Over the course of the six-episode first season of his new Netflix series “Canine Intervention,” dog trainer and owner of California K9 Solutions Jas Leverette travels to clients around the Bay Area and down in Los Angeles, but is effectively sharing his mission and methods internationally.
“I was just fed up with dog shows that didn’t really give people a message. You can see the before and after, but I like to show people the process,” he tells Variety.
For Leverette, this process heavily involves The Box, a small wooden pallet that he brings to sessions with dogs that need everything from basic obedience to anti-aggressive behavioral sessions. It is on that box he asks a dog to sit or stand, teaching them focus and stillness as they learn their new tasks or hone newly-acquired skills. The Box means “work” for the dog, while “break” comes when the dog gets down off the box and can engage in a more playful manner, so they are constantly rewarded and positively reinforced.
Leverette’s training offerings also include more specialized work, including agility and protection, the latter which gets spotlighted in a special episode featuring boxer Andre Berto and his family, who are clients of Leverette’s.
Here, Leverette talks with Variety about building this new show and the Box method.
How did you determine how much actual training to showcase in “Canine Intervention,” given that you’re basically teaching people how to do this on their own, at home?
Netflix wanted to have it be teaching-style, where I actually was giving gems. I do have a system, and some people will want to dive deeper in. I’m confident in my system and confident in my ability as a business person to not be putting myself in jeopardy because I’m showing some things. I’m a man of service [and] my overall goal is to reduce the euthanasia rate by 50%. Having this level of exposure and giving people who can’t afford dog training [tips] — if I can help people in need, I feel like I’ll get my blessings. Ultimately where I’m really focused [is] on getting this message and getting this training out into the world.
In the first episode, you take the dog back to your facility for a few weeks, but in other episodes you do leave it more up to the people who live with the dog to do the daily training. What determines that and how does it affect how long you’re working with a dog and their human?
It depends on the dog and the goals we’re trying to accomplish. Certain dogs have more issues, certain owners have less time, so it’s kind of a combination. We come up with a game plan for each. It can take longer depending on how deep that behavior is; if we’re dealing with aggression, how much aggression? If you want to do protection, what level of protection? It all varies based on the client. But first thing’s first, you’ve got to build that communication with your dog and get them motivated.
You’re shown splitting time between the Bay Area and L.A., and to a lot of people, L.A. looks very dog-friendly, given how many people bring their dogs to malls and restaurants. Do you actually find the kind of training you are asked to do is very different in both places?
The whole goal of our system is to be able to take your dog anywhere. But of course that is up to the handler to make sure they’re practicing and reinforcing. What happens with our clients in L.A. a lot of the times is we take [the dog for a few weeks] because they’re so busy with their schedules. But no matter what, you can’t get away without putting in the work. This is a living, breathing animal, like a child to a degree, and they take attention. They need to be engaged, they need to be communicated with, they need to be stimulated. That’s the hardest part. I prefer to have clients who are dedicated because that shows they want to do the footwork themselves — they become the trainer. The dog might listen to me and the dog might listen to my staff, but if the handler starts letting them slip through the cracks and not hold up that 15-minute a day discipline then sometimes the dog will start to go backwards.
The Box is used for those focus sessions, but how often do you find it also works for trust and safety issues for dogs?
The whole system starts off as a game, with break and reward. They learn to get the sustainment marker and the release marker, and what happens is the dog sees that so once you tell them they’re ready to train, [you’re] encouraging them to get on the box, and creating that safe space. What we’re essentially teaching the dog is, they learn the longer they wait the better their reward can be. That turns into the safe space because the dog will go up there on their own because they know something good will come from it. It can be for staying in the house or for a circus trick; the box is the foundation but the dog can learn to do so many different things. He knows he’ll get rewarded for being up there and then he’ll be rewarded for being released.
How did you first develop the idea of using a box when you were beginning your career?
I like to use the box because I like to use tools that aid in a dog’s learning process. It has this different space and different scent. If you tell a dog, “No, you moved, go back” on the floor, he doesn’t necessarily know where. The box is an isolated place that gives the dog that sense of security. And you can take the box and put it by the front door or at the grocery store and the dog will have that association of, “OK, we’re in training mode.” It’s a formal way of training, and eventually we can phase the box out, but it’s a first step. And it keeps the dog’s posture correct.
Working with Andre’s family as shown in “Canine Intervention” was a tune-up; Nino was previously taught the protection commands and skills. If you train a dog for more basic things, how important are those kinds of follow ups?
Ideally I like to check in and see how they’re communicating. People can get very comfortable and their life takes over and they forget about that 15 minutes. I have a son, but when we wake up in the morning I hang out with him and turn on his cartoons and go through that process and that’s part of bonding with my son so later on he’ll have a certain trust and expectation from me. Animals have to have that [too]. They have to trust and expect you’ll play with them so they’re not sitting around bored and become destructive and get in trouble because they’re not given the proper outlet.
Some of these dogs were just meeting you for the first time on this show, and you brought with you a camera crew. How did that affect the process?
We just set up stationary cameras. It was definitely something a lot of the dogs had to get used to, but we tried to be like a fly on the wall, so we didn’t get too close. I did a lot of managing of the camera crew to give them proper directions and tell them things that would create security with the dog.
In the last episode, you train rescue dogs so they are ready to be adopted. How common is that for you?
I do work with several rescues that refer me business — I work with the Humane Society and animal control and I get referrals from a lot of different areas. I’m open to as many relationships with rescues as I can get, but a lot of times people are in it with the right heart but they’re not going about it the right away. Even in [that] episode, I had to go in and say, “OK you’re hoarding a lot of dogs here and that’s creating more problems. Even though you’re trying to do a good thing, it’s creating more stress for the dogs.” So you have to get the knowledge of handling properly.
Do you think every rescue needs a trainer in order to best set these dogs up for forever homes?
With rescues, I think we just need more education. There needs to be some person on staff who’s into dog behavior — who has experience or certification or hours, some track record. They need to understand the whole concept of temperament and understand how to communicate — reading a dog’s body language and expression — understanding what kind of a life he was introduced to and what kind of a life he should have been introduced to. The only way we’re going to change the rate of euthanasia is by education.
“Canine Intervention” is streaming now on Netflix.