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Every Dog Has its Day

Meet Tyler Muto of K9 Connection

Bernie Wagner had just been told by her dog trainer that her border collie, Breaker, could not be saved, ascribing three words that she desperately tried to avoid hearing: “Put him down.”

Breaker had a history of severe aggression toward both people and other dogs, yet Wagner remained confident that with the right trainer at the helm, he could be turned into an obedient, lovable pet. She contemplated the few options available to her until, on a routine shopping trip to the Target on Niagara Falls Boulevard, she saw two men performing dog tricks in the snow-covered parking lot. Wagner approached them and told them about Breaker’s situation.

“Tyler told me he’d train him for $800 and that it would cover the lifetime of the dog. I didn’t bat an eye,” said Wagner.

Tyler Muto and Josh Moran have come a long way since their days of eliciting potential customers in wintery parking lots. The two dog trainers now occupy a 10,000 square foot state-of-the-art and internationally recognized training facility on Niagara Street known as K9 Connection. Muto and his training staff utilize programs that integrate the most modern techniques from the various schools of dog behaviorism in order to create prime conditions for rehabilitating dogs with behavioral problems. While K9 Connection offers private lessons and group training sessions as well as a training “boot camp” that lasts anywhere from six days to four weeks, Muto, who serves as training director, notes that the company’s real legacy lay in its ability to reconnect owners with dogs they previously might have given up on.

“We’re extremely passionate not just about dealing with canine behavioral issues, but improving the lives of the people. I mean, that’s really what it really boils down to for us,” he said.

Muto carried a passion for dogs from a young age, yet never dreamed his enthusiasm would become a full-time occupation. His mother, an interior designer, had a co-worker who traveled frequently for business. Muto offered to look after his dogs and would often take them to the kennel where he realized that the owner of the kennel was also the head trainer.

“I said to myself, ‘This woman’s making a living training dogs.’ It just blew my mind,” he said.

Muto saw an opportunity to meld his philosophy degree (while minoring in psychology) with his passion for dogs. He moved to Buffalo in 2007 with his wife, who was set to became a law student. His original intention was to work under another trainer, but there wasn’t anyone using the training methodology he wanted to see. With little resources and no connections in the area, Muto took a major risk and decided to go into business himself.

“The benefit of this industry is that you can start a dog training business with almost no overhead,” said Muto. “All I would do is drive around in my Honda Civic with my dog in the backseat and go to the homes of potential clients.”

In 2011, he purchased the space on Niagara Street that K9 Connection now occupies, then a far cry from the opulence that customers walk into today. Initially, the building was completely dilapidated with significant water and mold damage. Even gaining access to the decrepit building was perhaps the most significant obstacle Muto faced in getting the enterprise off the ground.

“Most banks wouldn’t even have a conversation with me,” he said. “It was just after the housing crisis, nobody was lending, I didn’t have any equity to my name, and most banks don’t exactly take a dog training business seriously.”

Muto eventually contacted Evans Bank and was put in touch with a banker named Steve who put himself out on a limb in order to get Muto and K9 Connection the necessary financing. “I don’t know why, but for some reason this dude just believed in me,” he recalled.

Even with the building purchased, they had yet to receive a certificate of occupancy. Muto then got an invoice from his contractor stating that the remaining work would cost an extra $140,000. At that point, all of Muto’s original lending was gone. With an unusable building and no money, stress levels were at a maximum and Muto needed an out. He desperately appealed to Steve once again, and once again, he was able to come through and get Muto the lending he needed.

Today, after $45,000 of renovations in the foyer area and about $350,000 in total, the inside of 484 Niagara Street exudes the lavish coziness of a log cabin with intricate wood work. The facility includes two simple training spaces, a kennel room and an additional yard. K9 Connection now boasts eight other employees and is training a boot camp class consisting of eight dogs.

Word has also spread about the resilient and proven methods utilized by Muto and K9. A New Zealand woman who began following Muto’s work posted on his YouTube channel came to a session on Muto’s seminar circuit and asked if he’d work with her dog. Another woman drove six days from Los Angeles. Muto also notes that his staff often sees dogs from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and parts of Canada. They’ve worked with several dogs from Georgia, Florida and California.

Guiding the tender yet effective training methods employed by Muto and K9 is a paradigm called “Dogsmanship,” a term Muto and Chicago-based trained Chad Mackin helped to popularize. Muto absorbed the notion after reading a book by prominent horse trainer Pat Parelli who explained “Horsemanship” as a term that signified the relationship between the animal and the human where consideration of the animal always comes first. Dogsmanship, to Muto, is the meeting ground where traditional dog training interconnects with an understanding of the psychology of the dog as well as the dynamics involved in the dog-human relationship.

“When many people think of dog training, they think of the end goal. ‘I need to train my dog to walk nicely on a leash.’ With Dogsmanship, there is no end game,” said Muto. “There’s this constant striving to improve our relationship, ability to communicate and knowledge about the dog.”

It is an archetype that has not only spelled success for K9 Connection, but has garnered notable praise for Muto. In 2013, he was elected to serve on the Board of Directors for the International Association of Canine Professionals and was promoted to fill a seat as the organization’s Vice President, the youngest ever to be granted this honor. Muto also received the award for Young Entrepreneur of the Year, given to him by the Buffalo District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Though the plaster walls and rubber floors of K9’s training spaces may seem overwhelmingly simple, what sets the company apart is its ability to utilize the entire neighborhood as a training ground. Muto noted that prior to the company’s location on Niagara Street, they rented out space in Tonawanda, but are now seeing a much more effective body of work because of the constant activity around them. This in turn translates well to the immersive training of the dogs.

“We’re training your dog for the world in the sense that you can take your dog anywhere and integrate them seamlessly,” said Muto. “We want our dogs to be a part of our lives, not separate from them.”

Wagner was 84 when she first met Muto on that first icy night in the middle of a parking lot. She’s now 88, and her fateful encounter with Muto and Moran gave her the ability to prolong both Breaker’s life and her own. Because of Muto’s training methods, Breaker can now join her on her daily jogs through the park near her home in Pendleton, NY without fear that he’ll attack a bystander.

“Most people think I should be sitting in a rocking chair somewhere,” said Wagner. “I’m out running border collies. These guys keep me moving.”

“It’s somewhat ironic,” said Muto on his company’s ability to save dogs from ominous fates. “When someone owns a dog, it’s often the thing they love the most, but also the source of the most frustration in their life. If we can turn that situation around for somebody, that person’s a friend for life.”

Wagner attributes her relationship with her border collies as the key to her longevity and health. “They’re what’s kept me alive,” she said. “When I tried to adopt a dog at 80, I didn’t know if they’d let me adopt one because of my age. But then I got younger as time went on.”

It is the stories of the individual like Wagner’s, ones that turn people from simple dog owners into humans hoping to build a lasting and meaningful connection with their animals, that motivate Muto and K9 Connection to continue to grow internally without overexpanding and diminishing the most important service they offer: the opportunity to tangibly change a dog owner’s life for the better.

“We want to get better, not bigger. We’re never going to stop trying to get better at what we do,” said Muto. “I’m not the best ever. There are people out there doing some aspect better than me. The beautiful thing about this industry is that you can never know it all. There’s always something more to learn.”

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