This series is about sharing a bit of my friend’s lives with their dogs. In conjunction with acquainting you with the role my dogs have played in my life, and how they have influenced my writing.
ME: Please share your history of the dogs in your life.
DENISE: Like many people, I grew up with dogs and have always had them in my life. We never did any ‘training’ when I was growing up – obedience classes weren’t a ‘thing’ in our household! My first dog was named ‘Stadar’ and was a kind little West Highland White Terrier. Later, came hunting dogs. The dogs either worked out, or if they bit or barked too much, my parents took them down to the local gas station and simply turned them loose. I pray those dogs ended up in a more tolerant household, and I did my best in my life to make sure that would never be my go-to solution.
I got the first dog of my own in college, where I lived in a rented house across the street from the landlords. Dogs were forbidden in our rental agreement, but somehow I thought I could get a puppy and hide it from them. That’s college-age thinking for you. I got a little Labrador puppy named Ben and he was in the house with me when I was home, and on a chain in the back-basement yard when I was at school. I taught him to crawl on his belly past the front room window so the landlords wouldn’t see him in the house. That was my first introduction to training for a specific behavior, and it worked like a charm. I’m sure the landlords eventually figured out that their renters had a dog, but they were kind enough not to say anything.
In 1995, I had a sweet male Labrador named Bondo who became reactive on leash. I went to the Academy of Canine Behavior to get help for the problem and was introduced to their obedience programs, which I enjoyed tremendously. Meanwhile, I was hanging around dog shows, taking photos and having dreams of being a show dog photographer. When I learned of the Academy's Apprentice Program, I was working with a career counselor at the time due to being laid off in the banking industry, so I applied for the program and got in. I spent four years at the Academy, working with problem dogs – some very dangerous. You get good at handling pretty quick when you are working with dogs who want to cause you harm. During that time, I obtained my first obedience title with Bondo, and was hooked. I then adopted a troubled Doberman Pinscher named Riata that the owners relinquished to the Academy and begin taking competition obedience with her. We were doing well until she bit another Academy trainer quite severely and had to be put down. My greatest failure – I wish I had her now, given what I now know. But her demise paved the way for an extraordinary animal. I then purchased a Red Doberman puppy that would change my life. His name was River.
River came to me at the time in my life when I was most excited about learning, about having a working breed, and when I had the most time to devote to training. He learned over 30 commands and tricks and was a natural ham. We earned our obedience title, conformation title, therapy title, CGC, and ROM. I loved him dearly. He was a great ambassador for our breed. We were inseparable.
He lived for 11 years, during which I obtained a little sister for him, a sweet little yellow Labrador named Kimber, after my favorite competition shooting pistol. She was the sweetest, easiest dog I have ever raised. After River passed away, I waited for quite a while to get the next dog, so I could spend time with her and give her the undivided attention she deserved. She was something special, and we pursued hunting training as something new and different. She earned her obedience title, CGC, and Junior Hunter title. She was a fantastic dog and lived to be 11 also.
When she was 8 years old, I purchased a puppy from Foxfire, a black Doberman I named Kix. He was different from River, much more energetic. He ran everywhere, never walked. He turned out to be much more sensitive and taught me that all behaviors I once thought a puppy would grow out of (crotch sniffing, for one) would not necessarily go away without assistance. He lives today and is still the most social dog I have ever owned. He can get any dog to play, and during my years at Riverdog, he was indispensable as a dog we could use to teach a fearful dog to play or get a bully dog to let down and enjoy another dog. A beautiful and fantastic individual is Kix. Today he is 7.
ME: What part does your dog play in your life?
DENISE: My dog is my companion, my friend, my hug monkey. I’m just a normal person who loves the feel of a dog, the breath of a dog, the mind of a dog. The beauty of a dog. The love of a dog. I’m no different than anyone else in that regard.
ME: I hold you in high regard. Not only as a friend but as a successful business owner. Please tell us how your business came about?
DENISE: I left the Academy after realizing there were no advancement opportunities for me beyond being a trainer. I decided to pursue show dog photography and teach a few classes on the side at Linda Shea’s. I spent a lot of time on show grounds and became disillusioned with the prevailing attitudes and fellowship among the competitors. Meanwhile, my puppy classes at Linda’s were taking off, by word of mouth. River became the namesake for my company – first, Riverdog photo – then Riverdog Canine Coaching. When photography went digital and all photographers had to update their equipment, I decided the investment was too great, and turned my attention to teaching obedience classes full time.
I soon turned to a business consultant to help me navigate being a business owner. In 2002, she looked at my financials and said, ‘You’re going to need a building.’ So, I went looking. No one would talk to me – no one wanted to lease a building to house dogs. But a company in Issasquah took a chance on me, and since I wasn’t doing overnight boarding, we opened up Riverdog Canine Coaching in downtown. We offered classes, Training C.A.M.P. (an alternative to board and train that I made up myself) and daycare, which was just beginning to be a ‘thing.’
We made everything up as we went along – manuals, play floor layout, everything. We made a lot of mistakes, but the most important mistake we never made was losing a dog. It was my worst fear, and we never lost a dog in our care. We did have one border collie who climbed a fence in our early days, but luckily, he was trained to a recall and he came back when we called him. Afterward, we installed a security lip on all our fencing, double gates on all our interior and exterior doors, and never had a runner again.
