‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’
Professional dog trainer Leslie Garbutt Vielma clicks her training clicker to get Goober to follow her commands at the RGV K9 Training Centre in Edinburg. He wags his tail as he intently waits for her instruction.
A few months ago, Goober was just another face peering from the bars of a kennel at the Palm Valley Animal Center in Edinburg. As a black brindled (tiger-striped) dog, the odds of Goober getting adopted were slim.
According to Palm Valley Animal Center’s Director of Development Margot McClelland, black and brindled dogs are the least likely to get adopted because of the negative connotations surrounding them.
“It’s called the black dog syndrome and really what it is, is black dogs don’t get photographed very well so they don’t really get noticed,” McClelland said. “People will walk by (at the shelter) and want a dog with a light coat, or a dog with colored eyes. Also in movies, when they portray aggressive animals, they choose black or dark colored ones. There’s just something about that brindled coat that makes dogs seem really aggressive.”
According to a report on NBC News released last month, “black dog syndrome” is a common phenomenon found throughout shelters nationwide.
Some of the stigmas behind black dog syndrome include the belief that larger black dogs, such as black labs or pit bull mixes, are short-tempered and aggressive. Black dogs are often depicted in movies, like The Omen, as being overly aggressive and dangerous.
“Because of these misconceptions, there are black dog rescue centers where they only have black dogs needing to be adopted. All over the United States they have a really high euthanasia rate because of their coat,” McClelland said.
Vielma, a 40-year-old self-proclaimed animal lover, decided to get involved after meeting Goober. She realized she could potentially make a difference in the adoption process for at least a few black and black brindled dogs by teaching them basic training commands.
“I am from Canada originally and used to volunteer at shelters there. They (Palm Valley) told me that down here, the worst cases are these black brindled dogs that just have a hard time getting adopted,” Vielma said. “So we talked about it and I thought what if I just take one and train it and see if we can change some people’s minds?”
After only a few weeks, Goober learned basic commands such as sitting, staying and healing. He’s currently in the process of learning how to run through an agility course.
A GoPro camera was strapped to Goober as he zipped through the course. McClelland hopes to use the video to help bring awareness to the benefits of training local dogs, specifically black and brindled dogs that are so often overlooked.
“We hope to bring awareness to black dog syndrome and brindled dogs,” McClelland said. “Also, people think that if they want a trained dog for hunting or agility or protection they have to go to Germany to buy the best dog breeds, but we’re going to show them that you can just go to your local shelter.”
According to Vielma, no dog is untrainable; you just have to figure out what motivates them.
“If a dog is food motivated, you can just incorporate snacks into the training to get the dog to respond,” she said. “You can teach a dog to know when they hear a clicker, food is coming. Our basis of training is pay attention to what kind of dog you have, learn how to communicate with that dog and then it’s limitless what you can do.”
At the end of Goober’s training, Vielma is confident he will be able to sit and stay for up to three or five minutes. She is also working on Goober’s ability to walk through a crowd of people without becoming distracted. She reiterates the importance of a dog’s owner utilizing any training in order to use it successfully.
“This (training) isn’t successful if the owner doesn’t take it on,” Vielma said. “It just doesn’t work. Everybody wants that ‘quick fix’ and we have to say, ‘we can do that, but you have to commit to our group obedience classes.’”
Goober is the first shelter dog Vielma is training from Palm Valley, but she hopes to be able to work with more in the future.
“If I have the time and I can bring in any dogs that are deemed unadoptable and work with them, at least we can save some,” she said. “I hope to somehow tell the Valley ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ and see that’s it’s possible to turn a dog around.”
According to McClelland, there are a few families already interested in Goober. Foster’s at Palm Valley Animal Center get first choice and are encouraged to be involved in the adoption process.
“She’s (Vielma) pretty much fostering Goober right now so at the end of the training, if she wants to adopt Goober she can,” McClelland said. “Our foster’s always get first pick because if you foster an animal, of course you’re going to have an attachment to it. Our foster’s are also able to aid in the adoption process. There’s no better reward than knowing you helped an animal get to a really good home.”
Aside from basic training, Vielma and her husband, Marty Vielma, provide group classes in obedience, agility, tricks, protection and puppy imprinting. They also provide a range of swimming classes for dogs, school demonstrations and boarding services.
“Dogs are actually smart and they do jobs for us — whether they’re emotional support or a service dog — they’re just so usable,” Vielma said. “For example, Goober, he’s amazing at agility and that’s a sport that keeps people fit. It’s something you can do with your dog and have fun with. It’s amazing and rewarding — what an animal can give back.”
Palm Valley Animal Center is in constant need of foster’s. To learn more about the foster program, call (956) 686-1141. To learn more about the RGV K9 Training Centre and the wide range of programs they provide, call (956) 460-4582.