A Love Story
FROM THE NEW ART OF DOG
TRAINING by SHELBY MARLO
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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New Art of Dog Training
Copyright © 2000-2011 Shelby Marlo