Wisconsin Woman, April 2010

Giene Wicker Keyes: For the love of dogs

By Sara Forster

If you’re a dog owner, it’s hard to curb the desire to barrage Giene Wicker Keyes, dog behavior expert and owner of The Dog Den, with personal questions when you talk with her. But, she loves it. “It is interesting when you work with dogs and you go out and meet new people,” says Keyes. “Whenever they find out what I do, they always have a story to tell.”

The Dog Den features dog daycare and training classes for dogs of all ages and sizes. Dog daycare is quite popular in Madison — a simple Google search brings up more than 10 options in the immediate area. Keyes says she is surprised by the influx; when she started her daycare in 2004 there were only two or three others. “On one hand I would like to say that I got very lucky because I make a living doing something that I love. On the other hand, I work darn hard to do what I love! I don’t just play with three or four dogs in my front room every day,” she jokes.

In fact, with approximately 70 dogs per day attending the Dog Den’s daycare program, running the structured play and training curriculum is a lot of work. In addition to her own teaching and consulting, Giene oversees 14 staff members working in the daycare and training classes in the busy — and barky — 7,000-square-foot indoor and 3,000- square-foot outdoor facility.

The sincere and kindhearted Giene appreciates more than just the obvious benefits of owning her own business. In fact, she gleans much personal satisfaction from helping people — especially families — work out their dog-human issues. “I still spend a lot of time doing private lessons,” she says. “I love sitting down with somebody and helping them understand their dog better so they can have a happier household.”

She also gives what she can to the community.
Giene has not only fostered many dogs in her own home, but she encourages local area foster dogs to attend her daycare and classes for free and offers discounted private lessons to accelerate their chances of becoming permanently adopted. In her limited spare time, Giene takes her own dogs to assisted living and nursing home facilities to visit with the residents. And for many years, she has served as a behavior expert for local shelters, helping them evaluate new dogs, and as a judge for 4H canine events.
She educates the public by writing and speaking to groups about the benefits of positive reinforcement training and the perception of pit bulls and other “dangerous” breeds. Since business and family often keep her detained, she regularly pays one of her staff members to volunteer in the canine behavior department at the Dane County Humane Society.

A long and winding road
Giene’s interest in dog training began when she rescued a Greyhound named Darby from an area race track some 20 years ago. “He didn’t know anything — how to go up steps, what a mirror was. He took a lot of work and a lot of socialization to become somewhat normal,” she says. Giene decided that with her next dog, a roly-poly black Lab puppy named Utah, she would start right away in a behavior training class — and was shocked by what she encountered. “They put a choke collar on him, jerked him up and pinched his ear to make him heal,” she explains. “I knew that wasn’t the way I wanted him trained. I thought to myself, ‘I want my puppy to listen, but to also enjoy being around me.’”

So, for the last 15 years, Giene, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, has been refining her skills through hands-on preparation, seminars and reading anything she can get her hands on. Combining her continuous thirst for knowledge and previous horse training accomplishments, Giene has created her own positive reinforcement training program. Over time, her client base grew through word of mouth and she began teaching a few classes. As her skills progressed, Giene developed an inclination and special ability for working with canine aggression cases. In fact, as one of few local experts, she has been called upon by law enforcement to assist with dog aggression cases in homes. “I realized that I was seeing a lot of aggression from dogs that were coming from local daycares,” she says. “It wasn’t exactly my desire to run a dog daycare, but I have this attitude of ‘if you want something done right, do it yourself.’ I wanted to give the dogs a place where they would be monitored, given structure and then return calm and relaxed to
their owners at the end of the day.” And from this idea, The Dog Den was born.

Striking balance
Starting a business from scratch wasn’t easy, as Giene points out. Just months before the business opened, she was thrown from a horse and broke her back. “But, my biggest challenge was that during the first five years I owned the business, I was a single mom,” she says. “I have been a dog trainer for a really long time,” Giene says. “There are aspects of being a business owner that are frustrating. Sometimes I just wish I could train and play with the dogs all day.” Giene gives much of the credit of her success to her staff. “Laura, my daycare manager, is amazing. She is the hardest worker I know,” she says. And the staff feels equally lucky to work for Giene.
“Her knowledge of dogs is incredible and she has a natural ability with them. She has a great charisma and she makes everyone she encounters feel like a friend,” says Laura.

At home, Giene and her husband, Ryan, care for daughter Abby, 8, son Rudy 7, and baby Corey, just four months old. And of course, four dogs (Maggie, Buster, Squirt and Wyatt) and two cats (Amber and Guinness) are a constant case-study for a woman who loves to explore animal-human interactions.
She credits her husband and children for helping her keep things in perspective. “Ryan listens to me at the end of the day and he is so supportive,” she says. “I think any working mom struggles to balance work and home. Any woman business owner can attest that your job never ends. I leave work, go home, spend time with my family and then I do more work. But I am lucky. My business is reflective of me, I work hard for it to be the best it can be and I get to do what I love.”

Sara Forster is a Madison-area freelance writer.