Preface: A Love Story

MY mother was a Las Vegas showgirl. We traveled a lot, but no matter where we were I always brought home stray cats, dogs, birds, lizards, even horny toads, and I had a sixth sense for taking care of them. As much as I loved animals, moving so often made it difficult to keep a pet. My dogs would mysteriously disappear, or "run away," as my mother would often tell me with a guilty glint in her eye.

I was around nine, living in Puerto Rico with my mother, when I first witnessed true love between a person and an animal. We were on the beach when I saw this display of unconditional love between a man and his dog, Blue. Blue's owner, a surfer, swam far beyond the lagoon to catch some waves. I sat on the sand and watched Blue pine for the man to return. Nothing could console the dog, and no one could distract her. She paced back and forth on the shore, waiting for him to return from his surfing adventure. I will never forget Blue's excitement when the man did finally return.
Me as a kid on the beach in Puerto Rico with Rhonda, my foundling

Then came time to wash the sand from Blue's coat. Most dogs hate being hosed down, but the complete trust and communication between this man and his dog made it a simple task. He said, "Blue, turn around," and she turned, allowing him to spray her with the hose. There was no pulling or leashes, just sheer communication. Their relationship was symbiotic. I hadn't seen that before. I remember being moved by Blues bond with her owner and knew I wanted the same. It was not until I turned fourteen that I had any control over the destiny of one of my pets. That is when I found my precious Pearl.

My mother and I had returned to Los Angeles. By this time, she had quit dancing. One day, we went to a strawberry festival in Topanga. I wandered around the wonderful, funky, little strawberry festival until I spotted a woman in the center of it all. A little, yellow puppy sat in front of her. Her littermates had all been given away. As I petted the puppy, my attention was diverted by the hippie-woman pontificating some mumbo jumbo. According to her, this was a magic puppy, not only because the father was supposedly a coyote who stole into the yard and mated with her Collie, but because the puppy was born across from an Indian reservation. There must have been a bit of truth to the magic puppy story because the puppy had to be mine. Something intense drew me toward this dog.

I knew my mother would not let me keep the puppy, but I was obsessed with having her. I sneaked her home under my shirt. It was not until my mother and I were halfway home when she heard the murmuring of a puppy. I feared my mother would turn the car around and make me return the squirming bundle tucked beneath my shirt. Maybe it was because I was older. Maybe it was because my mother and I had finally settled down. Maybe it was because Pearl truly carried some mystical, magical powers. Whatever the reason, my mother allowed me to keep the little puppy.

Training Pearl came naturally. So naturally that I was not aware I was doing it. I had always been an avid horseback rider. I took Pearl out to the ranch when I rode. As I jumped the course on my horse, Pearl followed suit. If I reprimanded the horse, so did Pearl by nipping at its legs. Whatever action I performed on the horse, Pearl mimicked. Sometimes after riding, I took Pearl to the course and had her jump it. When I went home, I set up jumps in the backyard and had Pearl run my homemade course.

I was teaching Pearl what is now called agility, a field developed from horse training. As a young teen, I wasn't thinking about training, but I was training Pearl. If my horse would jump, then why wouldn't my dog jump? To us, it was fun. I now realize it was much more than that. Pearl and I communicated: I spoke to her and she listened. But the respect was mutual. When Pearl needed something, I listened to her.

Around the time I finished high school, I began to seek a career. Animals were my biggest passion in life, so when I got a job as an animal health technician, I was thrilled. The best part about the job was that I could bring Pearl to work with me. For three years I worked at the animal hospital, absorbing everything I could about caring for animals. There I was able to augment my innate understanding of animals and their care with technical instruction.

Years later, Pearl started to fail. She was about fourteen. As she got older and started to lose mobility, I panicked. That's when I decided to get another dog. I knew I wanted a dog that looked like Pearl, a Collie mix. I read everything I could on dogs, both about training methods and breeds. At the same time, I took Pearl to holistic veterinarians and acupuncturists. I tried everything I could think of to help her mobility. One day while looking through a breed book, I read about smooth Collies. Then I attended a dog show where I saw one for the first time. The short-hair Collie's resemblance to Pearl was uncanny. I began contacting breeders.

By this time, Pearl had become so frail that I didn't even want to take her out of the house. I found a mobile vet to come to her. Like many older dogs, she was becoming incontinent, so I made her a bed from towels that I constantly washed and replaced. I carried her up and down the front steps so that she could relieve herself outdoors. Then out of the blue, a breeder called with a litter that had two smooth Collies.

My search for a new puppy was selfish. Even though Pearl had deteriorated past the time when a new puppy would rejuvenate her, it was something I needed to do for myself.  It was the only way I could imagine coping with the loss of my first true love. When I arrived at the breeder's, one of the two puppies had sprouted hair, leaving only one smooth Collie in the bunch. Once again, I seemed destined to have only one magical choice out of a litter. I brought Lotte into her new home and immediately took her outside to her potty spot. I said, "Go potty," and she complied. We were already off to a great start.

