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Sep 19th
10,000 Days With Dogs PDF Print E-mail
Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor; Photos by Silvia Ros   
March 2019

The leash life -- a memoir

My life with four-legged friends -- big and small, sweet and mean

OCover_Shot_0551ver the years as a dog trainer, my favorite leash has handled thousands of dogs. Not quite six feet long, it was cut from cowhide that was dyed a deep reddish-brown. There are no rivets at the brass clip or at the handle loop. “This way, it doesn’t weaken the leather,” said Johnny Gonzalez, master leather craftsman, when he sold me his handiwork 30 years ago.

Johnny was also known as a veteran dog trainer, leading the Schutzhund club in Hillsborough County. Schutzhund is a sport that develops a dog’s obedience, tracking, and protection skills. In German, the word means “protection dog.” It’s a respected dog-training tradition, meant to create the perfect canine companion: a dog that’s useful to humans and can just about do it all.

He was right. His use of braiding and knots, rather than rivets, has held up for three decades. How many leashes can say that? It has lasted through scorching hot South Florida summers, three hurricanes, and unruly dogs. And right along with it, somehow, I’ve lasted, too, in the dog business.

When people learn that I work with dogs, teaching obedience commands, good manners, and solving bad behavior issues, they often say, “That must be such a fun job.” It has been rewarding in many ways, but I doubt people know just how tough it can be as well. Long hours, rare days off, zero sick days, torn ligaments, ringworm, tick infestations, and lots of ramen noodle suppers -- those early years have taken a toll on body and spirit. There is heartbreak that clients only live an average of 12 years, and nightmares about animal abuse and neglect you’ve seen. And dog bites, especially the one by a 100-plus-pound German shepherd named Hans that tore muscles from my forearm and for a while took the use of a couple of fingers.

As Dr. Callahan went to work repairing the damage, he chatted me up as if we were old buddies down at a local watering hole. Out of nowhere I asked the hand surgeon, “Will I be able to play the guitar again?”

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“Oh, sure, sure,” he answered. “No reason why you couldn’t.”

Funny how playing the guitar was suddenly very important to me, although I hadn’t picked up my six-string in 15 years.

Clients sometimes smile and ask, “Can you train my husband, too?” Remove “my husband” and insert “my kids” or “my wife” -- I’ve heard them all. They ask if I’m a dog whisperer. “Cesar Millan is the dog whisperer,” I say. “I’m just a dog trainer.”

And, “How did you get into dog training?”

“I married a dog trainer,” I tell them.

I met my late ex-husband Jack in February 1987, while on vacation for Mets spring training games in St. Petersburg. He was a Southern boy who didn’t care much for New York City, where I lived and worked for a stock photo agency. By the summer, we moved into a pink house near Park Street in St. Pete, on the “pink streets,” streets paved with the red Georgia brick of his home state. Through marriage, I was officially thrown into the dog business, part owner of Good Dog Bad Dog.

Soon I went from giving out business cards at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market on weekends to airing a television commercial several times a week. Still, we could only afford one phone number and the cheap time slots for the ad. When it ran at 2:00 a.m., at 2:01 we’d get “wake-up calls” from prospective clients.

With each training job I landed, I observed Jack work and learned dog training right along with the dogs. I learned how to train a customer’s dog to respond to a handful of commands, how to end certain bad behaviors and how to train a dog in personal protection -- in other words, teaching them to bite and release a bite on command similar to police K9 training. I even became skilled at taking the bite on an agitation sleeve. In a couple of years, I was training clients’ dogs myself.


TCoverStory_2_0383here’s much to be said for making mistakes. They were my great teachers. Now I know not to give a puppy access to water overnight. Mistakes taught me that doggie Houdinis can escape from the most impenetrable of spaces. They showed me how dogs can back out of collars, and that it’s downright impossible to train a greyhound to sit.

Other people along the way, including clients, have given me tips that have proved useful, like how to Krazy-Glue a ripped ear back together or how to get a dog to not hoover up his kibble. A boat owner once suggested the use of an air horn to stop unwanted canine behavior. I haven’t tried that myself, but I pass on the tip to others in need.

The down-and-dirtiest education for me came from operating the guard dog rental division of our business, which I did for about seven years. While Jack trained dogs, going to people’s homes for obedience and personal protection training, it was my job to find clients and take care of the guard dog side of things. Our dogs were placed at car lots, paving companies, auto body shops, boat builders, and junkyards. Each dog had to be registered as a guard dog with Pinellas County Animal Control and wore a large yellow county ID tag on its collar. Establishments with guard dogs were required to display “Warning: Bad Dog” signs on buildings and fences.

