A Better Pet Turning 21!!

Earliest record of me dog training. I was 8.

Today A Better Pet comes of age.  I am celebrating with great pride the 21st anniversary of my limited liability company, A Better Pet LLC.

As with any milestone birthday, it is a time for reflection.  From a life in which every step led to where I am today. Balancing a thriving business I love with endless boundless passion for and enjoying a new phase of life as an empty nester.  

I am thinking about where I am today and where I have come from, and of course, what lays ahead.  I feel so much gratitude.  For the life that I have, my sense of purpose, the amazing ABP team and the extended ABP community and support network.

It hasn’t always been that way.

Back in the late 1990’s I was working full time in my last “real” job as a social worker. When the job began, in early 1998, I was married and had 2 young daughters and 2 dogs and 2 cats.  The job was doing psychiatric diagnostic assessments for clients coming from a variety of locations — from the medical side of the hospital where we were housed, from referrals and sometimes even walk ins. Then linking them with the most appropriate level of care. We were a 24/7 intake facility with a state-of-the-art triage system.  As social work gigs go it was enriching and challenging.  But it was short lived. I got pregnant with my third daughter and left on maternity leave in early 1999. The director of the mental health center was unceremoniously fired and walked out by security on the same day. When I returned, a little over 2 months later, converted to a half time position, the other two social workers had left, the department director had been replaced and the inpatient hospital psychiatric nurses were no longer doing assessments. I was the assessment department and worked only 20 hours week. Ethically and morally I couldn’t stay there. It was too haphazard if someone got help or not and I didn’t want to be a party to that. 

I had been talking about wanting to be a dog trainer.  Probably more than I realized because eventually a colleague said, “why don’t you stop talking about it and just do it?”.

“Yeah”  I thought.  “Why not?”.  I always like a challenge!

And so I left my job and, well, I had no business plan, no money, no support, and 3 young daughters at home. Crazy? Maybe.  It was a huge leap of faith but my heart and gut told me I was on the right path.  I wanted to be more present, both emotionally and physically, for my kids and I didn’t want to work for someone else. I wanted to commit myself to something that I was genuinely passionate about.

Helping me through college!

Why a dog trainer?  This was not on a whim.  Animal behavior has been a passion of mine from my earliest memories.  For my 21st birthday I gifted myself a dog.  My first first dog.  A serendipitous love at first sight meeting of a diminutive English Springer Spaniel puppy I named Teisha. With her at my side I returned to my junior year of college after overseas adventures.  I don’t know why but I sensed a dog would help me to be more grounded. Keep me stable. She did help me with this, and so much more.  Teisha was an incredible teacher.  It was the beginning of my more hands on and deeper fascination with canine behavior.

With Teisha I realized the possibility of having a deeply intimate long term emotional bond with a dog. In hindsight I would say she was my psychiatric service dog. She helped me navigate a very adventure filled and frequent moves all era in my 20’s, helped get me through graduate school in social work, got me to my somewhat more maturing 30’s, helped train my first second dog, a Catahoula puppy, Maeya, I acquired immediately after graduate school at 30 and helped train, and spent her last 2 years being an integral part of the first 2 years with my first daughter, Zena.  

Teisha and Zena (1993)

Through my partnership with Teisha and the dogs that have been in my life ever since, I learned how incredibly communicative and expressive dogs are.  I began to develop my training skills and eventually to share my knowledge with others.  In the beginning of this new career, while holding down a half-time job as a social worker and having 3 children in  6 years, I was working as a part-time trainer whenever I could fit it in.  And always wishing that I could do more.

A Better Pet LLC was born on 6 November, 2000.  I developed my training approach based on what I knew.  Social work.  I drew on my varied experiences as a social worker and I ended up with a dog-training method based on a social work model.  And it worked.  I really see my dog training business as an alternative form of social work.  We never look at the dog’s behavior in a vacuum. Aways, in the course of training, we end up addressing human behaviors.  And I was teaching people how to teach their dogs how to do what they wanted their dogs to do, helping them know what they wanted and using positive methods. That has never changed. 

In those early days ABP was entirely a one-woman show.  I stuck to the social work- based model.  A single one-on-one session followed by a recommendation of group classes.  My business and income was constrained by my capacity and availability to my clients.  Meanwhile my primary focus was appearing not to work as far as my children were concerned.   That is to say, I made myself present and available to my kids whenever they needed me and made myself available to clients when they didn’t.  I did not do self-care in those days. I was running on empty all of the time.

