Head over to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis on a weekday morning, almost any day of the year, and you have a fairly good chance of catching Curtis Johnson strolling lakeside with an impressive crowd of furry companions. The founder and owner of Citizen Kanine, Johnson has made a career out of walking and training Minneapolis mutts.
Johnson, 53, started the business on his own in 2007, and he now employs four other people to help him handle the hounds. On any given morning, the team takes upward of 35 dogs at one time — Johnson’s personal record is 19 — on a 5-mile walk through south Minneapolis.
The most striking thing about this scene isn’t the volume of dogs but, rather, the crew’s obedience to the Citizen Kanine system. The dogs appear to take a cue from Johnson’s calm demeanor, falling into step and walking tranquilly along with their canine counterparts.
Johnson, who also coaches track and field and cross-country at Washburn High School, is likely in contention for the most number of miles logged on foot around the neighborhoods of south Minneapolis. In a recent interview, he shared some of his dog training secrets, along with the joys of experiencing the city’s parks system nearly every day of the year.
On managing 30 dogs at once
We have high expectations. As part of each walk, we stop and sit and mentally try to challenge them and provide structure — and we don’t let them bum rush the water bowl. They look at each other and model their behavior after the others. It’s basically like classroom management: If you let kids run rampant, you’ve lost any standing with them. A lot of this is putting yourself in the position where you’re providing guidance and you’re seen as credible and consistent.
On training dogs
Your dog is your mirror. A lot of the behavior you see in dogs is behavior they are reflecting back from us. If I want a calm dog, I need to be calm myself. Dogs are big-time observers. They are always watching what is happening around them.
On being called the “dog whisperer”
I don’t really like it because it implies there’s something mystical about what I do. There isn’t — it’s all really basic stuff. It’s just about having expectations and being consistent.
On walking all year round
We have weather and radar apps on our phones at our fingertips. In the summer, we try to go in the mornings and do our walks during the cooler part of the day, as well as keeping them in the shade and off asphalt when we can. Since dogs cool through their paws and panting, we are always aware and finding ways to manage heat by stopping in the shade, getting water at the Lake Harriet Band Shell, getting their feet wet on irrigated lawns — it’s a lot of little stuff. In the winter, when it gets colder than 10-below, we will shorten our routes and go places like the parkway where it’s less windy.
On dogs as man’s best friend
Dogs have evolved with us synergistically. They are alert to danger, they work with us in the field, they kill vermin. You’ve got emotional support dogs, service dogs, dogs that can alert you to cancer. They are really smart. Dogs have really integrated themselves with us.
On the changing seasons
We get to see the seasons change — there’s the migration of the birds, we see eagles come in, we see turtles starting to lay eggs. Most people don’t get to see all those things. It’s really cool when you’re out there every day, all year round, watching everything unfold.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis.