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At this school, a good day means a tail wag, face lick

(ran WEST edition)

Before class, one of the students licked the teacher's face.

That's a normal happening at Dog Gone Positive, a Pinellas Park dog training business, where the goal is not merely obedience but happily wagging tails.

Owner and trainer Maria Praias (Pry-us) offers classes for dogs and owners in housebreaking, basic obedience and advanced training. She also specializes in behavior modification and calming aggressive canines, as well as doggy day care.

"I started this business to help people with their dogs, to help people keep their dogs, to help keep dogs out of shelters," Praias said.

Praias, 32, holds a certification in solving canine behavior problems from Cornell University in New York as well as one in animal behavior and effective adoptions from the Humane Society of the United States. She's also certified in behavior modification, pet first aid and CPR. She's a member of the

Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society and the American Dog Owners Association.

Praias opened for business in Pinellas County about four years ago. At first, she went to people's homes and held classes in the Seminole Recreation Center and at Bay Moorings in southern St. Petersburg.

The travel from one end of the county to the other became too burdensome. So about four months ago, she opened in Pinellas Park at 7620 66th St. N, in the shopping center at the northwestern base of the infamous monotube.

Having a permanent location gave her the opportunity to offer more, including group classes, KinderPaws Day Care and a dog social club.

At prices ranging from $13 to $18 a day with discounts for multiple animals, doggie day care seems at first glance to be something that would appeal to Yuppies with more money than sense. But Praias said that's not necessarily so.

"I've seen incredible things happen in our doggie day care," she said.

Dogs who come to the program have something to keep them busy all day, she said, so they do not spend time chewing furniture or other items around the house. They also remain socialized with other animals, which reduces or eliminates any tendency they may have for aggression. Having someone there to watch the dog also helps eliminate other problems that may crop up, she said.

The result is a happier, more obedient, less destructive dog, she said.

"Yes, it is a luxury, but it helps people," Praias said. "We can provide a lot for owners."

The backbone of the business is the classes, in which she works with dogs and their owners to produce happy, obedient canines. She believes in positive reinforcement, meaning that the dog is rewarded when it does something right. That means no choke, pinch or shock collars.

Dogs can begin at any age, but if you get a puppy, Praias offers a housebreaking lesson for $40. When the puppy is between 8 weeks to 4{ months old, it can have six to eight private or group lessons for $75 to $125. Private in-home lessons cost more.

If the owner wants to go further with the dog, canine good citizen classes are available ($100), as are seven-week agility and other advanced classes. Those are all $75 for the seven-week set.

Agility is familiar to people who watch the Animal Planet cable network, where competitions are often shown.

The dogs run an obstacle course of hurdles, weave poles, a teeter-totter, tunnels, a dog walk (kind of an elevated pathway) and a table on which they have to lie down for a set period of time. The object is to be obedient but complete the course faster than the other dogs.

That's great at that level, Praias told her agility students and their owners, but the object of her classes is for dog and human to have fun and to bond. If they want to compete, they need to go elsewhere for lessons, she said. Having fun means the owner can be accommodating and patient with the dog.

"I think that's the most important thing," Praias said. "It's the human that gets the dog in trouble."

That patience can be seen all over the classroom.

"Come on, Barney, over. Not under. Over," Beth Carter says, trying to coax her 5-year-old red miniature poodle across a hurdle. "You'd think all of a sudden he doesn't know how to do this. He does this all the time."

Praias comes to Carter's aid, lowering the jump.

It's unusual for Barney to need much help or coaxing. The poodle is a natural showoff, willingly crossing the dog walk and wandering through the weave poles with little or no prompting.

"Next week, we'll have Barney do embroidery," Praias kids at one point.

Moments later, Praias helps Candu, a 2-year-old gray pit bull mix, across the teeter-totter. The teeter-totter, like a seesaw, is tricky to train on because it moves beneath the dog as the animal crosses it.

Praias slows Candu's progress across the teeter-totter, holding a treat out. Stop. Treat. Step. Stop. Treat. Praise.

"Good girl! Good girl!" Praias said. As Candu completes the task, "That was okay. That was okay."

Candu's owner, Marcelle Kirkland is philosophical about the dog's reluctance, saying, "I don't think we're ever going to be on Animal Planet."

Later, Simba, a 2-year-old mixed breed that owner Elizabeth Rizzo found as a stray, also has trouble with the teeter-totter.

Praias explained what she was doing.

"I'm taking up the leash so we have more control." Praias gets Simba on the teeter-totter and with treats and soft words gets her to the middle. She stops the dog and feeds her liver, talking to her the entire time.

"Don't do your freak-out act. Good girl. Good girl. Good, Simba." Simba licked Praias' face. Then the teeter-totter began to shift downward with Simba's weight and the dog jumps off rather than waiting for it to land and walking to the end.

"Almost. Almost. That's better than where she was," Praias said.

They try again. As Simba pulls back, Praias suggested, "Okay, forget that." She ran up and down the room with Simba to get her mind off the scary teeter-totter.

Later Rizzo decided the teeter-totter was simply too scary for Simba. The fear the dog was building up over that was making her fear the dog walk, which starts out with an incline similar to the teeter-totter.

That was fine with Praias, who considers it a triumph when an owner decides it's better that the dog have a good experience than that the owner's pride be salvaged by forcing a frightened dog to do something.

"The important thing is that the owner is having fun with their dog and they're bonding and that they learn," she said. "That's when they do well."