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Taking that extra step

Anyone in animal welfare remembers that turning point in which their lives changed forever. Kenny Lamberti recalls how he got started in animal welfare, with a dog named Yoyo and a dog trainer turned mentor that recognized something special.

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Kenny Lamberti and his dog, Ruben

In 1999, a stubby little brindle dog followed me on a 5-mile run through my neighborhood in Boston. He had no collar, tags or manners, but he made me laugh and was a great running companion, so I took him home. This 45-pound ball of energy needed a name, and because he bounced up and down incessantly I thought Yoyo was a good fit.

For the next few weeks Yoyo and I had an epic battle for ownership of my tiny apartment, which, 16 years later, I can finally admit I lost in a landslide. In spite of Yoyo being the worst roommate of all time, I adored him and desperately wanted him to feel the same way about me. I can’t say for sure how he felt about me, but I can say that he struggled to control himself--which resulted in me going to the hospital for stitches on more than one occasion. Each time, I would return home and try to train my little pal, in hopes he would just calm down and be “normal.” Nothing I did seemed to work, so eventually I called a local behavior and training facility for help. I was so nervous as I waited for the behaviorist to come to my apartment, because I knew there was something wrong with my dog, and I feared they would tell me to put him to sleep.

What happened during that one hour session totally changed my life. Bernice Clifford arrived at my apartment right on time. I had a connection with dogs from a very early age, but never considered dog training as a career path until I met Bernice. Yoyo lost his mind and charged Bernice before she took a full step inside. He didn’t bite her, but he launched himself through the air getting inches from her face. I grabbed him by the thick chain I kept on him, because launching himself at people had become a favorite pastime for my little wild man. I apologized profusely, and told Bernice he was really a good boy, and didn’t mean any harm.

Things eventually settled down, and I gave Yoyo a chew toy so he would have something to do while Bernice and I spoke. I was riddled with anxiety and already preparing my defense case and rationale for why I would never put my dog to sleep. Bernice started by patting me on the shoulder—which for her was a stretch because she is barely 5 feet tall and I am 6’2”—but she made me feel better, which meant a lot to me. The first words out of her mouth were, “I am a very frank person, and don’t want to BS you.” She spent a few minutes telling me how gorgeous Yoyo was, and how she also had a pit bull named Dixie. After more than an hour of talking about dogs over coffee, she gave me a few training techniques to try, and promised to follow up with me in a few days. The last thing she said while leaving my apartment was, “You’ve got a lot of dog there, so please be careful—don’t forget everyone out in the streets doesn’t love him like you do.” The very next day Yoyo smashed himself through my second floor window in pursuit of a woman jogging with a big, fluffy dog. Luckily I was in pretty good shape, so I was able to catch him before what would’ve likely been a very ugly interaction. I called Bernice immediately, and we set a time to meet the next day. After a long, difficult conversation Bernice helped me come to the decision that Yoyo had pretty serious issues and putting him to sleep was the right thing to do. I stayed up that entire night crying, and maybe disposing of a few adult beverages. Yoyo of course had no clue what was going on, and ironically we had the calmest and most enjoyable evening of our entire friendship. Yoyo was affectionate and even slept in bed with me for the first time.

The next day Bernice met me at the vet’s and stayed with me the whole time as we let Yoyo finally find some peace. Until that point in my life, I’m not sure I’d ever felt that much pain and guilt. I went back to my quiet little apartment that night and after shedding quite a few tears, left Bernice a voicemail thanking her for being with me throughout the process and, more importantly, for being so honest. A couple of days passed, and Bernice called me and asked if I wanted to visit the local shelter with her. I hadn’t left my apartment so it seemed like a good excuse to shower (and maybe get a large iced coffee).

I met her at the shelter and we looked at tons of dogs, until we met this tiny brindle puppy. The staff had asked Bernice to consult on this 12-pound little guy, because he had a vicious sounding growl and seemed “aggressive.” Bernice began playing with the pup, and giving me a kind of tutorial on dog behavior. Little did I know my apprenticeship had begun, and the course of my life was about to take a major turn. We decided I would take this little guy home for a test drive, and Bernice and I would work with him together. This puppy became velcroed to me for the next few days, and served as a living breathing form of Prozac. I wasn’t completely healed from losing Yoyo, so Bernice ended up taking the puppy and naming him Luthor, but my work with Bernice had only just begun.

In the next few months I tormented Bernice, and joined her for group training classes, behavior consultations and shelter visits. I was hooked and knew I had found my calling. I continued to learn from her, and began reading books, taking classes and even shadowing world-renowned veterinary behaviorist Amy Marder, who Bernice worked for in her private practice. I ultimately began teaching my own classes, and was hired by the same practice. Years later Bernice moved on to lead the training and behavior department at Animal Farm Foundation in upstate New York, and it wasn’t long before I followed her. My path eventually lead me to The HSUS.

I owe Bernice a whole lot, but I might just owe Yoyo more. I think of the thousands of dogs and people I’ve been able to touch and hopefully help in some way, and I can’t help but think Yoyo is somewhere tearing something to pieces, with that crazed look in his eye, totally oblivious to what his short life meant to others. I share this story with the hope that all of you reading who work with people and dogs will be mindful of the power you have. I have no doubt Bernice cared about me as much as she did Yoyo, and that has shaped the entire way I work with people and their pets. Bernice saw my assets versus my deficits as a dog owner.  Often times we focus on all the things someone is doing wrong (which I certainly was), but Bernice saw the good things in me and helped bring them out. She saw me as someone who she wanted to bring into the animal movement, and in turn I've been able to touch many people and pets. This is how we add more soldiers to our army of the kind.

We have the ability to shape and mold new animal advocates every day. Let’s shape compassionate ones.


About the Author

Kenny Lamberti was acting vice president of the Companion Animals department at the Humane Society of the United States.