At eight years old I lived in the Bronx in an apartment building next to P.S. 52 the school I attended. Our fifth floor apartment windows overlooked the large school yard. One Saturday morning at about ten I looked out our window at the school yard and notice a man with a really good looking German Shepard. He was large and wore a beret. I watched them, he took the leash off his dog and let his dog walked around some. Then he told his dog to sit at his left side and the dog did with no leash. He threw a ball far away and the dog just sat next to him. Suddenly on the man’s say so the dog bolted to fetch the ball, returned to the man and sat right in front of him. The man bent over, put his hand in front of the dog’s mouth said something and the dog dropped the ball into the man’s hand. I don’t know about you, but to this eight year old boy, that was amazing. The following Saturday they were there again and I went downstairs to be amazed up close. This turned out to be the beginning of a regular Saturday morning routine which I enjoyed watching for several weeks. After weeks of watching for whatever reason I decided my dog should be able to do that. We had a Boxer named Flashy that we got as an older pup, probably around eight to ten months old (just me guessing from memory) from the ASPCA. Flashy was a great companion, well behave and lots of fun. I had no idea how I was going to train Flashy to do what that Shepard did, but fortunately for me when your eight years old you don’t know that you should not be able to do things you don’t know how to do, so I proceeded to train Flashy. There was not enough room in our apartment, outside was too big, so I trained Flashy in the 5th floor hallway landing of our building which I decided was long enough to train the retrieve. I have a vague recollection of the training process, but I know that after several weeks I was able to take Flashy to the school yard to practice and she performed just like that awesome Shepard did. The following Saturday morning I made a point of getting to the school yard before ten and stayed by the entrance watching and waiting for the large, bald, beret wearing man and his very cool dog. When I saw them coming down the block Flashy and I quickly took our place where he usually stood and as they arrived we did our thing just like they did.
Flashy sat at my left side with no leash, then I threw a ball as far as I could and she just sat there, on my say so Flashy bolted to fetch the ball, returned to me, sat right in front of me, I bent over, put my hand in front her mouth, told her “drop it” and she dropped the ball into my hand. We repeated that a few times and then I put Flashy on her leash and proceeded to leave the yard proud as could be of my good girl. We passed them at the entrance of the yard where they were watching us from. Thinking back it would been really cool if that man would have said something nice to me about what he saw, but he said nothing and we went on our way.
When I was sixteen years old I left school and went to a Job Corps center in Clearfield, Utah. I spent a year there and earned a General Equivalency Diploma and a certificate for social services aide. When I returned home I discovered that no one wants to hire a seventeen year old social service worker with obviously no experience. So I started looking for whatever work might be available. One day while hanging in a park with some friends we were joined by another friend and after greeting each other he began to complain about the stupid job he just quit. I felt bad for him and a bit guilty because I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a job opening somewhere and I don’t know where he worked. A little later in the conversation the location of his former employer was revealed. As it turns out this guy used to work at a dog training kennel on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. What was I to do? Soon after that I said goodbye to everyone and went on my way to see if the kennel might be interested in hiring me. They were and they did hire me as kennel help. That meant I was responsible for cleaning 25 runs daily as needed, feeding, watering, bathing, brushing, walking and anything else they could think of, but no training. For the next three or four months I did my job and spent any free time observing the trainers train and asking questions. There were three trainers that worked there. Charlie and Cindy were full time trainers and Martin was a guy who came occasionally as needed. Martin specialized in protection or “attack on command” training as it was called then. I learned different concepts about the same things from each of these trainers which turns out to be the way the rest of my dog training continued to develop and does to this day. My interest in training grew stronger and when I expressed that interest to the two brothers that owned the business they assured me that it was too difficult and I was not ready. I persisted and eventually they agreed to let me work with a re-train. This was an adult male German Shepard that they had trained some time ago and had become disobedient to his owner. The brothers figured that an adult dog that had learned disobedience would guarantee my failure and in my disappointment I would go back to being a kennel boy. The flaw with their plan was that since I did not know I was supposed to fail I went ahead and trained the dog and had him working like a champ. The dog worked so well that they were not able to hide how impressed they were. So the new deal was that as long as I did not neglect my responsibilities I could train dogs as time allowed. After a few months of that they decided to hire someone else to do kennel work and I spent most of my time training. After about a year there I realized that the brothers weren’t very nice people and had questionable ethics and integrity.
During my time working for the brothers my older sister who I visited often became reacquainted with her ex. He was a nice guy who I liked and as it turns out at that time happened to own a really handsome six month old German Shepard pup named Lobo (wolf in Spanish) who became my buddy real quick. I entertained myself by taking Lobo for walks and training was not optional for me, it was already the way of life so Lobo learned to be a better member of society. His owner recognizing the improvement and value of the free training gave me carte blanche with Lobo over the next two months Lobo and I spent a lot of time together and his obedience became bullet proof. We walked up and down Fordham Road in the Bronx, between Webster Avenue and the Grand Concourse weaving around shoppers while Lobo faithfully heeled on and later off leash. We would stop at a crowded corner waiting for the light to turn green so the crowd could cross and when it did I would tell Lobo to “stay” and I proceed to cross the street with the crowd. He would stay (not a chance he would move) there and when I got half way across or better I would call him to a “heel” and he would bolt from that “sit-stay” work his way through the crowd of people crossing in both directions and come to my left side and look up to hear my “good boy”, “good Lobo”. In that moment I knew that dog and I couldn’t be much happier. His owner was very happy as well when he learn all that his Lobo knew and I taught him how to handle his completely off leash trained eight month old pup. Anyway soon after that he was my sister’s ex again and he and Lobo went on their way and I never saw them again. I trust they were good to each other for some time after that.
