an Australian Shepherd and a Rottweiler, was one of many dogs living at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter three weeks ago when she was selected to be a forerunner in the new C.L.A.S.S. program. Local dog trainer Cathy Bruce of Canine Country Academy in Dacula spearheaded the program by instructing volunteers how to train and prepare dogs.
When Gigi began the series of exercises Thursday morning she was calm and obedient, the perfect model of a successfully trained dog. Her exceptional doggy etiquette was exemplified through various situations that for most dogs, especially ones from shelters, it is hard to stay focused.
"These dogs haven't had the same consistency some dogs have had with living with their trainers," Bruce said. "We have to give them grace."
But Gigi didn't need any grace as she gently completed one drill after another. When asked to "come" she did not jump on her trainer in greeting. She serenely strolled over and let her leash be put on her. Likewise, when asked to "trade a ball for a treat" she readily dropped the ball. Gigi's ability to remain quiet, obedient and patient earned her a bachelor's degree.
Her new owner Jean Anderson, a Snellville resident, is overjoyed by Gigi's accomplishment. She hopes to continue her training in January with the master's degree program.
Through the help of volunteers and Bruce's leadership two C.L.A.S.S. courses have been led at the shelter with about six dogs in each class. Most dogs were subsequently adopted after starting training. Stephens, a happy dog owner, who competes with one of her pooches and volunteers at the shelter, noticed something special about Gigi right away.
"From the first day, she was calm unlike most dogs that are cooped up at shelters," Stephens said. "She wasn't jumping, she was calm."
That gentle demeanor is what first attracted Anderson to adopt Gigi. She "wanted a dog that would be good with children" since her grandchildren live with her.
"She lets my 4-year-old grandson do anything to her," Anderson said. "Plus, she encourages me to do my walking every morning. She's my walking buddy and just the sweetest thing."
For now the Gwinnett County Animal Welfare and Enforcement Center is the only public shelter in Georgia using the C.L.A.S.S. program to train shelter dogs. Bruce looks forward to continuing to train shelter dogs so that they can in turn become better pets.