I lost my legal job soon after the beginning of the financial meltdown (February 2009). That same month I took in a foster dog, a year-old pit bull named Duchess who was basically the shelter’s behavioral basket case. She lacked basically all obedience training and was dog-reactive, and my method of training her was essentially total immersion and trial-and-error. I had never trained a dog before and it was six months of blood, sweat, and tears (all mine, not hers). Still, at the end of that period, she had good basic manners and we had more or less conquered her reactivity toward big dogs. In other words, she was finally adoptable and indeed was eventually adopted.
Her effect on me, however, was much more significant than simply taking in and returning a foster dog. I was absolutely smitten with pit bulls, committed to the rescue dog cause, and addicted to training. After that, I continued to take in foster dogs (especially the “difficult” ones) and began training individual dogs in both obedience and behavior modification for reactivity.
My efforts to find a permanent legal job were frustratingly fruitless, particularly given the number of unemployed attorneys in DC with equally good credentials and far more experience than I had. I am not one of those attorneys who became disgusted with the law and abandoned the profession. It just seemed that the law was not loving me back, so I needed to find another option. Meanwhile, I was loving my work with dogs, particularly vulnerable rescue dogs, more and more, so I decided to become a professional of a different sort – a dog trainer.
In early 2010, I adopted my dog Leah as a ten-week-old puppy after her litter was abandoned outside a shelter, Leah almost died but was rescued, and was nursed back to life by a wonderful, amazing rescue-mama. (See “Leah’s Story.”) She has been my pride and joy, especially my joy, ever since. I continued to train private clients, did volunteer training for the Washington Humane Society, and pursued an apprenticeship with Heather Morris and Gwen Podulka of Spot On Dog Training.
Meanwhile, I took in Olivia, another foster dog, recently rescued from a hoarding situation so bad it was featured in an episode of Animal Planet’s show on animal hoarding. Olivia was not socialized to and thus very fearful of humans. After only a week with me, one morning her leash somehow dropped from her harness and she ran away, so I can definitely sympathize with the panic and heartache of having a pet go missing! An unexpected effect of this experience for me was that it facilitated my introduction to the world of modern lost dog searches and my discovery of pet tracking.
Professional pet tracker Sam Connelly of Pure Gold Pet Trackers tracked Olivia so many times that I eventually became her apprentice and decided to become a pet tracker myself. After about three years of learning lost dog behavior from her and training my own dog as a tracking dog under Sam’s direction, I (which is to say “we” – my dog Leah and I trained and continually train as a team) have achieved this goal. We are still learning – Sam’s knowledge of lost dog behavior and tracking in general is seemingly endless! – and gaining more and more experience, but it is clear that I, not Leah, am the limiting factor in this partnership. As Sam and I describe it, we humans are on the dumb end of the leash!
That essentially concludes my story so far. I earned my certification as a professional dog trainer (CPDT); and the only reason Leah and I are not certified in pet tracking is that we cannot find anyone to evaluate us. We both love our jobs, though I must admit that Leah is better at her job than I probably ever will be at any of mine. To Leah, tracking is just a fun game and the only payment she asks for her work is a game of fetch with a squeaky tennis ball (or a chance to find a cat whom she might beg to play with her).
I love helping people learn to train and better communicate with their dogs as well as teaching them how to strengthen the bond between them through obedience training. I especially love the behavior modification work that helps scared rescue dogs feel more safe in the world. Finally, I love helping panicked pet parents get their beloved pets home safe and sound.