Mark Spivak will tell you that he’s not your typical dog trainer.
With a background working on semi-conductors, Spivak stumbled into training dogs accidentally when he realized he had a real knack for teaching his German Shepherd obedience.
Though it seems like the jump from technology to dog training is a big one, Spivak said his two interests are a more closely related than they seem.
“It’s all sciences. One is electrical science, this is applied behavioral psychology,” Spivak said.
Spivak said he became “intoxicated” with training with his first dog, Akbar. Once Akbar mastered all the basic commands, Spivak continued to teach him and they went on to compete in American Kennel Club competitions together. Pretty soon, his friends were asking him if he would train their dogs, too.
So Spivak said he decided to put his MBA to use and started a business called Comprehensive Pet Therapy in 1992, after he moved to Atlanta. In a small shopping center in Sandy Springs, Spivak and seven other trainers use a variety of techniques to teach dogs everything from basic obedience to agility training, to advanced training for service dogs.
“We’re eclectic. After training over 45,000 dogs, we’ve yet to meet one method that’s good for all dogs,” Spivak said.
In 1995, when Patricia King was a college student, she took her dog Bailey to Comprehensive Pet Therapy for obedience training. She became really interested in dog training and went on to work with Spivak. King said she finds it rewarding to help people form better relationships with their dogs.
“If we have well behaved dogs, people are more likely to incorporate them into their lives—taking them to the park or even on vacation,” King said.
Aside from more standard obedience training, Spivak also works with dogs that need more complex behavior modification, as well as specialized training for assistance dogs. Spivak said he trains dogs to assist people who use wheelchairs, people with neurological and emotional issues and even people who are hearing impaired.
Not only are assistance dogs trained to do specialized tasks – such as opening doors or recognizing sounds – but they also need to be highly trained to behave in a variety of public settings. “They have to be reliable all the time. They have to be calm, composed and confident,” Spivak said.
It’s also expensive and time consuming – on average, training an assistance dog costs between $6,000 and $10,000 to complete, Spivak said. Though assistance dog training is only a small portion of his business, Spivak said he really enjoys it. “Doing something a little challenging, a little different, is fun,” Spivak said.
Angela Manos-Sittnick went with her dog, Ewok, for assistance training to help her cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It took about six months to train her dog, which accompanies her everywhere.
“She has been a godsend for me. She has enabled me to start my life over again,” Manos-Sittnick said. “I am now going places again and teaching part-time.”
Spivak, who describes himself as an analytical type, approaches training like a science experiment. “To be stuck with one methodology would reduce our success rate,” he said.
Aside from his dog training business, Spivak uses his knowledge of canines to moonlight in the academic and legal arenas.
“Right now, I do some research with Emory’s neuroscience department,” he said. “We’re studying the cognitive abilities of dogs using functional MRIs. We’re studying the dogs’ brains as they engage in learning processes.”
Spivak said he has also testified as an expert witness in legal cases involving dogs. He said the work can be rewarding, such as one case where he was able to reunite a child with his family.
Though Spivak is a firm believer in the science behind dog training, he also feels that part of his success as a trainer comes naturally.
“This profession is a combination of art and science,” Spivak said. “The art is being able to communicate with animals and having the presence and charisma to gain an animal’s trust.”
-Leighton Rowell contributed to this report.