No Holds Barred: A Whole Lotta Sunshine

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Blair and Sunshine with "Team Sunshine" Sarah Rogers, Jennifer Shelton, and Kitra Tovar in front of Partners Dog Training's signature School Bus.

Confession: I have never been a “dog person.” I am not even a “child person.” I am part of the “selfish, shallow, self absorbed” contingent of people who Meghan Daum talks about in her latest book on people who chose not to procreate. But mine started with animals. I never grew up with a meaningful pet. Over the years I got along with fish bowls of decorative Bettas that lived for three years and then I would drop them in the toilet when they bellied up. Say a prayer. No muss, no fuss.

My dad, Ed Sabol, with Sunshine.

Most of my friends have dogs. My New York pals have teeny dogs that resemble handbags. My West coast friends have big dogs that look like Pontiacs left in the rain. I knew everyone judged me for not being an “animal lover,” but in the last 25 years I got a pass. I moved to Arizona under a mountain where the coyotes roam, mountain lions drink out of my swimming pool, and bobcats sit on my terrace. And it is 115 degrees five months out of the year. Who wants to bring a dog (forget cats, they are hors d’oeuvres for this Wild West) into such an environment?

Rewind to last November. My Dad turned 98 and insisted on purchasing the dog of his dreams — an apricot colored Standard Poodle puppy. I was visiting New York City at the time but I lived with Dad (and my 92-year-old Mom) and decided to let him have his wish — never thinking he would do it since he was scooter bound, fragile and quite physically limited (though mentally sharp).

By the time I returned from New York an adorable orange cream puff was sitting in my living room. What could I do?!?! Dad named him Sunshine because his favorite song verse is “You are my Sunshine, my only Sunshine, you make me happy, when skies are grey.” Dad sang it to the dog all day long.

All my dog-loving friends were ecstatic. They assured me it would put years on my Dad’s life and make me into a more likeable human being. At this point I told them I resented “Marley & Me” and all dog adoring books and films and even found Cesar the Dog Whisperer, though interesting as a reality show — a turn-off with all his same pit bull exposes. I still wasn’t sold on Sunshine in my life.

I know my hand is in his mouth, BUT HE WAS SO CUTE.

Luckily Dad had 3 homecare helpers who took care of Dad and Sunshine. My father was in love — I was nervous. Within a month of 4-month-old Sunshine being with us my Dad had heart failure. So much for pets and human longevity. Three months later my Dad died. A week before he “took a cab” he held my hand and said, “Remember, you take care of that damn dog.” I was horrified but said yes!

Horsing around in our velvet Eyebobs.

Now what? My Dad’s assistant Patrick and I took Sunshine to Petsmart for a few private training sessions. But it always ended up with Sunshine wiggling about, being the center of attention at the checkout counter and me shopping for tug toys. I gave up.

Everyone from the Vet to the UPS delivery gal thought Sunshine was adorable and brilliant. He was! He learned fast how to get his way (“attention whore”) and not much else. We crated him and then we didn’t.

We let him have the run of the house (he was “so cute”), rarely saw another dog — I was raising him like a hostage or a veal. He ended up having manic “cardio runs” in the living room at night. He would chase his own shadow and make out with his own window reflection. We were his world. But he was bored and tricky. I later learned that the good news is that poodles are super smart. The bad news is they are manipulative and conniving.

He suddenly became (at 6 months) as charming as Warren Beatty — people dropped to their knees to get a kiss from him. He didn’t bark (except appropriately at arriving delivery men) and he didn’t hump. A day after Dad died I got him neutered (a form of him sitting Shiva) and my Vet swore she saw my Dad over her shoulder saying “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Sunshine recovered and became more indulged and narcissistic (since I was … why shouldn’t he be?)

Was I going to look like this??

Within a month — he was parading streams of toilet paper all over the house along with my mom’s socks, shoes, and a Red Bull can out of the trash. Everyone assured me this was all normal; “after all, he is just a puppy — he will grow out of it — let him be.” One afternoon my Mom and I left the dog for 8 minutes (not crated) to get the mail. We came back to him sitting in the kitchen with a ½ eaten chocolate cake at his feet and some pumpkin bread. He actually stood up to lick our kitchen counter clean. Chocolate can be lethal to dogs, but Sunshine lived to tell the story.

The next day I was laying outside in the pool chaise — he jumped up to be with me and ended up sitting on my face and I couldn’t get him off. Up to that point — I must confess I allowed him to chew on my hands and feet — figuring he was “puppy cute” and he would “grow out of it.” His mauling me escalated till I felt I was in the midst of some kind of “puppy porn” behavior and became black and blue. I was so enamored of him I became a chew toy and I allowed it. I had to realize he and I were out of control. This was way past being co-dependent. I was at a loss. He was no longer adorable, but a downright serious pest or molester!! We had reached our AA “bottom.”

