Women » Features

Boston Lesbian Will Teach Your Dog How to Be Wonderful

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Wednesday Apr 23, 2014

Wouldn't it be amazing if your dog could bring you the paper, your slippers, or better yet, a cold drink from the fridge? It's not some pie in the sky dream. New to Boston from Maine, dog trainer Elsa Larsen has opened My Wonderful Dog, an Arlington-based company that offers in-home dog training including the six-week class, "Your Dog Can Do What?!?"

"If you really want harmony to reign in your household, then it's important for everyone to understand the rules," said Larsen. "Dogs don't speak English, so we have to teach them what's okay and what isn't through repetition."

With more than 17 years experience training service dogs and pets, Larsen can get your pup to behave in no time, whether you need practical advice on housetraining or heeling, or if you want to impress your friends with the clever tricks your dog can perform, like turning on the lights or putting away his own toys.

"It's a skill I've acquired, and although it looks like magic, it's not," said Larsen. "I love to show people how easy it is to get there. With a lot of dogs it is about dog management and understanding that if you leave a dog with temptations, bad things will happen. I set people up to be successful."

But Larsen wasn't always a dog whisperer. In fact, she was living in San Francisco when she found her first dog, Cleo, a black and tan Australian Shepherd. She was six months into sobriety when she found the stray pup, and described herself as "an angry, struggling young woman" who had come out at 19 years old, and didn't know how to relate to people without a drink in her hand.

She also didn't know how to handle the clever, mischievous pup that scaled baby gates and got into everything, chewing up the house. Larsen would rage, and Cleo would get the brunt of it. She finally had enough, and took Cleo to the animal shelter, only to find it mysteriously closed.

Larsen left Cleo with her roommate for two weeks while she went away. In the meantime, a friend talked her into giving the dog another chance. She bought Cleo a crate and some lessons, and together, they learned. It was years later before Larsen realized that Cleo had completely changed her life.

While listening to a radio program with well-known naturopath and author Dr. Andrew Weil about animal-assisted therapy, a bell went off in Larsen’s head. She realized at once that this was her calling. The next day, she teamed up with the Assistance Dog Institute in California, a non-profit that engaged incarcerated kids to train dogs for people with disabilities.

"These tough kids, some with rap sheets as long as your arm, would walk into the room with this super tough exterior. That toughness would completely melt away when they worked with their dogs. These dogs were helping these kids, just like Cleo helped me."

She volunteered at ADI for two years and then moved back to the east coast to start her own service dog program. She started My Wonderful Dog in Portland, Maine, with no money and six 10-week-old Labrador siblings that had been donated to the program by a friend.

Over the years, she placed eight service dog teams and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it was a challenge, as it costs $10,000 to raise a service dog, many of whom go to low-income people.

"It started as a nonprofit to train dogs for people with disabilities, but we ran out of money in 2008," said Larsen. "So rather than stopping entirely, we kept the name as a for-profit business and started training pets."

She transferred her service dog training skills for pets and their owners, and it was a runaway success. Larsen recently relocated to Arlington to be closer to her fiancée, and is now ready to begin accepting doggie students and their owners for either in-home training or group classes at a local facility.

"In-home consults are the best way for people to get the most out of dog training," said Larsen. "They are not competing with others, and we can work specifically on their needs: everything from new owners of young puppies to deal with, to behavior problems like anxiety, aggression or destructive chewing."

And if you want your dog to amaze your friends with practical tricks like turning on lights, opening doors, putting toys away, retrieving your phone or wallet, Larsen has put her service dog skills into her new six-dog group class, which she is teaching at doggie daycare in Belmont.

"I used to love teaching this stuff," said Larsen. "A lot of dog trainers teach basic obedience, and I teach that as well, but this is a chance to learn practical tricks that people can actually use."

Larsen touts her affordable rates of $60 per one-hour session, or three for $150. Classes run $165 for six weeks, with a ratio of two classes of six dogs each, with her and an assistant for a high ratio of dog to trainer.

People come along with their dog, to learn how to command them, and at the end, Larsen presents students and their owners with a graduation and a framed photo of their dog in action. But the best gift you could get is a well-trained dog.

For more information, visit www.mywonderfuldog.net, or ’like’ her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/My-Wonderful-Dog/162396799308. To contact Elsa Larsen, call 207-329-2925 or email her at elsa.larsen58@gmail.com.

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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