These dogs either lived on the client premises or were dropped off at night and picked up in the morning, then brought back to our house and eventually to a kennel space we rented. In the early days before having a truck, I’d load a station wagon with several aggressive dogs, each tied to a separate nook of the car, out of biting distance from one another. There must have been an angel or a saint who kept those car rides safe from disaster.

Today alarms and video surveillance are great for recording a crime after the fact, but dogs are still one of the best ways to prevent break-ins. We only had one major competitor, Thunder Bay K9, which had dozens of guard dog rentals throughout Pinellas County. Some businesses even bought our dogs to protect their properties.

CoverStory_3Jack had no problem finding crazy-ass dogs. Maybe it was because he had a big ax to grind with the world and was half-crazed himself, with Love/Hate tattoos on his knuckles and a hair-trigger temper that drew him to dogs utterly unfit for society. They were kindred spirits: lost, unlovable souls lashing out at those around them. Many of these wild dogs were given to him, found through last-ditch-effort classified ads taken out by owners before they would have euthanized the dogs. With very little training, these dogs were natural biters -- a problem for average folks, but great for a guard dog business.

These people-aggressive dogs -- dogs most suitable for our kind of yard dog work -- had to be naturally territorial and not rely on commands to protect properties. Some were also dog-aggressive. And some of them didn’t much care for me.

Baron was a floppy-eared Doberman Pinscher who’d run at me, snapping at the air, gurgling, flinging saliva foam everywhere when I’d turn my back on him. They really liked him a lot at Harold’s Body Shop in downtown St. Pete, where he kept out bad guys at night from one of their properties near the construction site of what would become the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field.

One morning while rounding up the guard dogs there, by mistake I opened the garage door to Baron’s building before removing the chow team of dogs from the connecting fenced-in yard. The chows sprang into action, with Gin Gin latching onto Baron’s shoulder and Ling Ling onto his hindquarters.

There’s no good way to safely break up a dog fight, but I tried spraying them with a water hose. It didn’t work. Panicked and screaming by this point, I them, but the chows’ grip wouldn’t ease up. After several minutes, exhausted and barely still standing, I managed to pull Gin Gin off by his tail. I dragged him away from the other two, secured him, then went back to do the same with Ling Ling. Later I noticed I’d pulled so hard that all the fur was gone from their tails.

Baron was in worse shape. His back and flank had been ripped open by the chows’ relentless bite, and for the first time, he was downright docile with me. But the vet sewed up his wounds, the fur grew back on the chows’ tails, and I learned to be more careful when I handled these dangerous dogs.


OCoverStory_5ccasionally, an extremely tough dog became available -- one that Jack declared worth paying big bucks for. Oscar and Paco were two of those dogs.

After his beloved German shepherd Alex was killed on a night security job, Jack looked into buying a Belgian Malinois. These dogs are used routinely in military and police work today, but in 1989, they were just making an appearance among law-enforcement groups. With unstoppable drive and fewer health issues than the German shepherd, the Malinois has become their dog of choice.

Oscar came from the Netherlands, a Dutch police-trained dog that had gone through a few handlers due to his tendency to turn on them. He was known to bite right up the leash or fly out of a kennel to attack his handler, and was already sold once and returned. Jack’s ears perked up when he heard about this crazy animal named Oscar.

The dog flew into Tampa and was trucked over to Air Cargo in his carrier. Every time he saw an airport employee, he thrust himself against the door and let loose incessant, deep-throated bellows that rocked the cage with each explosion. Jack opened the crate and quickly snared him with a leash and collar. Oscar bit the leash, typewriter-ing higher and higher up the leather. But the dog had finally met his match, and Jack got control for the moment.

For a Malinois, Oscar was unusual looking. Dutch breeders were known to interbreed them with Great Danes, so his 90-pound frame was 20 pounds heavier and several inches taller than the breed standard. His coat was shorter than the norm, and more than any other physical feature, his eyes were fascinating: wide and buggy, bulging as if to stretch and get away. It was a look we became familiar with when he was aggressively fired up or when he was playful.

That first week, Oscar destroyed the station wagon. He ripped off door paneling, ate the dashboard, and chunks of white foam cushion hung from his mouth after he demolished the front seat. Later he affectionately jumped into Jack’s lap, but suddenly his body stiffened, his happy tail slowed, and a low growl bubbled up in his throat. Jack reacted just as fast and Oscar never challenged him again. He had found his pack leader in Jack.

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Oscar was diabolical in the field on an agitation bite sleeve, and equally deadly on the living-room Venetian blinds. We learned to hoist them up lest he crunch a few peepholes for himself, but sometimes we forgot and learned to accept the new mashed-up look at the front window. At our pool table, he had the habit of chasing the balls into the pockets, then biting and clawing at the hole until he got his prize.