Everyone tried to give me advice, but no one was accurate. I suddenly felt Sunshine was “two minutes from a rescue facility.” Even my editor DPC said to me in one frustrating phone conversation: “You have no business keeping this dog.” But I promised my Dad I would take care of him. I knew he was a good dog, but he could be a great dog. This dog had the same personality as my Dad. I think I never had to grieve over the loss of my Dad — Sunshine took over his place in my life with Dad’s same energy and bravura.

Finally my Vet suggested I take him to a reputable training school called Partners in Cave Creek, Arizona. They offered actual residential “camps” for dogs — starting with Puppy Camp, Dog Agility Camp, Personal Protection Camp, Holiday Camp, Fun Camp, you name it!!

I decided to take Sunshine up for an evaluation. I was at the end of my emotional rope. My first issue was I could barely leash him — he ended up wrapping me around a cactus.

Interviewing lead trainer Kitra Tovar at Partners Dog Training.

We arrived at Partners, which resembles a huge horse ranch. Complete with clean rooms of kennels, jumping pool, workout room, and grass training field. They handle 50 dogs on the average — 95 on a holiday weekend but dog training classes are only 10 to 15 at a time. By the way, Scottsdale is known for elaborate “dog resorts.” They are actual hotels for canines. Complete with pool, spa, and air conditioned suite with TV, jacuzzi, plush furniture, and gluten free kibbles. They are NOT training facilities. Most of the time the dogs are “stored” till the owners return and rarely exercised.

Partners is a unique 15-year-old facility. They offer so many programs to help dogs and owners for every issue! It was impressive from the moment I arrived even though I couldn’t open the gate locks (my bad). I loved the idea of putting Sunshine in “Camp.” Since I loved going to a Poconos camp in my own formative years. Camp taught me how to wear makeup, set my hair, and buy better underwear. In other words, “Camp” taught me life’s basics.

“Team Sunshine” at Partners.

We had a 90-minute evaluation with head trainer Kitra Tovar. She was attractive, loving, and knowledgeable. She explained that dogs aren’t born with bad manners — they are allowed by owners. We went over the various ways Sunshine could benefit: private classes, group classes or resident camp. I sat looking at Sunshine who was stretched out on his back, legs akimbo waiting for one of us to “motorboat” his belly and I turned to Kitra and said, “Take his ass for the two-week puppy training immediately!!”

She explained to me that it might be more than 2 weeks but he would gain a solid foundation. They would establish a behavior routine. Then they would train us — the family. Facility and kennels are air conditioned, but no spa or gourmet menu. We brought his food in and he was shampooed weekly.

Contemplating a swim.

He also would have swimming class, social hours with the other dogs, and snake training (a must in the desert). I said goodbye as Kitra led him away and I immediately felt awful. How pathetic. Some of my dog friends had private trainers come to their homes twice a week for 2 or 3 months and nothing changed. My brother ended up getting his dog electrically collared and probed and that did “okay.” The rest of my dog friends were kind of curious that I would go this drastic so fast. I felt I had no choice.

At first I felt sad seeing his Martha Stewart plush bed and toys piled in the corner of the living room and his slobber on the picture window. We got the windows washed, cleaned up his crate, and waited for our first viewing of his improvement.

We visited him training behind a dark glass within a week. He was squirrely, but following Kitra. On the 8th day she suggested he stay at least 3 weeks since he had a tough stubborn streak and time would help. I was hesitant but felt why not. I had to “trust the process.” I didn’t want to get him home and feel Partners did nothing.

The second week I met Kitra for the beginning of the “transition.” After all, Sunshine loved Kitra, but me on the leash is another story. Sunshine had made some very significant progress, although it was a tedious 60 minutes for me. Kitra had to constantly “reset” me. I had to learn how to hold the leash just right — like Frank Sinatra gently holding his microphone cord (Nice and Easy). “Heel, Sit, Stay, Settle, Good Boy.” It was arduous for me! I couldn’t get the walk, turn and signal down. It felt like rubbing your stomach and patting your head. I left feeling a failure, but returned 5 more times and finally he and I clicked!! (Kitra said over and over that it was as much training for us as it is for them sometimes).

Sunshine loved the trainers – but me on the leash is another story.
The re-introduction.
A happy reunion!

I always wanted Sunshine to be my boyfriend, NOT my Son. But Kitra explained that dominance is key. So being his gal pal was not okay. But I changed her view and said, “What about being his dominatrix?” She allowed that idea … hesitantly! As long as I have his RESPECT, Kitra pointed out, “the fact you wanted Sunshine as your fiancée is part of your problem with your dog. You made him into a lousy boy friend. He had the control. “Okay, what about Mommie Dearest”? She assured me it doesn’t have to be that bad.

Training Director Leighton Oosthuisen.

The rest of the time I hung out a lot at Partners. It was a major education — more for me than Sunshine. I met other dog owners who arrived with all sorts of issues. They had been to training facilities before but we all agreed, there was a magic about Partners! Every trainer (there are over 20 of them for individual attention, mostly attractive young girls with incredible dog intuition — or tougher guys with no tattoos or visible body piercing) was committed and incredibly assuring to the owners.

