Gardiner, N.Y. Kes trotted trimly at heel, greeted strangers and always maintained a gentle manner -- until one day when she spotted another dog during a walk and went berserk.
The sweet German shepherd exploded, transformed into a bristling, snarling, lunging wolf intent on ripping into the other dog's throat.
"Our lovely family dog that loves kids and strangers, and is so well-behaved and trained, suddenly started going crazy any time she got near another dog," said Nancy Catandella of New Paltz, Kes's owner.
She sought help from several trainers, but nobody could solve the problem. Then Catandella turned to Brian Kilcommons, a nationally known trainer whose popular books had guided her through Kes's puppyhood.
After several private lessons establishing solid communication, reinforcing obedience skills, and conditioning Kes to ignore other dogs, Catandella is confident she can keep her pet as she moves to a new apartment complex that bars aggressive dogs.
Passion for dogs
If not for the intervention of effective training, Kes may have ended up like thousands of dogs given up by despairing owners. Kilcommons hopes to help many more pets avoid that fate, through a new training program aimed specifically at shelter dogs.
Kilcommons has been host of pet programs on television, traveled with renowned trainer Barbara Woodhouse, written numerous books, established two pet care Web sites, and trained 35,000 dogs, including the canine companions of Diana Ross, Harrison Ford, Ashley Judd, Candice Bergen, Ralph Lauren and other celebrities.
But his greatest passion, he said, is the program for shelter dogs. It's called the Walter Turken Training for Adoption Program, in honor of a friend who asked Kilcommons to develop it.
Four years after its inception, the program is proving effective at reducing the number of dogs given up by owners and improving the success rate of adoptions from shelters.
"It was unbelievable to me to see the difference just a little obedience work could make in these dogs -- what I call our juvenile delinquents," said Sue Hasset, director of animal control for the town of North Hempstead on Long Island. "All of a sudden, we had dogs people wanted to adopt from us."
The Shelter Connection volunteers at North Hempstead's municipal shelter were the first trained by Kilcommons four years ago. Since then, adoptions have increased, the number of dogs given up has been reduced, and the rate of dogs euthanized has declined, Hasset said.
"Most dogs need some kind of teaching and direction in order to fit into a family in our society," said Kilcommons at his home in rural Gardiner, nestled at the base of the Shawangunk Ridge 70 miles north of New York City.
"Our shelters are an indication of that," he said. "So many of the dogs are very nice dogs, but have never had any training."
Lack of training in basic obedience -- sit, stay, come, leave it, and walk on a loose lead -- is a primary reason dogs are given up, Kilcommons said. Choosing the wrong breed is another big problem.
"People pick dogs on looks," he said. "Dogs are bred for very specific traits, and you need to understand the characteristics that we've hard-wired into them."
Buying an aggressive dog for protection, or buying a puppy for the kids and leaving its care in their unskilled hands, are other common mistakes people make when getting a dog.
All those mistakes add up to millions of pets ending up at animal shelters across the country. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 8 million to 10 million dogs and cats enter shelters every year, and about half of them are euthanized.
"We're spending $2 billion a year on animal control," Kilcommons said. "That money should be going to other programs rather than to house and kill animals."
The Turken program helps shelters recruit volunteers who go through an intensive, five-weekend training session led by professional trainers. It also assists in fund-raising and publicity to increase community support.
After launching the program in North Hempstead, Kilcommons introduced it at the Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League in West Palm Beach, Fla. Today, 150 shelters are on the waiting list, he said.
"The program really immerses volunteers in training theory and practice," said Alice Calabrese, executive vice president of Lollipop Farm, a shelter in Rochester where Kilcommons will bring the Turken program in April.
"A lot of dogs come in because of behavioral issues," Calabrese said. "We hope this will help them get a better start out the door."