“Oscar Poo Poo,” as Jack lovingly called him, became a popular fixture as a demo dog during client protection training sessions. Instantly whipping into a bug-eyed barking rage at the sound of gunfire, he flew across the field, hitting and often knocking down the human decoy wearing either a bite sleeve made of Kevlar or a full-body suit.

It was during one of these K9 training exercises that Oscar collapsed. An X-ray turned up a heart problem and he was no longer worked in the manner he longed for. He lived only a couple of more years. The dog with so much heart ironically had a heart that just gave out.

As tough as Oscar was, he wasn’t the most insane dog of the bunch. That honor would go to Paco, a three-year old German shepherd from East Berlin, one of the infamous border patrol dogs of the Berlin Wall.

In late 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it, much of European communism. A year earlier, communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany were unified. Setting these historic events in motion was the fall of the Berlin Wall. This 96-mile stretch of concrete wall and razor wire had divided East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989.

Few things symbolized Soviet oppression like the vicious East German wall dogs. Some of these dogs, mostly German shepherds, had soldier handlers who patrolled with them along the Berlin Wall. Many other dogs were tethered to 15-foot chains attached to steel cables that ran every 300 feet along the wall, mile after mile after mile, as an effective escape prevention.

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In 1989, when the border opened and the wall was dismantled, East Germany had 6500 border dogs it no longer needed. Some 2500 were turned over to West German animal protection societies. Thousands of citizens came forward to save these dogs and give them the chance at a more civilized life. One of those dogs ended up with a West German trainer whose sister was one of our clients. When Jack heard about this dog, he made the arrangements to fly Paco to Florida.

This fierce animal had lived for several weeks in West German surroundings wearing a wire-basket muzzle 24/7. No one had dared to remove it, since Paco was inclined to ram a handler in the head with the metal basket. Jack became the first person crazy enough to take off that muzzle.

Paco and Jack were two peas in a pod, perfectly matched in temperament. Paco didn’t stay at our off-site kennel for long. Jack brought him home to live in our backyard. Problem was, I couldn’t safely be around him, and neither could any other animals. Poor neighborhood cats that ventured onto the fenced property didn’t walk out alive. I was terribly worried he’d get out of the yard and do the same to a person on the street. This dog was no joke.

My worst fears were nearly realized one day when I came home from work. As I opened the door leading from the carport, there was no happy Oscar to greet me as usual. The house was eerily silent, and I froze with only one foot in the hallway and my hand still on the door handle. In slow motion from around the corner, Oscar appeared, his tail held straight and high in the air. He gave a low, almost inaudible growl. Following him and close behind was an equally snail-like Paco, mimicking Oscar’s body language. I, too, moved slowly, took a step back over the threshold and pulled the door closed. Oscar’s strange behavior that day saved my skin.

It turned out that Paco got into the house through a sliding-glass back door. That was it for me -- he had to go. Soon he was sold to Metro Dade K9, a private business in Miami, to be worked as a guard dog.


LCoverStory_7ife took a turn in 1991, when we moved to Largo, a small town between St. Petersburg and Clearwater. A two-acre commercial property on busy Starkey Road with a house on the lot became the site of our new boarding and training facility. We built a kennel amid dozens of mature live oaks, big enough for 45 dogs when it filled to the max during the holidays. A fenced-in training field was active with obedience classes and personal-protection training sessions.

Operating a boarding kennel was a 24/7 proposition. By far, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Boarding is labor intensive, and requires several employees to help run things, but you can kiss goodbye the notion of having a planned day off.

After a divorce in 1993, I moved shop to Miami Shores in 2001, happily downsizing the business. No more boarding kennel, no employees, no guard dogs, just at-home training, behavior and group obedience classes. I could breathe again after nearly drowning in too much work.

It soon became clear that I’d traded bad dogs of the aggressive kind for bad dogs of the Miami kind: polka-dot pink-bowed Havanese that pee on polished marble floors, mixed-breed rescues that relentlessly pull on their new Louis Vuitton leashes, and bichon frisés and Maltese who fuss too much in baby strollers while riding in their private penthouse elevators.

I much prefer the Miami kind. They’re usually sweet and friendly dogs, as are their owners, who prove they’ll do anything and spare no expense to help their pets live more comfortable lives. Miami bad dogs misbehave now and then, but they really aren’t all that bad.

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One such nice lady was Ruth Regina Panken, who lived in Miami Beach and owned Ruth Regina Custom Designed Wigs in Bal Harbour. She was an eighth-generation wig maker, in business for 65 years, and was the head makeup artist and hair designer for the Jackie Gleason and Arthur Godfrey television shows filmed on Miami Beach, and for the Miss Universe pageant.

