As far as Shirin Merchant is concerned, dogs can never go wrong. It’s the humans that are a problem. To be specific, urban ones. “Agrarian societies coexist beautifully with animals. A dog will follow a farmer for miles without a leash, protect his herd and home, and require no special food or space in return,” says Shirin, India’s first qualified canine behaviourist.
“In the cities, we have lost this,” she goes on. “There are more dog haters than dog lovers, and dog-owners are partly to blame themselves. They get the wrong breeds simply for prestige value, or leave them to domestic helpers to bring up, or mistreat them or neglect them. Bringing up a dog requires as much care and commitment as bringing up a child.”
Over 23 years in this field, Shirin has trained over 6000 canines of all breeds imaginable. “We always had a dog at home while I was growing up in Mumbai; he was like a sibling to me,” she narrates of her early attachments for the furry creatures. After completing her Bachelor’s in zoology from St Xavier’s college, she was invited to study in England by world renowned canine behaviourist and trainer John Rogerson. Four years later, she was back in India to change the way India trained its dogs.
“Older methods of dog training were designed to evoke intimidation and fear, such as by using choke chains or sticks,” she explains. If a dog was aggressive, it was deemed rabid and put to sleep. “But canine behaviour problems have to be tackled using canine psychology. Instead of hitting or punishing dogs, we can use positive reinforcement instead.”
In 1998, Shirin, a mother of two, started her consultancy Canines Can Care. One of the pivotal points in her journey was when she decided to train assistance dogs to help physically challenged people perform tasks like retrieving objects, opening heavy doors, switching lights on and off, pulling or pushing wheelchairs, getting help in case of an emergency and so on.
Shirin happened to read about a young paraplegic girl, Sanam Karunakar, in a newspaper article. She trained and placed a Labrador to help her as an assistance dog for her daily needs. Canines Can Care also trained civilian dogs for search-and-rescue work that helped with post-earthquake efforts in Bhuj in 2001.
Shirin not only helps dog-owners with behaviour and training problems – such as dominance, housetraining, toilet training, aggression, destruction to boredom and compulsive behaviours – she also conducts training courses across the world and has helped to change the mindset towards dog-training in India. Along the way, she started India’s first canine magazine, and pioneered the concept of ‘Canines For Corporates’ – offsite training camps where office-goers could learn about trust-building, leadership, empathy, and so on.
Six years ago, Shirin became the first person in Asia (and one of only nine people in the world) to gain accreditation in Companion Dog Training and Behavioural Training from the KCAI Kennel Club of England. She was also awarded KCAI’s prestigious International Commendation award for Trainer of The Year during the world’s largest dog show, Cruft’s, and is the only person till date in the world to have ever received this award. Since then, she has been invited to speak at prestigious events worldwide and has produced Asia’s first educational dog TV show
Unleash! With Shirin Merchant in Sri Lanka. She won the Government of India’s ‘First Ladies Awards’, for women who have transcended barriers to achieve a milestone and are declared to be the 'first' in their respective fields.
Shirin brushes off the accolades with modesty. “When you love your work, you don’t measure it with milestones. The work is its own reward,” she says. We’re sure the pups agree.
First published in eShe magazine