Tears in Heaven by J. Distano

(Dog Sports Magazine, 3/99)

Anyone wishing to contact John may do so at the following address:
Beyond Obedience K9 Training
15 Cliff Court
Succasunna, NJ 07876
(973) 927-7387
Copyright © 1999

“Spiritual combat is as brutal as the combat of men, but the vision of justice, is the pleasure of God alone.” – Arthur Rimbaud “A Season in Hell”.

This will be the most difficult article I will ever write. It has taken me four months to even THINK about writing it. It’s about loss. It’s about pain. It’s about being cheated. This past June I had my Rottweiler bitch, Nikki, put to sleep. it was the first time for me. I still can’t believe it. The hardest part was the guilt. Not for me being cheated, but for her. She was diagnosed with bone cancer in April. It was an uphill battle from there. Let’s face it, anyone involved in the field of dog training is actually practicing a type of child psychology. It is very common for not only the best dog, but even the best child, to get less attention than the problem ones. Think about it. Those of you with more than one dog (or child). The problem ones get all the attention. And why? The good ones don’t need any work.

A typical scenario would be, “let’s see, I have two hours to spare. I’ll work with Tyson (APBT) on his recall between two dogs, Brutus (Rottweiler) on his outing, and Nikki …. ah, she doesn’t need any work. So training in public places? Tyson needs work on that. Nikki … she DOES everything, she’s no challenge.” And so on. So she’d stay home. Clients bringing dogs over for training? Who’s my demo dog? Nikki does everything too easy. Bring out Brutus. And so on.

Don’t get me wrong. She wasn’t neglected. Not even close. But looking back, she deserved MORE than she got. Also, considering the fact that I got her at the beginning of my training career, she made ME look good. People would see her in action, and say, “where do I sign”?. It’s pretty common nowadays for trainers to buy a super dog from the right breeder, and take credit for the dog’s performance. Not me. The stories about Nikki could fill a book, but I’ll share a few favorites.

About 9 years ago a woman had called to inquire about obedience training. Although she was referred to me by several veterinarians, she was still hesitant. She had been ripped off by another trainer. She needed some convincing. “What type of training are you interested in?”, I asked. “Just the basics, you know, sit, down, stay, recall, etc.”, she said. “That’s no problem,” I said. “But how do I know you’re any good?” she said. It was show time. I brought Nikki out. I commanded, “Nikki, LIGHTS!” Without hesitation, she came from behind the counter, walked past the woman, jumped up, and hit the light switch. Off went the lights. The woman was stunned. Nikki nonchalantly walked back behind the counter and sat down. “How was that,” I asked? She still couldn’t talk. “W?W?Where do I sign?” Anyone familiar with theatrical work will know that is not an easy exercise to teach. I taught it to Nikki in about two hours. I should say that she LEARNED it in two hours. It wasn’t me. It was her. I’ve tried it with many other dogs, but few could pick it up.

A demonstration. “We’d like to see something different,” the woman said. It was a bunch of kids. So lets give them something different. A few months earlier I had taught Nikki to read (yes READ!). So I would hold up the cue cards, and she would respond to the word on the card. The kids were howling. The parents were shocked. How the hell? “That’s impossible,” said one man. So I did them out of order. I did the same one twice in a row. She still did them all. One guy dropped his drink. They were stunned. “This is some kind of trick,” said one woman. “Of course it is,” I laughed. It sure was. (No, I’m not telling how she did it).

As I sit here writing, I’m looking at her. Her ashes sit in a sacred place in my office. She’s my reminder. My inspiration.

In closing, I’d like to quote one of the greatest animal trainers ever, Mr. Gunther Gebel Williams, who once said, “You’ll only have one or two really great animals in ones’ lifetime.” Well, Nikki was my first. Thanks to her, I’ll know when the second one comes around.