In her parlor were framed photographs taken during her 2007 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. She’d designed a line of fashion wigs for dogs, priced from $18 up to thousands of dollars, and Letterman had great fun with that. The video of her hilarious appearance is still on YouTube. Letterman asks her: “How drunk do you have to be to spend that kind of money on that?”

Ruth’s little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Penny, which I was hired to help get housebroken in Miami Beach, was also her TV model, and she demonstrated for me how Penny liked to wear a smart curly wisp of a platinum blond hairpiece.

In 2014, Ruth’s human wig business closed, but up sprang her Wiggles Dog Wigs in its place. Sadly, Ruth passed away in 2016 at age 98. She was a Miami Beach icon and a true character.

Part of my new normal since arriving in Miami is dog training for clients with discotheques and movie theaters in their homes -- homes with breathtaking bay and ocean views, with putting greens on their penthouse patios, and Steinways hand-picked and played by Billy Joel in their living rooms. Their pets sometimes wear rhinestone collars and sleep on canopied beds. But in the end, dogs will be dogs, no matter where they live. These are the lucky ones, loved and pampered, and not running loose on the streets.

I’ve gotten to know these animals, understand their likes and dislikes, and get kicks out of their quirks and lifestyles. I’ve also come to know the work of dog rescue groups, organizations like Help Miami Dogs and A Way for a Stray, that are out there on the streets every day, building trust with lost and abandoned dogs until they are able to be saved, vetted, fostered, and found forever homes.

In 2013, my terrier mix Queenie, who was surrendered to Miami-Dade Animal Services by her previous owner, was taken out of the facility by A Way for a Stray volunteers, back when Animal Services euthanized animals for lack of kennel space. She tested positive for heartworm, but a benefactor for the rescue group paid for her costly veterinary treatment. They saved her life; and by adopting her, I got a loving companion.


I CoverStory_8never expected there’d be animal wrangling in Miami for magazine and catalogue print work and television commercials, and even reality TV appearances.

In the winter, art directors up north love to come to South Florida to shoot, and they hire out everything: lighting, locations, costumes, carpenters, even the animal talent -- whatever they need to produce photos and film.

The very first wrangling job I got was for a Bank United commercial. I prepped the dog for a day before filming, getting him accustomed to wearing a tutu and a cape so he wouldn’t grab at them during the shoot. In the end, the art director opted for the cape -- the storyline had something to do with Elvis. 

Harold’s Department Store, a Midwest chain that’s out of business today, needed a poodle for a catalogue shoot. The so-called Pink House in Miami Shores, designed by Arquitectonica and used in Miami Vice back in the 1980s, was the backdrop, and Tic Tac, was the white standard poodle I wrangled.

I watched how stylists pinned clothes to fit the models just right, as if the garments were tailored for them. Facing the camera, the clothes looked great. From behind -- not so much. Tic Tac was stunning and graced the cover of the catalogue.

Two nearly identical golden retrievers were found for an all-day McDonald’s commercial shoot for Mexican television. The script called for a businesswoman smartly dressed in a pink Chanel-like suit and heels to rush out the front door of her house with her dog, late for work and distracted on the phone. The dog was to yank her down the sidewalk on the leash.

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One golden, and then the other, were so well behaved on the set that they didn’t pull on the leash hard enough. Take after take, the poor actress had to literally throw herself into the air and land out of camera view onto moving quilts. Finally, the director got the shot he was looking for.

During season four of A&E’s reality TV show Married at First Sight, which was filmed in Miami, I was hired as Nick and Sonia’s dog trainer and appeared in two episodes. The premise of the series is to pair up and marry three couples who are total strangers and document their first six weeks of marriage. Apparently, Sonia had a lifelong fear of dogs, and the show’s professional matchmakers paired her with Nick, who owned two dogs. I’d been told by the producers that one of the dogs, Dax, had an aggression problem, but that turned out not to be the case. It was Sonia who needed the help feeling at ease with both dogs.

onia was a good sport, and though terrified, she tried to bond with Nick’s dogs. I had her walking them, showing pack leadership, and giving treats for good behavior, which was the hardest hurdle for her, as she hated dog saliva (she’d had a bad slobber experience with a Saint Bernard when she was younger). She did great.

I followed the show once it aired in the fall and thought the couple’s other issues were more concerning than her dog phobia. On the season finale, Nick and Sonia decided to remain married, but, sadly, they have since divorced. 

Miami keeps surprising me. During a recent housebreaking appointment with a couple in Bayside, I had to laugh when I saw my last cover story for Biscayne Times on the bathroom floor, being used as doggie pee paper. Their whippets had very good aim. Dog training and Miami both have a wonderful way of keeping you humble.

 

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