Neenah woman whose dogs were shot works to protect others

Nate Beck, Oshkosh Northwestern

As Maria Ochs was moving into a new home three years ago in Janesville, her dog Pepper spied a squirrel and chased it into her new neighbor’s yard. Ochs’ other dog, Kota, followed close behind.

Ochs then heard a cluster of loud pops, which she first took to be fireworks.

But those pops were gunshots. Ochs’ neighbor Brandon Steinke had been doing yard work, carrying a .380 pistol, when he saw the dogs barge into his yard. Fearful, he fired at the dogs to defend himself, he told police.

Pepper, adopted by Ochs after he was rescued from a dog-fighting ring, died that day. Two-year-old Kota was wounded in the shooting and died months later.

“I put everything I had into saving my dog that survived,” Ochs says. “But she couldn’t come back from it.”

Steinke did not face charges in the shooting.

After that tragic day, Ochs began learning all she could about what makes dogs act out in menacing ways. She volunteered for hours at animal shelters, learning how to treat dogs that are “reactive,” as she calls it: quick to express anger, fear and excitement.

Because Ochs helped treat so many dogs since the shooting, she said, opening a clinic felt like a logical next step. Last week, she took that step, opening the C-K9 Club in Neenah. The club’s goal is to help anxious dogs become more comfortable around humans and other animals.

Dogs react in anger, fear or other emotions when they are uneasy. Increased contact with people and other animals helps ease those tensions, so the dogs don’t respond to them with behavior that people might find threatening.

Speaking inside the center less than a week before opening day, Ochs says she can feel the excitement that comes with starting a fresh venture. She also feels that she’s found an outlet for working out the grief of losing her dogs, she says.

The club is a specialized gym where dog owners can work out while their pets play. There’s an indoor playground for kids to explore with their dogs, plus a human-sized doghouse with faux-fur carpeting. For dogs that are skittish of people and other animals, focusing on a task — such as digging or chasing a lure — can help divert their anxiety.

In a grassy area behind the building, Ochs has set up an obstacle course for dogs, with hurdles and tunnels. There’s a sand pit for dogs that like to dig and a so-called lure course, where dogs that favor sight over other senses can chase after a mechanically controlled lure on a string.

Unlike some dog trainers, who don’t require owners to hang around for lessons, Ochs expects people to be part of the training process.

“I have literally put all my life into this,” Ochs said. “I put everything into these dogs.”

This is an AP member exchange story.