Somehow I kept everyone alive.  The business grew and so did my kids. My marriage ended in 2006 and I flourished. Ten years ago my two eldest girls left for school — one in college and one to an arts academy boarding school in California. It was a huge adjustment to go from 3 kids at home to one, but it opened up space in my daily life.  I gradually stepped up the level of emotional investment in ABP and it marked a significant turning point in the business.  My deep experience in social and clinical work was converging with my more recently developed expertise in training – evolving ABP towards something specific and meaningful.  Service and therapy dog training.

And today this is where ABP is uniquely niched.  As a service and therapy dog training business.  I still love working with pet or companion dogs.  But my focus is on producing incredible dogs who improve the lives of their owners in a clinical or therapeutic context.  We have a very unique service offering.  Teaching people how to teach their dogs how to help them in life.  It is intense and incredibly rewarding.

Working with early service dog clients, I observed the limitations of some dogs for psychiatric, medical and mobility service and therapy roles.  I am constantly striving for excellent results but not at any costs.  Setting dogs up for success is one of my top priorities.  I learned to say, this dog is just not suited for a service dog role.  And so, there was a natural evolution to engage with the client before they selected their puppy.  Leading to significantly better training results.  And this is how I learned that matching people to dogs is my super power.

From here it made sense to start working with trusted breeders, to select the best possible puppies, genetically and environmentally, for a service dog role.  This move was just so successful.  These dogs were incredible in their ability to adapt and learn and support their humans through all kinds of physical or emotional disability.  So a few years ago I started breeding, raising and training my own puppies for my clients.  I have been so good at that, especially during Covid lockdown this entire year with a springerdoodle litter (see Pinto below) born on 1/26/21. I am literally breeding super puppies.  With a 100% success rate – they are all just stellar animals. I believe the people who have all acquired from my recent litter would agree their young dogs have a certain je ne sais quoi — easy to train, loving, social and intuitive.

The path has not always been easy and there have been challenges. Most significantly, in 2017, on a warm late spring June morning, mere weeks from first celebrating my eldest’s graduation from graduate school and then my youngest’s graduation from high school, and from out of nowhere, I suffered a stroke, instantly losing the use of my entire left leg.  This has been one of the most disorienting events of my life.  It all happened in a heartbeat.  One moment, ironically enough, I was in downward facing dog.  The next I lay on my yoga mat unable to move my left leg.  I am forever grateful that when the stroke occurred I was surrounded by quick-thinking and decisive people.  I arrived quickly to an excellent hospital and they applied the correct stroke protocols.  Never diagnosed why I had the stroke, but thanks to the stellar care I received in the hospital and my commitment ever since to daily ongoing rehabilitation, I have regained and maintain most of my mobility.  

What appeared at the time to be a significant setback turned out to be an amazing catalyst.  Since recovering from the stroke ABP business has tripled.  I attribute this to a transformation in attitude and outlook.  I am so full of gratitude for life.  I invest heavily in self-care.  I don’t take anything for granted.  I cherish things of real value – my family and friends and dogs and the ABP community – and let go the rest.  I keep things in perspective and can approach most things with equanimity.  I do my best and stay the course, but I don’t attach myself to expectations about the future.  I realize it can all literally change in a heartbeat.

Now all my children are grown and doing well.  The youngest, Sophie, who was herself such an integral part of my work life these past 10 years (take your daughter to work was an every day of the year sort of experience for her), just graduated from college and took off on her own pursuits.  My middle daughter, Callie, lives very nearby and is finishing up her second year of graduate school in social work!  I find myself once again in that moment in time, in life, where things shift and space opens up.  I have energy and focus for the next chapter.

Looking back on the ABP journey so far, I am most proud of my ability to adapt, evolve and thrive.  Of the community that I have created and the relationships that I have built.  I have started to work now with the second and even third generation of ABP clients.  Owners who brought me their first dog to train, are coming back all these years later with new puppies.  For over 11 years I have been hosting and life guarding the bonus service of A Better Pet, “Drop In Play” (DIP).  4x/week year-round. Where humans and their dogs can come and get all the socialization, exercise and support they need in a very safe space.  Nurturing these relationships and this community network will always be a priority for ABP.

The number ‘21’ has significance. Teisha came into my life on my 21st birthday.  This was a catalyst that put my life on its current path.  You could say it was the seed from which ABP grew.  I expect this anniversary of ‘21’ to be no less powerful.  Evoking change and growth.  I have a vision and a plan and great things are coming. So, stay tuned and join me in the next chapter of the ABP story.

My Current Pack of 3 L-R: Shamrock, his half sister Pinto and their mother Franny.