Article Tools

Font size
Share This

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2018:05:09 20:17:42

Service dogs Medusa (at left) and Bess (at right) hang out with their owners Donna Michak and Jim Mahon.

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2017:06:11 09:13:57

Dogs and their humans attend a teaching session.

Dogs, just like humans, all have their own highly distinct personalities. Once owners can sufficiently grasp that concept, they can teach, not train, their pooches accordingly, according to Alan Finn.

“Every dog is different,” he said. “There’s no right or wrong personality. It just tells me how I’m going to teach them.”

The Old Forge resident is the owner of Alan Finn’s Designing Dogs, which has been one of the premiere dog obedience schools in Northeast Pennsylvania for the past three decades.

Using an evenhanded and highly intuitive approach, Finn teaches dogs of all sizes and temperaments, from those requiring basic skills to others with more serious behavioral issues.

In addition to everyday household pets, Finn is known for his work with service and rescue dogs, protection dogs, narcotics and explosives detection dogs, cadaver dogs and therapy dogs. He’s trained numerous local police dogs, including those for the Taylor, Old Forge, Dickson City, Dunmore and Larksville police departments.

The business’ sole teacher, Finn holds individual and group sessions throughout the week.

Finn is well known for never running from a challenge — in his view, even the most problematic dogs can be taught to become not just good, but great pets.

“I don’t socialize dogs. I teach them. And once they’re taught, they’re social,” he said. “Most of the dogs that come to me are not good dogs. A lot of them are biters — and they’re all different types of breeds … A lot of people come to me and say, ‘You’re my last chance.’”

Finn gets to the underlying root causes behind the dog’s misbehavior, whether it’s aggressive, or fearful, or mischievous, or a combination of traits.

Oftentimes, the dog is simply confused by the owner’s commands and temperament. It wants to be a good pet, but it doesn’t know how.

“If I were speaking to you in a language that you didn’t know, would it help you if I yelled? No. And it’s the same for a dog,” Finn said.

Through words, Finn teaches dogs and their owners the communication skills they’ll need for a healthy relationship. And it doesn’t matter the breed, because “there’s no breed smarter than another,” he said.

For instance, the word “no” is the only negative word that Maddie, his 8-year-old German shepherd, knows.

“That means everything else in her life has to be positive,” Finn said. “She knows many words. Her name means pleasure and praise. She knows, ‘Come here.’ She knows seven languages.”

When he uses the word “down,” it means “lie down,” and nothing else. Unless he says “take it,” his dogs know they can’t have table food.

If he says “playtime” to Maddie, it’s time to play. When he says “over,” playtime has concluded.

“That way, if I’m doing something, and they come to me with a toy, I tell them, “No, I can’t,’ just like you would tell a child,” said Finn, who has another dog, Sanibal, 1.

In addition, Finn doesn’t use food, fear or pain to modify a dog’s behavior. Tight leashes are a no-no. And he doesn’t skimp on praise.

“I overpraise my dogs. I praise them all the time, not just for doing any one thing,” he said. “If I tell my dog to sit, I don’t have to praise. She gets praise all the time.”

Finn teaches bite work, but his police dogs only bite when commanded to. If Maddie is bitten by another dog, she doesn’t fight back.

“She’s not aggressive,” Finn said. “My dogs don’t destroy their toys. They play with them. Tearing up toys is like tearing meat off a bone; it’s a sign of aggression.”

Now 57, Finn has been teaching dogs since the age of 18.

“I originally wanted to be a mechanic, but it wasn’t in the cards for me. I wasn’t mechanically inclined,” he said. “I’m really not a people person, but I’ve always been good with dogs.”

While Finn brings plenty of natural ability to his instruction, he’s quick to point out that a good portion of his success can be attributed to a commitment to continual development.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “And I hope to continue learning until the day I die.”

For more information on Alan Finn’s Designing Dogs, call 570-562-2232, or visit