Near the end I interviewed “Training Director” Leighton Oosthuisen, a charismatic professional “behavioral trainer” for over 40 years. His background is impressively varied. At 52 he has worked in the business sector as well as some more adventurous professions including explosives and demolition, canine drug sniffing training, security, law enforcement, patrol dogs, captain in search and rescue and DEA licensing. He travels giving classes and has written on dog training extensively. He is from South Africa and even did construction and business planning and accounting on the side. He is considered the best “dog trainer” (not a dog whisperer) in the Southwest.

How does he pick such great trainers? “They all need a passion for this work and strict dedication. It has to be in their DNA or forget it. I don’t look at resumes, I watch and listen. It is impossible to train a dog trainer. You can love animals but not be a trainer. They have to be “on” with every kind of dog from 7 AM to 7 at night. And they must be able to communicate it all to the owner. After all, behavior issues are mostly the owner’s problems — the dog simply isn’t trained properly. Once you get your dog back — if you don’t follow up with the program — you and your dog lose.”

The Front office.

So he encourages private classes, updates and believe me … I wanted to move into Partners in my own crate. Every girl who works there, be it Kalina behind the desk, or Sarah in administration, they knew everything about every dog at the facility. Leighton believes, “After all, it is all about education and consistency.” And at Partners a lot is done with troubled rescue dogs. A lot!

He admitted, “There are bad dogs — no question about it. But I wouldn’t make people get a license to own a dog. However people must and should get educated and take at least 2 months of behavior classes. Absolutely. So many people get puppies and within 8 months they are sick of them and off they go to rescue. Whose fault is that? A squishy cute puppy becomes a monster in a matter of months.” I feel he hit a nerve!

“There is no perfect dog, but once you realize that dogs want to please you they want to be led by an Alpha. By the way, I don’t like calling this place a kennel/boarding facility. It’s called camp because the dogs have a great time here. It’s fun, not punishment.

Agility training with Lead Trainer Kitra Tovar.
Crate Training.

Leighton explained to me that Sunshine might have to return as he goes through Toddler, Teenager and Midlife crisis. And I found myself accepting that training is a life long education. You just don’t “Love ‘em and leave ‘em.” Especially since poodles live for 15 or more years. That means that Sunshine would take me into my 80s. “Remember Blair, your dog isn’t your hobby, he is your partner.”

Leighton lives with his 79-year-old father Leo (who takes care of the landscaping and engraves all the leather dog leashes) on the premises. His father is his mentor. Leighton is the last one to say goodnight to all the canine boarders at night. He can tell when a bark is a call for help and not a whine. “Everyone that works here has to have that dedicated obsessive intuition first, and then we all work as a team, but I am the leader of the pack,” he laughs.

Father and Son team Leo and Leighton Oosthuisen.

His employees respect Leighton. They all know and believe Dog Training is the key. No matter what. “Rescues would be out of business if people would get training and therapy.”

Leighton hopes to franchise Partners and take it cross country. And he should, considering all I see in NYC are pricey “dog walkers,” expensive at-home trainers that don’t last, and sad boarding kennels.

When I left with my new leather leash that had “Sunshine/Turd” engraved on it (because I wanted to remind myself that Sunshine is wonderful and an idiot at any given moment) Leighton cautioned me, “Remember this will all be lost if you don’t follow up on your training with Sunshine at least 3 times a day — and a group class!”

Sunshine’s personally engraved leash

Believe me, I get it! I got Sunshine home and he was “perfect.” Yes, he has sneaked a few mouthies on me, but I have the leash to remind him who’s boss. And not more than one NO. The rest is a quick tug and a firm push. Sunshine is considered a “High Drive” pup so he can take a few tugs — but NOT beat-ups. Partners is a reward-based program (though not too many treats).

“Remember your dog wants to please you. It takes time and repetition and persistence from you!” For a control freak like me, learning patience from a dog has been a challenge. But who better to teach me, and what the hell else do I have to do anyway?

I must say when I first got Sunshine we were criticized for buying a bred dog instead of adopting a rescue. But as Leighton pointed out, “All dogs are rescues. You may have even rescued Sunshine from yourself.”

Transfer of Power — the giving of the leash.

As for the cost of camp — let’s just say a 3-week stay at Partners Training was as much as 2 nights at the Carlyle Hotel with a room not even the size of Sunshine’s crate and a less attending staff.

I realized when I got Sunshine home and now have him on a leash and crate routine, I never wanted an animal to keep me company (or as Alex Baldwinsaid recently, “I only wanted a dog so someone would adore me ….” And he should know). I thought Sunshine would take “care” of me like Peter Pan’sNana the dog. I saw him driving me to the hairdresser and fixing me my meals. Ha! Well, that remains to be seen. Then I realized that Leona Helmsley left her $12 million trust to her dog “Trouble.” Well, if Sunshine plays his cards right he could become another desirable bachelor/canine heir! Let’s see …

Partners Dog Training
4640 E. Forest Pleasant Place
Cave Creek, Arizona 85331

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