Backstory: Aaron Terwiske Saturday feature


* Backstory is a blog that allows Herald reporters and photographers to share the story behind the stories and photos that are published in The Herald.


By Alexandra Sondeen
Herald Staff Writer

Around the Herald newsroom, no one is surprised when I grab all the animal-related stories or propose several of them at once. Suffice it to say I’m a wee bit of an animal lover.

I’m particularly nuts about dogs, my own dog especially. My husband and I adopted a goofy brindle mutt, Ratchet, in August 2010 and he is spoiled beyond belief. He probably has more toys than the both of us combined had as kids. He certainly has more photos and videos of him than we do of us, pretty much all taken by his mama — me.

And he’s leading my first blog post for The Herald. Go figure. Give me any excuse to talk about him and I’ll take it.

It was Ratchet that led me to dog trainer Aaron Terwiske, the subject of the Aug. 11 Saturday feature story, “Dog’s Best Friend .” While our pooch has been a nearly perfect dog from the time we got him, he has one major problem.

Ratchet is a rescue who is absolutely terrified of loud cracks and bangs, particularly fireworks.
He was a complete wreck after days of poppers, bottle rockets and big fireworks going off all around our rental house in downtown Jasper over the Fourth of July week last year. For days we had to force him out the door to go to the bathroom. It was at least a week before we could get him to even walk around the block, if you could call what he did “walking.” He’d throw himself down on the ground, sometimes in the middle of the road, shaking like a spinning washing machine with an unbalanced load and refusing to go in any direction but homeward. Try to tow him along and he’d either flip onto his back and slide as you pulled or roll and flop and yank backward.

I worried someone would call the police on me for animal abuse when I was sometimes forced to quite literally drag the shuddering dog down the street. It was hard enough explaining it to the people who stopped to see if everything was OK while Ratchet slumped against their legs seemingly begging to be saved.

It was heart-breaking. The easygoing pup who bounced around the house in pure glee and nearly ran you over on the way to the door as soon as you said “Outside” had vanished. He’d slink away and hide instead, curling into a quivering ball of goo in a corner somewhere. Ratchet at times was so stressed his little heart would beat like a drumroll against my hand and I seriously worried it might explode.

No matter what products or techniques we tried, nothing worked. I felt like the worst dog parent ever. Weeks had gone by with little progress.

Enter Aaron.

Another dog owner I had met at the Huntingburg Bark Park recommended Aaron’s obedience classes. Then a fellow Herald writer recommended him and I decided to give it a try. What could it hurt? While Ratchet already knew most of the basic commands and a few tricks, maybe the formal training would flip a switch in his head and I could get him walking again.

I prayed and begged and pleaded with the heavens for it to work. I was facing certain mental breakdown complete with snotty, blubbering sobs all over my husband’s shirt if my little fur-child kept ripping my heart out with those panic-stricken, terror-filled eyes.

It was easy to tell from the get-go that Aaron knew what he was doing. The Doberman and border collie he brought for demonstrations were so keyed into him it was hard to tell whether the dogs responded to his verbal and visual commands or by telepathic communication. After the first couple of classes, I told Aaron about Ratchet’s problem and nearly burst into tears just asking him what in the world I could do.

Aaron said my own tangled emotions were affecting Ratchet. Despite my attempts to mask it, the dog picked up on my apprehension, concern, frustration and sadness every time I tried to get him to walk. Since I wasn’t feeling calm and secure, there was no reason for him to feel that way. Aaron made me realize that though I had done just about everything I could think of to help my dog feel better, perhaps it was partly my fault he was still so scared.


Aaron suggested mixing obedience training into our walks. Getting into the training mode might settle my own emotions and get Ratchet focused on the training instead of his fear. So I tried it. It was slow going, but Ratchet began to walk farther the longer I kept at it.

The training class had long since ended, but when Ratchet finally got through one of our usual long routes, I could have hunted Aaron down and kissed him. He had been dead on.

Pretty much everyone I talked to about Ratchet during this process knew or had heard of Aaron. I can’t count how many people told me he had worked wonders for their dogs through his classes, and the continued high praise combined with my own experience got my attention.

I proposed doing a Saturday feature about Aaron and got the go-ahead from my editors.

Following Aaron over the last few months, I marveled at his knowledge and ability with dogs.
Even the ill-mannered dogs whose owners had trouble getting them to cooperate didn’t fight Aaron very long. When he got a miniature pinscher who snarled and snapped at his owner anytime she tried to make him do something to plant his butt on the ground and stay there for a full minute, I nearly gave him a standing ovation.

Watching Aaron at obedience shows is no less impressive. Not only do his dogs perform almost flawlessly, everyone knows him and wants his help with the events. They’d seek him out and ask questions instead of finding an event official. I’d be talking to him to glean some information for the feature story and he’d get interrupted by someone who had questions or wanted a critique of their performance. It was slightly infuriating at times, honestly, but it was interesting to see the dynamics of this community of dog lovers and how Aaron always seemed to be at or near the center of it.

I’d sit next to him to watch other competitors show their dogs and found myself listening to him say, “Oh, that’ll be a point off” or “She’s doing really well” or “He should be walking faster. The dog should be trotting.” If he knew the competitor, he’d immediately look over the officials’ shoulders for the final score and head off to be the first one to tell that person how she did, what was good and what she can work on for next time.

When I first asked him about doing the story, I was slightly surprised that Aaron remembered who I was several months after I had finished his class. I shouldn’t have been. The man is completely devoted to dogs and helping their owners work and bond with them.

Ratchet still occasionally lies down while out on walks, but I think now it’s more of a trick he learned from his previous trauma to try to get me to go where he wants to go rather than a fearful collapse. I let him get away with it sometimes (sorry, Aaron), but most of the time I can get him going without much fuss.

It’s nice to see Ratchet bouncing around the house again with his tail up and wagging, ready to go outside. My silly, lovable, happy boy is back, and I am forever grateful for Aaron’s help in making that happen.

So move over, Cesar Millan. Step aside, Victoria Stilwell. Aaron Terwiske is the top dog trainer in this town.

Contact Alexandra Sondeen at


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