Pearl continued to fail. I knew I couldn't hold on to her anymore. I also knew that the last place I would put her to sleep would be at the veterinarian's office. I wanted Pearl's death to be as comforting and comfortable as possible. It had to be done at home, so I called the mobile vet.

Euthanasia was one of my jobs when I worked at the veterinary clinic. For me, the hardest part about putting animals down is the last look they give you before they pass on. I wanted Pearl to go peacefully in her sleep, so I served Pearl her favorite meal laced with Valium that the vet had prescribed. By the time the mobile vet arrived, Pearl was asleep. When the veterinarian gave her the injection, Pearl did not move - not even a flinch. Pearl traveled from sleep to complete relaxation, and then she was gone. After Pearl's funeral, I came home to Lotte. Had I returned to an empty house, I am afraid I would have fallen apart, but Lotte helped me hang on to the routine of my life.

Once it was just little Lotte and me, I got to thinking that maybe I should formally train her. I had seen a sign in the park for classes and called the number. When I was younger, the word "train" never entered my mind, let alone a class. Because I was older, I had lost faith in my instincts. Ironically, it took that first class to renew my faith in my natural abilities.

The first day of class, I stood attentively with Lotte by my side and listened to the dog trainer tell the class about choke chains. Choke chain? What was that? Then he spoke about shock collars for aggressive dogs. The things he said were entirely foreign to me. I had been a natural trainer my entire life, and now this man wanted me to jerk this little puppy I loved so much. No way. Although I had paid quite a bit of money for this man's expertise, I ignored much of what he said.

I signed up for more classes. I was enrolled in three different obedience classes at the same time. However, they all used the old-style, coercive training methods. Lotte was learning. How could she not? Training was all I did. Her attitude was poor, though, and I resisted a lot of what I was told. It didn't feel right. Lotte, once so happy to learn, was slowly changing. There was nothing wonderful about the training sessions. She was becoming a completely different dog in class compared with the spirited dog I played with when we were alone in the park. But I persisted, and we continued to train.

All that time, I had only encountered compulsion methods of training. It was not until I became a member of a local dog club that I learned about motivational training and the use of food. Initially, I thought using food was bribery and resisted the idea. I wanted my dog to work for me, not for food. This was also the first time I learned of Dr. Ian Dunbar and his training methods with food. I read everything he had written, and the more I learned, the more the idea of using food as a reward began to permeate my brain.

While I continued to attend club events, I sifted out people who could help me learn about this other type of training. I was also getting ready to try my hand at competition obedience trials and was referred to a trainer who, like a coach, helped people prepare their dogs for competition. I imagined Lotte and I would parade around in front of her while she critiqued us, and that then we would be happily sent home ready to compete. My world exploded when she gave me the news.

Lotte performed, but our coach quickly informed me that I had no attention from my dog. She said I could spend the next year retraining everything motivationally, or I could spend three months doing a patch-up job. At that point, I had already worked so long with Lotte and was so anxious to start competing that I could not face the idea of another year of training. Over the next three months, Lotte and I met with our coach twice a week.

Lotte was superb. We trekked uphill, continually running into coercive-style trainers and books. Then, suddenly, I saw the valley. We were exposed to an entirely new world of training with food. The day I brought food into training was the day I brought my smooth Collie back from the dead.

I learned the power of positive reinforcement. I learned about conditioned reinforcement; for example, saying "good" before giving a food treat so that later "good" alone has a very powerful meaning. I learned to vary my use of food to create maximum excitement. I learned to shape behaviors, giving the food treat on the very best effort. I learned the idea of the jackpot: rewarding a breakthrough with lots of treats so that the effort sticks in the dog's mind. I learned to stop on the best effort, resisting the strong temptation to try one more time. I learned the importance of timing, immediately rewarding correct behavior and reprimanding undesired behavior.

For the first time, learning together was exciting and lively. Lotte's understanding was quick, strong, and sharp. We were a team. By the time we entered the ring at the Beverly Hills Kennel Club dog show, Lotte was a completely different dog. We won the Novice-A division, but I had no idea exactly how well we did until the end of the day when we were awarded High-in-Trial with an outstanding 199 out of 200 points. Lotte and I had placed higher than anyone else at the competition that day, including our mentor.

As teammates, Lotte and I proceeded to win every competition we entered-including the Collie National where we scored a 198 points and another High-in-Trial. Lassie presented Lotte with her award that day. From that point on, my career took on a life of its own. I started working with a veterinarian who referred me to his clients. Since then, I have amassed a large clientele, appeared on many television shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, and have been profiled in a variety of magazines.

During my time in the dog obedience world, I have learned many things. Most important of all, I have learned to be open to different methods. There is no single answer in training; it is a learning experience for both you and your dog.

I have come a long way from that beach in Puerto Rico where I first watched in awe true love between a person and an animal. I don't have to search for that love anymore. I had it with Pearl. I have it with Lotte. My goal now is to help others find that pure love with their dogs.

I hope I can help you find your Blue. -Shelby Marlo

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Copyright 2000-2011 Shelby Marlo