I have a never-ending appreciation for my time with Lobo. His desire and willingness to please made him so trainable and that experience allowed me to realize my love, aptitude and capability for training dogs. You see I was hired and still working as “kennel help” at K-9 Guardians on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. A job that I took pride in doing well. I took care of 20-25 dogs daily cleaning runs, feeding, watering, bathing, grooming, medicating, and treating them like they were mine. I learned about maintaining Doberman ears that were cropped and needed to stand properly and their docked tails. I learned to vaccinate dogs as needed. Why I even learned about mange mites and how terrible it is to allow one dog with mange to contaminate the kennel and cause you to have to put the entire kennel on a daily mange shampoo schedule that needed to be repeated several times to eradicate the mites. Yes, bathing every dog, working up a lather and waiting 20 minutes to rinse, dry and put them up to get the next one. That took up any free time I might have had and it went on for weeks because of fear of re-contamination. You should know that we also trained protection/attack dogs and not all the dogs were my friend. Some dogs had to be put in the tub by the trainers and tied in at which time I got to bath them. The tie down held them in the tub, but they still were able to turn their head and bite so when I washed the shoulder, neck and head I had to wear a leather sleeve and tolerate the pressure of the bite on my arm while making sure my unprotected hand was not bit. Don't know why we didn't muzzle them. Speaking of free time, I learned to do my tasks good and fast so I could spend my free time watching the trainers work the dogs on obedience and protection training which is how I learned to work with Lobo. I remember Charlie who was a trainer who handled the dogs well and Cindy, born and raised in Finland, who was also good with the dogs and gave me a feel for European style handling and training. Then there was Marvin, an American hero who served several tours as a combat canine handler in Vietnam and I am honored to say that in time Marvin saw enough in me to share with me some of his experiences while serving in war with his canine partner. These stories, that I choose to not share in detail here, gave me a very real sense of the capability that a well-chosen and properly trained canine team can possess. Marvin and his dog saved each other’s lives on more than one occasion and they were responsible for preventing many American troops from being ambushed by the enemy. These shared experiences and knowledge were significant to my foundation in professional dog training and motivated me to add trainer to my job at the kennel. As good as some of the knowledge gained on this job was, there were also “what not to do” moments experienced which were every bit as important and not worth sharing here. I let my employers know that I wanted to train dogs as part of my job. They preferred to keep me as kennel help and tried to discourage me by assigning me to retrain a German Shepard that was brought in because his owner who purchased him from us complained that the dog was no longer obedient. My employers figured that a dog that had learned to be disobedient would give me a hard-enough experience, because in their experience retrains were a struggle for trainers and that would make me realize I was not a trainer. Unfortunately for them, nobody told me I was supposed to fail, and while it was more difficult than training Lobo it serve to teach me that that perseverance is part of dog training. I had that dog working like a champ and my ability became obvious to all. It wasn't much longer before they decided they were better off using me as a trainer and hired other kennel care help and I insured they did their job well. I trained there for less than a year and as I learned more about my employers and how they did business I felt a need to move on and away from them. I decided to try Florida for a change and wound up living there for about six months. While in Florida I worked in construction and an airplane body shop at Fort Lauderdale airport and looked for possibilities in dog training. That search introduced me to the concept of “in home dog training” which did not exist in New York. I did not get a dog training job, in part because I didn't think I would be there that long, and I was right. While I was there however I got a puppy. I found a litter of German Shorthaired Pointers that impressed me, especially the one pup that kept running around a big tree with large roots and every time he rounded the tree he attempted to jump a tall root, tripped over it, ran around again, tripped again and did so several times with no sign of discouragement. That wound up being my “Utah”, one of the best dogs I've known to this day. Utah and I were almost never apart and learned much from each other. He grew to be a great looking dog with excellent temperament and attitude. His courage, bravery and tenacity (running around that tree) was among the top three dogs I have ever worked with. His obedience was rock solid.
When I returned to NYC I found a job training at K-9 Command Dogs on 204th Street in northern Manhattan. I also started offering private “in home training lessons” to dog owners, which was a new approach in the area. The private lessons were slow going at first as I was on a very limited advertising and relied a lot word of mouth. The concept was well received and it wasn’t long before other trainers were doing the same and in-home dog training companies sprouted. As it turned out the owner of K-9 Command Dogs was the father in law of one of one of the brothers that previously employed me. This was unfortunate because he also had similar business practices. I grew there gaining training confidence and experience and decided to move on.
I learned about a kennel operation in Yonkers, K9 Patrol Dogs and after interviewing with the owner, I got hired.
To be continued: