The canine communicator

Click here for a video of Curtis Johnson at work.

There’s nothing low-key about Curtis Johnson’s business.

When he’s working, heads turn, mouths drop; onlookers can’t help but stare.

There’s just something about a guy walking 10 dogs at the same time that commands attention.  

“We kind of tease him about being the dog whisperer on the block,” said neighbor Elizabeth Erdahl. “He just really has a command of dogs.”

Johnson is the founder and sole proprietor of Citizen Kanine, a dog behavioral business he runs from his home at 46th Street & Aldrich Avenue. He does everything from helping with dog selection to training, problem solving, and dog walking.

His surprisingly orderly daily group walks, which have included up to a dozen dogs, have earned him a bit of neighborhood fame. But Johnson is nothing but humble.

“I’ve been called a dog whisperer. Personally, it’s not one of those things, a label that I would apply,” he said. “I like dogs. I know dogs. I communicate well with dogs. If that’s dog whispering, then I’m a dog whisperer. It’s a constant effort to try and figure out with different dogs how to communicate with them and get [their behaviors] turned around.”

Johnson, 46, has been a dog lover his whole life. He rescued his first pooch off the streets of South Minneapolis as a kid and has spent the better part of his life training hunting dogs.

A couple years ago, neighbors started taking notice of Johnson’s well-behaved black Labs and began asking him for advice.

“There’s sort of an axiom that a tired dog is a good dog,” Johnson said. “So I just started working with dogs and walking them … and pretty soon people were leaving notes for me at the coffee shop and chasing me down the street, asking if I could work with their dogs.”  

Johnson started a website for Citizen Kanine and he leaves business cards at 46th Street & Bryant Avenue coffee shop Java Jacks, but that’s the extent of his marketing. He stops by the coffee shop with a pack of dogs every day, so spreading the word about his business isn’t difficult.  

“All he has to do is come here and that’s his advertisement,” said Java Jacks employee Julie Rathmann. “People will sit and have coffee and watch what a great job he does, and that’s his advertisement right there.”

Johnson’s canine crew varies from day to day. On a walk in early March, he had a Newfoundland, a golden retriever, two Australian shepherds, a yellow Lab, a puggle [pug and beagle mix], two black Labs, a standard poodle, and a German short-haired pointer.

Whenever a dog started to look distracted, Johnson said “sssst!” and the troublemaker quickly paid attention. The sound is similar to one used on National Geographic Channel’s popular TV show, “Dog Whisperer.” Johnson said he’s used the sound to get a dog’s attention since he was a kid.

He also knows the names of all the dogs he works with and the specific characteristics of each breed.

The puggle, Oliver, for instance, is easily distracted by scents, so Johnson has to make sure the energetic little dog doesn’t follow his nose and entangle the pack’s network of ropes and carabiners.    

On the early-March walk, the 10 dogs didn’t bark, pull or get out of line once.

“In a group setting, they really do well and they pick up sort of a calm energy from one another,” Johnson said. “They’re pack animals, so they all look forward to it.”

With all those dogs, bathroom stops are inevitable, so Johnson keeps his pockets full of plastic bags. The dogs are good about stopping for each other and Johnson said he’s never had a mutiny for any reason.

Walks are normally about four miles and Johnson normally stops for a “cool down” at Java Jacks. He’s a familiar site for many at the shop.

“All the regulars know him,” said area resident Kris Martinka, who frequents Java Jacks. “It’s a very interesting situation because the new people just come up and are really agog.”

Lynda Roberts, another area resident and Java Jacks customer, was standing outside the shop watching Johnson get ready for the walk in early March.

“I want to thank you so much,” she told him.

Johnson helped Roberts find Little Lady, a cocker spaniel that has helped her husband cope with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.     

Erdahl, who owns the puggle, Oliver, and a black Lab named Molly, said Johnson has been a big help in calming her dogs and teaching her to be a better owner.

“He’s taught me to use fewer words, lower my voice, be calm; [but] I still can’t do it the way he can,” Erdahl said. “It’s amazing.”

And Oliver and Molly love being in that attention-grabbing group. They perk up whenever Johnson is at the door, ready to take them on another tour of the town.  

“They like to be with their pack,” Erdahl said. “They know when he’s coming.”

For more information about Citizen Kanine, visit citizenkanine.net.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.