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St. Regis Mohawks Are Going to the Dogs—And That's a Good Thing!

A story about dog training on the Mohawk Reservation.

This February, Kyrie Ransom, a 24-year-old Mohawk woman from the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in Akwesasne, in upstate New York made a tiny bit of history with Grey, her nearly 18-month-old German shepherd, when they became the first students from a First Nations territory in either the United States or Canada to earn a “Canine Life and Social Skills (CLASS) B.A.” from the Shannoncourt training facility in Martintown, Ontario.

To earn that doggie degree, Ransom and Grey had to complete a variety of tasks, including sitting in place for one minute (Grey, not Ransom) and sitting in front of a bowl of food without eating until given permission (ditto).

Grey’s quest for higher education began early. When the dog was only three months old, Ransom and Grey completed a six-week puppy-kindergarten class at the Shannoncourt training facility. Just six weeks later, Ransom and Grey completed another, more difficult level-two puppy class.

Ransom says she then looked into passing the first level of CLASS certification, but says she found the criteria a bit intimidating. But the two of them pushed forward, and got their sheepskin. Grey is now steadily working through the various stages, from the M.A. to the Ph.D. CLASS degrees. The skills at each level of the CLASS program, in which the owner-dog team must demonstrate that the dog can behave in real-life situations, increase with difficulty and distraction.

While the CLASS certificate Ransom and Grey earned is noteworthy, it is a pittance compared to what Ransom, the daughter of former Mohawk Chief Jim Ransom, is offering to the Akwesasne Reservation. Due in part to her efforts, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has and will continue to benefit from a number of programs, workshops and events related to responsible pet awareness and pet industry-oriented business opportunities.

Among the offerings created in a partnership of Ransom and the Friends of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Animal Control Program are pet-training workshops. Ransom is also working to create a registered business named Akwesasne InK, which will offer dog training on the reservation in partnership with Shannoncourt and the first annual Akwesasne Pet Expo and DockDog Canadian Regional Championship events in Cornwall, Ontario in July.

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Ransom reports that she has had an affinity for animals since she was very young. “My parents have told me this story about when I was 4 years old, we visited a wildlife rehabilitation center. At the center were a bear cub and its mother. When we went into the enclosure where the animals were, I got away from my mom and ran up to the cub and hugged it, then came back to them. They asked the attendant how they tamed the animals to allow people to interact with them—the attendant said they didn’t. Since then, I always enjoyed working with animals.”

By combining her love for animals and her good head for business (a skill perhaps learned as the daughter of a chief), Ransom is trying to bring part of the hugely profitable pet industry to Akwesasne. The American Pet Products Association has estimated that there was almost $51 billion in pet-related spending in the U.S. in 2011.

“The pet industry is a growing field and proving to be resilient in the face of a national recession,” Ransom says. “In Akwesasne, the market is open, with no dedicated effort to incorporate the different components of pet care into the economic bedrock of the community.” She says areas that can be capitalized upon by the tribe include the manufacture of pet food and medicines, as well as offering veterinary care at Akwesasne, and grooming, boarding and training services.

“The first step toward incorporating the pet industry into Akwesasne,” says Ransom, “is to start advocating the notion of responsible pet ownership in a fun and inspiring way.” She explains that the Akwesasne Pet Expo in July will bring in experts on many facets of the pet care industry, including pet food companies, suppliers and manufacturers of pet toys and accessories, pet training and pet services—everything from grooming to hydro therapy. “The short-term goal of this two-day event is to bring in the local Akwesasne community to learn about these different areas and to see the economic viability of these potential business sectors,” Ransom says, adding that the Akwesasne Reservation, which straddles the U.S.-Canada border, is the ideal location for building a pet-related business culture, because it can reach dog owners in both the U.S. and Canadian markets.

On top of all that, Ransom is still actively training Grey. She wants to teach the dog-training techniques she has learned with Grey to the children on Akwesasne, to encourage empathy, responsibility, observation and patience for young pet owners.

And what is Grey doing to help his owner? “Grey likes to play Frisbee, he likes to swim. Actual tricks for him are like give paw or shake—he gets all silly when I ask him to do that. He also is learning to bow. But the best thing I have taught him is to love people.”