A Peek Inside the International Association of Canine Professionals' Annual Conference: Interview with Ruff House's Crystal Blaker

When Crystal Blaker, our dog trainer from Ruff House Dog Training & Behavior Modification, texted me pictures of her with Rodney Habib and Dr. Karen Becker, I didn't care that it was 6:31am and I needed to get to work. Immediately, I texted back that I wanted to hear everything they had to say!

Crystal was getting ready for her first full day or workshops and panels for the International Association of Canine Professionals Conference 2017, which meant she was going to be learning from some of the best dog people around. I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask her not just about meeting Rodney Habib and Dr. Karen Becker, but also about her experiences at the conference.

Sam Tabar, Crystal Blaker, Rodney Habib, and Heather Rose at the 2017 IACP Conference in St. Louis.

As the keynote speaker for the event, Rodney Habib gave an information-dense talk about feeding raw including details on the components of a healthy canine diet.

While I enjoyed his TEDx Talk immensely, he did seem to be skirting around the edge of feeding raw. In his IACP presentation, he talked about the need to feed higher amounts of fats and proteins to dogs with fruits and veggies as well. Dogs in the wild would have access to limited grains. If a wild dog ate the stomach of a grain-eater, then that dog would be digesting those grains, but wild dogs were not grazing. 

From what Crystal relayed about Habib's presentation, I became even more enthusiastic about wanting to watch his dog cancer documentary.

Crystal Blaker from Ruff House Dog Training & Behavior Modification meeting Dr. Karen Becker at the 2017 IACP Conference in St. Louis.

After Rodney Habib's presentation, Crystal also met Dr. Karen Becker, who she reports as probably the kindest and most generous soul around. "She would spend all night talking to everyone if she could," Crystal said. Dr. Becker wasn't even presenting at this conference! She was traveling to another event in California, decided to travel with Rodney Habib, and answered questions in the hall outside of the keynote address.

Crystal asked Dr. Becker if she knew why therapy dogs were not allowed to be fed raw diets. Previously, Crystal and I have commiserated on how this policy doesn't make sense to either of us.

Dr. Becker referenced financial support some therapy dog organizations received several years ago from a big name pet food company. Some people speculate that the financial support may have been given in exchange for denouncing raw diets.

When I dug a little deeper, I did find this 2010 article "Are Raw-Fed Dogs a Risk?" from Whole Dog Journal that seems to hint at just this kind of relationship. However, WDJ also reports that Delta Society, now known as Pet Partners, clarified on their website at the time of issuing the ban on feeding raw that "No pet food manufacturer representatives contacted, encouraged, lobbied, or influenced the Delta Society Medical Advisory Group in recommending to the board that they approve a Raw Protein Diet Policy."

K9 Fitness Workshop with Erica Boling at the IACP Conference 2017,

Erica Boling's K9 Fitness Class

After discussing how exciting it was to meet these dog-world celebrities, I asked her how the schedule for this conference worked out. How did she decide which presenters to go see? Thankfully, IACP makes attending this conference easy to learn from every person by balancing their schedule. They also record the sessions, so members have the option to watch (or re-watch) later. 

Crystal also shared how IACP takes member suggestions for guest and keynote speakers plus they hold a White Paper Contest to determine who gets to present at this annual conference. After members describe what they would talk about, the members vote for their top choices.

The presenters pictured below in order:

  • Mary Mazzeri
  • The Monks of New Skete
  • Joel Silverman
  • Brian Bergford
  • Robin MacFarlane
  • Chad Mackin
  • Drew Lynch

The presenters run the gamut of dog training philosophies which aligns with IACP's mission statement:

The INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CANINE PROFESSIONALS is dedicated to the education, development and support of dog training professional world-wide. The IACP provides a community where experienced dog trainers mentor, guide and cultivate members to their full potential. Our commitment to the highest quality training increases our members’ skills and abilities, develops professional recognition and improves communication on training best practices. We support our members’ rights to properly use and promote effective, humane training tools and methods to create success for each dog and owner, while expanding the understanding and cooperation among canine professionals and dog owners across the full spectrum of the canine industry.

Crystal chose to join IACP specifically because they support the full spectrum of dog training to humanely and effectively apply the right training technique for each dog and owner. Differentiation for dogs!

Crystal Blaker from Ruff House Dog Training & Behavior Modification meeting Mary Mazzeri at the 2017 IACP Conference in St. Louis.
Crystal Blaker from Ruff House Dog Training & Behavior Modification meeting the Monks of New Skete at the 2017 IACP Conference in St. Louis.
Crystal Blaker from Ruff House Dog Training & Behavior Modification meeting Joel Silverman at the 2017 IACP Conference in St. Louis.

Listening to Crystal describe each session, I was impressed with the variety of topics and dog training techniques covered.

Crystal said she always loves learning from Chad Mackin. In addition to respecting how much knowledge he possesses about dogs, she's inspired by how much he constantly problem solves. Crystal said, "He's always thinking and wondering if there could be a different way."

