Rosalie Alvarez, left, Los Altos Hills’ own dog whisperer, receives a thank-you kiss from Maria, center, and Jack Caffey’s West Highland White Terrier, Murphy. Ellie Van Houtte/ Town Crier
Rosalie Alvarez knew she had a special relationship with animals when she began training chickens, ducks and calves on her family’s ranch in Ukiah at the age of 5. By her early teens, Alvarez realized that communicating with animals was her calling in life.
Over the next nine decades, Alvarez not only bonded with hundreds of canines and other animals, but also fostered the attributes of good dog ownership in hundreds of people who approached her for help.
Shortly after Alvarez opened her Los Altos Hills home for dog training in 1960, she had nearly 100 dogs and their owners at her home every Saturday. Alvarez and her husband, Pat – who transitioned from dog owner to “the best beginning dog trainer” when he met Rosalie 38 years ago – expanded their services to offer dog obedience classes in 2008 through the Los Altos Hills Parks and Recreation Department.
“She’s probably trained every dog in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills,” said Maria Caffey of Los Altos Hills, Alvarez’s longtime student.
Caffey and her husband, Jack, have trained more than five dogs with the Alvarezes, including four West Highland White Terriers. Over the years, the two couples became friends to the extent of participating in agility shows with their Westies – a decision influenced by Alvarez’s own dog show achievements.
As a judge at dog shows and the founder of an agility drill team of 16 Dobermans, Alvarez traveled the world and showcased her ability to bring out the best in dogs and their human companions. Clients’ glowing accolades and a lifetime achievement award from the American Kennel Club in 2007 are testaments to her steadfast commitment to the art of creating better dog owners.
On the cusp of her 90th birthday next year, Alvarez has decided to retire, but the spritely woman notes that she never wants to stop doing what she loves.
“I have a young person I’m training to take over my classes,” said Alvarez, referring to her successor, Lindy McLaren. “I’ll still do some private training for people I really like. … I’ll always do this. If anything happens, I’ll be there to help (Lindy).”
Lead for a lifetime
If students walk into Alvarez’s class assuming that she’ll take the leash and discipline their obstreperous dogs, they’re in for a rude awakening.
“She’s there to train you,” Caffey said. “She talks to you and teaches you how to do it right.”
Alvarez is unabashedly strict, but for the right reasons. She expects her students to practice, be consistent and take the lead.
“The dog will be as good as the owner is a trainer,” she said. “You have to let a dog know that this is what you want – and don’t settle for anything different.”
Her tough exterior is well intentioned. She wants people who own dogs to train them to save lives – their own lives and even their owners’ lives.
To reach her goal of creating a happy home, Alvarez believes that it’s essential for owners to learn how to exhibit alpha behavior.
“The owner has to become the leader,” Alvarez said. “They need to be in the pack but know that they’re on the bottom.”
Alvarez would never hurt a dog, but she said owners must let their dogs know what they want. Her philosophy is evident in the mantra she frequently repeats: “Don’t be mean to your dogs, but be mean with what you say.”
“Dogs don’t understand English – they understand an action or word,” she said.
Alvarez added that a pit bull isn’t born an attack dog, it’s made aggressive by its owners. The same dog could be loving and gentle if its owner trains it to act that way.
A champion trainer
The unique rapport that Alvarez fosters between her clients and their dogs is a direct result of her 25 years of experience as a trainer of police K-9 units.
When the San Francisco Police Department established a K-9 unit, officials called on Alvarez to take the lead in training their first narcotic search dog.
Although she was already a skilled trainer, she needed to teach herself the specifics of preparing a dog for police operations. Like an officer’s gun, a trained dog is a tool to assist officers.
According to Alvarez, it requires a tremendous amount of confidence to put your faith in the paws of a nonhuman actor.
“You have to trust your dogs, to turn them loose and watch them work,” she said. “They’ll get the (criminals) if they’re in there.”
Reflecting on her experiences, Alvarez said she came to respect the officers as much as their dogs.
“I’ve never found a dog handler in the police department who wasn’t a top cop and good with people,” she said. “What a dangerous life they live. If they can have something like this, it might save their lives.”
Dog trainer Rosalie Alvarez retires
Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier