Bringing a puppy into the family can be an exciting, exhilarating experience. But as the weeks go on - and the honeymoon feeling fades away - its easy for new owners to find themselves overwhelmed by their rambunctious, quickly growing four-legged mess machine. But it doesn't have to be this way.

The Pinelands K-9 Club, a dog training center based at the 4-H center on Route 50 in Hamilton Township, offers respite to these pet owners at their wits end with a series of programs for dogs of all ages and experience.

"This is teaching dogs to be good citizens, teaching them to be socialized, to love people, and to get along with other dogs," said Anita Lupcho, co-director of training for Pinelands.

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The Club offers five class levels, from its introductory puppy course, which teaches basic socialization and obedience, through its advanced course, which gives dogs and their owners the necessary certification and knowledge to compete in shows shows.

Dogs must be under six months at the start of the puppy session to enroll, but the beginner classes and above are open to adult dogs. The puppy course is not a prerequisite to enrollment in the beginner class.

Programs cost $95 for the first six-week session, and $45 for subsequent sessions. Classes are about an hour long and are taught by licensed obedience trainers.

The difference in behavior from the start of a session and its close is striking, Lupcho said on Feb. 19 during the last class of Pinelands' most recent session.

The graduating puppies, while under control, could hardly hide their energy, while the beginner course graduates, many of them just two months removed from the puppy course, sat attentively by their owners.

"After six weeks, look at the difference," Lupcho said, comparing the dogs in the adjacent corrals. "They are sitting calmly behind their handlers' sides."

The Pinelands K-9 Club has had several success stories over the years, and last year, members' dogs earned 36 titles in show competition. But short of earning awards, many owners are happy simply to have a quality companion.

Jeff and Dawn Leek, of Mays Landing, joined the group five years ago when their golden retriever Harley was a puppy, and have continued in the program.

Last fall, the pair adopted a one-year-old golden retriever rescue named Fiona and enrolled her in the club's most recent beginner program. At first, Fiona was skittish, fearful of people and other dogs as well as certain objects.

She still has a ways to go, but her progress in these few short months has been surprising, Jeff said.

"We went through a lot of training with her, just baby steps with her," he said. "She didn't like big trash cans, didn't like stuff like that, but she's come a long way."

Fiona may have been an extreme case, but results like hers are typical for the club that prides itself on seeing few of its dogs - even "throwaway" rescues - put in shelters.

Jeff urges owners to bring in their dogs, regardless of pedigree or temperament, saying he's glad he did.

"I think anybody that has, even a rescue, they ought to look into doing it," Jeff said.

"The big thing is training the (owners) how to train the dog, because that's a big part of it. Sometimes you're not using the proper training techniques, and they teach you a lot about that."

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