Robin MacFarlane was another trainer who Crystal enjoyed because she focused on the people-side of dog training. When she started describing the techniques Robin encouraged for more effectively teaching group classes, I laughed mainly because so many of us know that our dog trainer is really training us.

Robin talked about various personality traits involved in the education of the owners. She touched on how important it is to include a variety of activities that span human's multiple intelligences. Adding more visualization exercises, including auditory activities, creating simulations, allowing students to share their experiences, and incorporating more training in the real world were just a few of the suggestions Robin made.

Crystal Blaker from Ruff House Dog Training & Behavior Modification meeting Brian Bergford at the 2017 IACP Conference in St. Louis.
Crystal Blaker from Ruff House Dog Training & Behavior Modification meeting Robin MacFarlane at the 2017 IACP Conference in St. Louis.

Crystal chose to attend a workshop on the Koehler Method of loose-leash walking presented by Mary Mazzeri.

One of the methods involves having two rows of dogs walk by one another with the potential for a lot of turning if a dog looks at another dog. Crystal demonstrated the process for me, but there's no way I can describe it correctly. Succinctly, Crystal was impressed with the level of precision she saw with the dogs loose-leash walking. She's excited to try out this technique in her Dog Obedience Park Class.

While there were several exercises that Crystal thought would work well with her Dog Obedience Park Class, one involving a 15-foot lead sounded equally intriguing and challenging.

In an open area with the dog on the 15-foot lead, the handler chooses three imaginary spots. The dog goes to the end of the lead and the handler keeps the lead steady at their belly button. The handler walks the dog to the first of the imaginary spots. Once there, the handler moves the dog, still on the end of the lead, to the next imaginary spot.

After a minute or so at the first spot, the handler moves to the second imaginary spot with no indication to the dog other than their body moving in that direction. The handler continues to move to each of these spots when they notice the dog isn't paying attention to them or when they have been at that spot for a minute or so. This technique teaches the dog to engage more with the handler on a less confrontational approach, hence the 15-foot lead, because the dog has to learn to pay attention to the handler when they walk because the handler doesn't give any indications that they are moving.

The 15-foot lead gives the dog the freedom to move around more and they learn through this exercise that the best place to be is next to their handler. In the end, the 15-foot lead becomes a six-foot lead with the dog walking loosely on leash next to the handler. Challenging, right? When I think of completing this exercise with Bernie, I get more than a little nervous.

The K9 Fitness Class fascinated me. I had to ask Crystal about this doggie gym. Prior to this conference, Crystal had seen Erica Boling, Ph.D.'s webinars on K9 fitness, and had watched her Friday night Facebook Live videos.

Crystal described how the various pieces of equipment could be used indoors or outdoors, which is a great thing to remember for those summer days, especially here in Tucson. The exercises work on conditioning, body awareness, and building muscle strength. While some people may use these exercises to condition a sports dog, other people may use the techniques to identify any muscles that may be hurting. 

Crystal Blaker from Ruff House Dog Training & Behavior Modification meeting Chad Mackin at the 2017 IACP Conference in St. Louis.
Crystal Blaker from Ruff House Dog Training & Behavior Modification meeting comedian Drew Lynch and his pup at the 2017 IACP Conference in St. Louis.

As Crystal described the various exercises that focused on skills from loose-leash walking to building a better relationship with your dog, I asked her how she remembered all of this information. She showed me the pages of notes she had taken. They were incredibly neat. Pristine handwriting. These were the notes that she had written again after the original session to clarify for herself what she had learned. 

At the end of the interview I asked Crystal for her overall impressions about the conference and for her most important take-aways. Since this was the first full IACP Conference that Crystal had attended, she was incredibly appreciative for the friendship of fellow trainer Sam Tabar. She had met Sam virtually in a dog trainers Facebook group. Sam, known as "Mr. Encyclopedia" for his dog training knowledge, acted as gracious host who introduced Crystal to many fellow trainers at the conference and showed her around. As anyone who's been the newbie at a conference can tell you, this kind of mentorship is priceless! Sam's smiling face is in the first picture with Crystal and Rodney Habib. Crystal felt fortunate to have Sam's guidance, and hopes someday to be that gracious host for a future conference newbie.

Crystal left the 2017 IACP Conference with countless ideas on how to make herself a better trainer. Her two most important lessons involved learning how to train people better and learning how to be good to herself.

As she poured over her notes and described everything that inspired her, I could see her dedication to improving group classes. Crystal wants to create harmony among dogs, their owners, and other people. What better place to promote that harmony than the numerous group classes she offers?

Crystal and her husband Michael have also decided that Crystal is the Ruff House brand. She's the trainer. During this conference, Crystal heard a few presenters stress how to be a good mentor, you have to be good to yourself. Ruff House won't hire another trainer because people expect Crystal. I know I do. However, she can hire an administrative person to help with various aspects of the business allowing her more time to be the best trainer she can.

After this interview, my hunch about Crystal was confirmed. She's a fellow type A perfectionist! No wonder she works so well with me and Matthew. She's the perfect dog/people trainer for us, and we're incredibly grateful that we found her!

Daisy, a purebred Catahoula Leopard Dog and Crystal Blaker at the IACP Conference 2017