Laura Witkowski

It could have been the mutt named Dougie her family had when Laura Witkowski was growing up in Clarkston.

Or maybe it was Peanut, the tiny pet shop poodle who came along a few years later.

More than likely, Laura says now, it was when she was a teenager and became more aware of animal welfare and the issues surrounding them that her life took a turn toward today.

Now, she’s a certified dog trainer alongside her wife Jane Wolff, operating a training business and partnering as an MPA member to make things better for dogs ruled by fear and aggression, for the ones stuck in shelters, and for the humans who care for them.

“Our goal, and this stems from MPA’s goals, is to make life for the dogs in shelters better,” she says. “But, that’s a tall ask. Things are really strained in shelters right now, and that’s where I think we can help.

“Working in silos doesn’t help. Networking and collaborating can make a huge difference. I like that MPA gives people the chance to do that.”

Laura said, along with everything else that occupies her attention, she’s working on demonstration materials for the Michigan Pet Alliance Shelter & Rescue Training Program. The program is aimed at teaching shelter management, staff and volunteers how to address the psychological needs and welfare of the animals in their care. It will also help them better consider the physical opportunities and limitations of their shelters or rescues.

MPA will offer a variety of instructor-led courses, from one-on-one sessions with a certified trainer, small classroom settings, large seminars and online webinars to help attendees upgrade their knowledge and skills. The demonstrations will be offered with real-time feedback and real-world assignments they can immediately apply to their work.

Laura’s looking forward to the opportunities the demonstration programs will provide to MPA members who most need them.

“Having more tools helps take some of the weight off of your shoulders,” she said. “More tools and resources, more connections between communities can make a difference.”

The idea of a community of animal welfare workers and organizations comes up a lot in a conversation with Laura. She’s a firm believer in making the kinds of connections that can build tighter networks and ensure that knowledge is shared among those who most need it.

“I think about my friends and colleagues who work in this environment,” she said. “Shelter and rescue work is hard. You need to have that connection with other people.

“But, it’s important that we keep resources local, community-based. The job of a good non-profit is to be an entity that provides help for their community and help for the people and animals they serve.”

Laura’s vision is for animal welfare organizations to always be aware of what’s going on with their neighboring organizations and to stand ready to help in any way they can, whether it’s through sharing resources or sharing the kind of knowledge that can make a difference.

“In my mind, the shelter system needs to be a community,” she said. “We need to be on the same page about everything. We have to think about how a group in a particular geographic area can help those communities nearby.”

For Laura and Jane and their training business, Good Wolff, that community is the Ann Arbor area with their home base in Ypsilanti. Both are graduates of the Academy for Dog Trainers; Jane specializes in dogs with separation anxiety while Laura leans toward helping dogs with fear and aggression issues.

At one time, before Good Wolff, Laura worked with Greyhound Rescue with eight dogs passing through her house. She said that experience helped her realize her skills with dogs, but it wasn’t enough. Sometime after that, while she was a psych major at Detroit Mercy, she adopted a pittie from Detroit, one that acted somewhat aggressively.

“That was new to me,” she said. “I thought about getting a trainer and brought one in. I learned more about dogs in the first 20 minutes, reading their body language and about what motivates them to act in a certain way. That was a real lightbulb moment for me.

“I’d already been interested in motivation in my studies and I just thought, this is for me. I was working in advertising and was a little lost at sea. I just felt I needed a purpose.”

So, she sought the right training, absorbed all the knowledge and experience she could gather, and turned it into a steady business. Now, she and Jane, true to their belief in community connections, have made MPA part of their work.

“Michigan Pet Alliance – alliance – it’s right in the name,” she said. “That’s a really important word in this context.”