On the Record

On the record ... with Amber Walker

Ever since she was a little girl, Amber Walker has wanted to work with animals.

After 10 years spent training a variety of zoo animals – including monkeys, dolphins and even alligators – she now owns and operates Animal Intuitions LLC in Cortland, a training business focused on dogs. Animal Intuitions offers in-home training and teaches puppy kindergarten classes at the Cortland Animal Hospital and Bethany Animal Hospital.

"I am every little 7-year-old girl's dream," she said with a smile.

Born in Florida, Walker and her family moved to West Aurora when she was 7. Although she was originally interested in marine biology, her mother convinced her to pursue zoology instead.

"She said marine biology was too limited," Walker said. "Zoology is the study of animals. You'd think it would be the study of zoos."

After graduating from Southern Illinois University in 2004 with a degree in zoology, she went to work in the children's zoo at Brookfield Zoo. After three years, she moved to Alaska, where she was a rescue rehab intern in the Alaska Sea Life Center for seven months before returning to Brookfield Zoo. After working in Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, she decided she wanted to become a dog trainer and got her certificate from the Karen Pryor Academy.

"I can now put initials behind my name (KPA, CTP)," she said. "People love to see you're certified, even if they don't know what that means."

Walker's husband, Dan, is her business manager. She primarily serves clients from DeKalb to Naperville, but said she's willing to travel anywhere. The couple have lived in Cortland for two years.

Between training sessions, Walker sat down to discuss the business of training animals with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.

MidWeek: Growing up, did you ever have pets?
Amber Walker: We always had pets, usually cats and rabbits. I never had a dog. I had one rabbit for 14 years, from when I was in fifth grade to college. I still get teary eyed when I think about putting her down.

MW: I imagine it's interesting working at a zoo.
AW: It's a lot of fun. It's a great place to be. There are wonderful guests. ...You name it, I've trained it; over 100 species. Anything from dolphins, otters and walrus to monkeys and alligators.

MW: How do you train an alligator?
AW: It's not tricks, like riding bikes in a show. It was getting them to be comfortable on stage, in a show, with a lot of people touching them.

MW: Wasn't that dangerous?
AW: I was bitten once by an alligator on the knee, but the worst cut was by a ring seal, which took off my pinkie finger. I still have the finger, but the nail was gone. It wasn't his fault. It was human error.

The animal is always right. When he wants to take a break, he has to take a break. You watch them and you know when they're going to do something.

MW: Have you had any other close calls?
AW: I've been with birds of prey, where I was 10 feet away, that can eat my face off.

I go into all animals with caution. People can tell me all about their dogs, but I still have to be very cautious when I meet them.

MW: Are some animals harder to train than others?
AW: There's no one species that is hardest to train. The training concepts are the same, from a cockroach to a human. Every animal has its own personality.

MW: Based on your own experiences, what are the smartest animals that you've had to deal with?
AW: Dolphins and monkeys are incredibly smart. Their intelligence levels are very high. Great apes are human smart.

MW: I've heard that horses are about the dumbest animals.
AW: I know some animal trainers who would disagree with you.

MW: What about pigs?
AW: People think they're dumb because they roll around in the mud, but they're actually very smart.

MW: What is your favorite animal?
AW: I have my favorites, but it's based on animal personality, not species. I have a favorite dolphin, named Noelani; a favorite monkey, Seymour; and a favorite otter, which I rescued in Alaska and was transported to the Shedd Aquarium, named Kiana.

I also love the penguins. They are so good and personable; so individual.

MW: You also volunteer at the Shedd Aquarium, is that right?
AW: I used to volunteer once a week – now it's once a month – in the marine mammal department. It's a long drive, but it's so worth it. I would drive an hour and a half to hang out with the beluga whales.

MW: So how did you go from training alligators to training dogs?
AW: In the zoo, you work evenings, weekends and holidays. How can I take holiday time off and go to bed at a decent time and not have to get up to rescue animals in the middle of the night? So my husband mentioned why don't I try training dogs. I tried it and enjoyed it, so we came back up here and opened a business two years ago.

I'm a full-time trainer, my husband is the business manager and I have an intern.

MW: Do you train all animals at your business?
AW: Dogs are the focus. We offer group sessions and in-home training. People like groups for social reasons, but in-home training sometimes is most needed. I also offer puppy training, beyond basics and canine good citizenship, which is the first step for a dog becoming a service dog.

MW: What basically is involved in training a dog?
AW: A lot of times you are taking a dog and putting him in a human world. You have to teach him manners. You teach him to say please and thank you. I focus on positive reinforcement and clicker methods, not punishment.

MW: Does it take long to train a dog?
AW: It varies with the dog. I can teach a dog to do circus tricks in an hour, but it won't do any good if the owners aren't committed to following up on it and practicing with them.

Most owners are seeking to cure unwanted behavior, like jumping and barking or aggressive behavior and the other things you don't want them to do. That's when I get called.

But it doesn't mean your dog isn't going to bark or bite, because it's a dog.

MW: How is the business going?
AW: My schedule is never the same. I work around group and in-house training sessions. But what is nice is I get evenings off. It's nice to be in control of my schedule and not have someone else tell you when to work.

MW: Do you have any pets of your own right now?
AW: I have a dog, Hadley. She's a yellow lab. Eight years old.

MW: I have to ask, what is Alaska like? I’ve heard it’s very expensive.
AW: It’s so expensive because they have to import everything because it’s so far away. But I love it. It’s very beautiful and everyone, they’re just different from here.

MW: Like Sarah Palin?
AW: I would never vote for her, but I would like to have her over for dinner. I understand her.

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