Blond fluff, a stubby, wagging tail and big puppy-dog eyes do not persuade Libby Rockaway to go easy on pups in training.
The Nicholasville teen said many people underestimate their puppies' potential and abilities.
"You really can expect a lot more from puppies," she said. "I see a lot of people who don't expect enough. They don't think a puppy can learn when you bring it home at 8 weeks."
The experience of being underestimated at a young age is not foreign to Rockaway, who, at 17, is a professional dog trainer, a business owner and a recently published author.
She didn't allow the opinions of others about age and ability to deter her from pursuing her dreams. She has developed a "puppy prep program," in which she trains puppies for buyers before they take them into their homes so the puppy is "jump-started" and has adapted to the home environment. Rockaway trained more than 40 puppies for Kathy Burgess, a Nicholasville dog breeder.
"I don't care that she's young," Burgess said. "She's capable of doing the job."
Burgess detected clients' hesitancy to use Rockaway's training program when they learned of her age, so Burgess encouraged her to produce a video for each client at the end of training instead of initially revealing her age.
"When they see what she does, I have clients that only want Libby to train because she does such a great job," Burgess said.
Rockaway developed her puppy-training business, Libby's Loving Leashes, during her freshman year in high school. She has loved animals from a young age. She owned a slew of pets, including goats, pigs, mice and rats, but she ultimately fell in love with dogs because they were the most responsive to training and affection.
Rockaway became involved in training eight years ago at the Jessamine County 4-H Dog Club.
Sue Wingate, leader of the 4-H Dog Club, said Rockaway proved an invaluable resource to the other children.
"She's a great kid," Win gate said. "She's been our main trainer for five years. Peer training can be hard, but she's patient with the kids and dogs."
Rockaway also hosted four Kids and Canines camps for 6- to 8-year-olds on her family's farm, where the family owns goats to produce cheese for personal use.
Recently, Rockaway self-published a puppy training manual for young people titled Puppy Steps (IngramSpark, $17.99), which she wrote during an independent study period her senior year at Trinity Christian Academy. She based her book on her experiences training dogs for Burgess, to whom the book is dedicated.
Rockaway recognized the community need for a comprehensive and kid-friendly puppy training manual and decided to write her own. Although the book is designed to be an easy read for kids, the content is suitable for novice adult trainers, she said.
"It's not dumbed down," Burgess said. "The content is good, but it's just easy and pleasurable."
The book combines techniques from three main training methods with graphics and illustrations, visuals of Rockaway performing training commands, and adorable photos of puppies. She researched online for the best self-publishing outlets and chose IngramSpark based on the color and quality of its publications.
She found and hired her illustrator, Isaac Nacilla, and editor, Joan Greenblatt, on Guru.com, where she posted job listings. Guru.com is a platform where people working on independent projects can hire free-lancers in various professions around the world. Coordinating with others to create the book proved a challenge with schoolwork.
"Juggling school as well as getting back to them and giving feedback, ... all that was really difficult," Rockaway said.
The book contains an index of commands for each day during the first two weeks of training, an equipment list of fundamentals needed for a puppy, and additional activities to engage the dog.
Her goal in writing the book was to help people understand the importance of training dogs properly while they are young, she said.
"Basically what my book is about is that you have to start out right," she said. "Puppies will get in the habit of doing the wrong thing, and it's about nipping those behaviors in the bud."
Burgess sells Rockaway's book to customers who adopt puppies from her breeding business, Comfort Retrievers. The Morris Book Shop and Most Valuable Pets also carry the book, which will be for sale Saturday at Lexington Farmers Market as part of the Homegrown Authors program. Rockaway wants to make the book more digitally accessible by developing an app and recording training videos.
Her business has expanded some, and she now is training Suzie, her second diabetic alert dog. The alert dogs accompany diabetics and detect when their blood sugar reaches unsafe levels. They can even fetch juice and meters for their owners.
Burgess encouraged Rockaway to expand her training to include service dogs. For practice, she gave her a dog that failed diabetic alert training.
Rockaway researched training methods for service dogs and attended conferences across the country to become proficient in the field. She trained her first diabetic alert dog, Sadie, last year and sold it to the family of a 7-year-old diabetic child.
During the training, Rockaway places a container at her hip with saliva from a diabetic whose blood sugar has gone above or below desired levels. The dog picks up on the scent and alerts Rockaway through pulling on the object and swiping Rockaway with her paws.
Three of every four dogs fail service training, Burgess said, but Rockaway has successfully trained one, and she potentially could have two successes in a row.
"She's really beating the odds," Burgess said.
Rockaway said she hopes to continue to train service dogs this fall with the working dog program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she plans to study cognitive science.
Burgess said Rockaway's drive and sense of morality will propel her to the top in whatever she does.
"I think she's got the capability to succeed in anything she chooses to do," Burgess said. "Kids can do so many amazing things, and they should never be held back if they're capable."