The hallmark of our business was our free behavior evaluations, which was a service originated at the Academy. People needed a safe place to start figuring out what they needed to do with their dogs, and my goal was to provide that safe, non-judgmental, caring place for the citizens of Issaquah. We expanded two times, contracted once, then expanded twice more. All due to demand. We took time for staff, in weekly meetings. We vowed to do things other franchises would never do – we put candy on our counters, hand wrote daily report cards for every single dog in our care and kept snacks in the fridge. We held annual retreats during which time we worked with all the staff to assess the year, and plan for the next, and included fun field trips, like Wolf Encounters and trampoline parks. We had a fellowship with each other, and it worked. Our turnover was extremely low, and we had several staff with us for over 10 years.
I never dreamed for what we eventually became – a 12,000 sq. foot campus with over 135 dogs cared for daily; 34 employees; thousands of dogs trained and cared for over 16 years. It might surprise you that the dogs weren’t our first priority, either. We were a people business first, a dog business second. It worked. At the time we sold, we had a seven-figure revenue, a stellar reputation both online and in our community, no debt, and never any involvement in lawsuits or any legal trouble. We did our best to always do the right thing, and it was reflected in our business from door to door.
ME: Now that you have sold your business what plans do you have for the future?
DENISE: I am married to a farmer and after 16 long years in the dog training business, my husband’s farming has sort of had to take a back seat. Together we have decided that it is his turn to pursue his dream of farming, so we have purchased a hay farm in Eastern Washington to augment our current farming of beef cattle and Christmas Trees here in Western Washington.
Since the sale, I have gone back to doing what I love the most – teaching obedience classes. I currently teach one night a week at Riverdog and am loving it. I also really enjoy owning and managing Kimberland Collars, a small specialty business that we run out of our barn, producing the smallest micro prong collars in the world by handcrafting the collars out of steel with antique iron tools. These are the only micro prongs made in the U.S.A. and are highly sought after by both everyday dog owners and professional trainers who work with small dogs.
ME: Let’s talk a bit about horses. I appreciate you letting me pick your brain with regards to their habits, reactions, and temperaments. You were my “Go-To” person when I was writing Corralling Kenzie. What part do horses play in your world?
DENISE: I have been riding horses since I was about 20 years old. Here on the farm, which resides on the Middle Fork S Ranch owned by my father-in-law, I have plenty of places to ride, and plenty of work to do, be it moving cattle from one pasture to the other, or hauling Christmas trees to the burn pile, or riding fence line to check for elk damage. I have shown horses, entered roping competitions, and generally just enjoy my time with them.
ME: Denise has spent her life training and sharing her world with dogs, and I just couldn’t let her get away without having her share a story with us.
DENISE: My favorite story is one that I tell in class when I teach my students the command ‘Touch!’, which is used as an emergency recall, when your ‘Come Here!’ command just doesn’t work.
I was camping with friends and we were getting ready to barbeque some good juicy steaks after a long day of playing on the beach. We were hungry. I placed the steaks on the side table of the BBQ for a moment and turned my back to arrange the seasonings. I instantly heard a terrible gasp, then another, from my friends standing nearby, and as I turned around to see what the trouble was, I saw River streak past me, running full speed away with one of the raw T-Bone steaks in his mouth.
Away he went, bounding joyfully over the campground lawn, looking like he wasn’t going to stop for miles. I called, ‘River! No! Come Here!’ but there was not even a tiny break in his stride. I called again, and just when my hungry friends thought all was lost, I remembered my emergency recall command. And this indeed was an emergency! There was a steak at stake!
I took a deep breath and called out, ‘Riiivvveer!! Touchhhhhh!’ and stared at the fleeing dog. Gradually, without breaking stride, his path began to turn into a big circle, and mercifully he began to make his way back to our campsite, still running full speed, still with the steak in his mouth.
I had always traded River for something better, should he steal something and then bring it back. But I had to think fast…what would be better than an entire steak? What would I trade him for? On one hand I was furious with him, on the other, I wanted to reward him if the steak made it back intact. When he finally got to me, I held out my hand and he dropped the steak in it. He was panting crazily, which made him look like he was smiling. Who could resist that face?!! He may have been quite proud to have brought me such a delicious prize. I don’t know. But he looked darn proud of himself! I could hear the sighs of relief of my friends, who would now not go hungry. Disaster had truly been averted.
I told him what a good dog he was, and reached back behind me in a ridiculous effort to blindly find something to reward him for. My hands found a bag of Lay’s Wavy BBQ Potato Chips, and I took the bag and threw the entire contents on the ground as his reward. Gleefully, he began snatching up potato chips off the ground; more gasps from the friend gallery. Ten minutes of eating potato chips I think more than rewarded him for a nice 2 lb. T-Bone.
I tell this story to inspire people to have more than one recall command, and one like ‘Touch!’ which has no punishment if not performed – only big rewards when it is performed. It saved me that day, and it has always made me proud when I think of the story.
You can find Denise here:
Dedication of Corralling Kenzie
This story was born from a single photo that overflowed with the love between a horse and his Doberman. Denise, a longtime friend, posted the photo of her horse, Boone, and her dog, Kix, on Facebook in August 2014. It was so poignant, I felt a deep stir of emotion, followed by an ‘aha’ moment, and Kenzie’s story blossomed in my mind. The photo captured an overpowering emotion, and I wanted to portray as powerful a feeling in Kenzie’s story. While writing Kenzie’s story, I often found myself pulling the photo out and once again becoming enthralled by the image.
I would like to dedicate this book to Denise Caley Stringfellow, her thirteen-year-old red dun quarter horse, Continental Boone, and her Doberman, Kix ~ Foxfire’s Shore Thing.
I would also like to thank my friends, Denise and Dianne Nation, for allowing me to pick their brains and verify horse information. They are two dedicated horsewomen, whose lives are enriched by sharing them with these amazing creatures. I hope that all of them approve of Dakota and Boone.
Thank you, my friends.
Until next time…