Owning a pet used to be simple. Now there’s a battalion of specialists available to keep the furriest (or featheriest or scaliest) member of the family happy and healthy.
by Stephen Hopkins
As with every other facet of modern life, the relationship between humans and our companion animals has ratcheted up a notch or three. You can’t just toss Fido a bone and think you’re being a good master. There are diet regimens, behavioral training programs, and a whole new canon of laws to obey. An army of specialists stands ready to assist pet owners. (Is it even PC to call them “owners” any more?) Pet grooming salons rival human salons in cachet. Pet daycare, dog-walking and cat-exercising services, as well as upscale overnight accommodations, have all but replaced the dreary kennels of yesteryear. Animal behaviorists and New Age therapists use yoga, massage, and acupuncture to help keep critters comforted, while veterinary medicine grows ever more sophisticated.
What follows is a sampling of the growing number of Hudson Valley pet-care businesses that strive to keep our animals happy, healthy, sane, well-behaved, and impeccably groomed.
“Half the dogs in America think their name is â€˜No,’” says Brian Kilcommons, who along with his wife, Sarah Wilson, has fashioned a multimedia cottage industry out of teaching dogs and humans to understand each other. “Roughly 70 percent of the dogs that go into the shelter system are there because of behavior problems,” he adds, “which means people are getting puppies and they don’t know how to raise them properly. Our goal is to make sure that when people get a dog or a puppy, it stays in the home, and that people really get to understand the joy of dog ownership.”
Kilcommons and Wilson, who live on a 120-acre farm and training center in Gardiner, in the shadow of Ulster County’s Shawangunk Ridge, are so good at what they do — including promoting themselves in print, on television, and in a series of instructional books — that they’ve attracted a coterie of celebrity clients. A short list of the folks they’ve taught to control their pets includes Candice Bergen, Harrison Ford, Diane Sawyer, Morley Safer, Carly Simon, Diana Ross, Ralph Lauren, and Geoffrey Beene. “Stephen Sondheim just called me to look for a puppy for him,” Kilcommons remarks offhandedly.
The couple met in 1987. Wilson — a one-time registrar at a New York City art gallery who switched careers to follow her bliss as a dog trainer — was attending an event hosted by Kilcommons’ organization, the Society for New York Dog Trainers. “As a trainer, I went, and the rest, as they say, is history,” she says.
If her resume is long, Kilcommons’ is even longer. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” says the colorful raconteur. “I’ve trained over 35,000 dogs.” A study in yin and yang, the couple split their responsibilities accordingly. “Brian specializes in aggression and that sort of problem, and I’m puppies and fearful or shy problems,” says Wilson.
“I do problem dogs — and problem people. It goes hand-in-hand,” says Kilcommons, pinpointing the number-one mistake people make: “Thinking that dogs understand English and our emotions.”
“Shyness and fearful problems take the longest,” adds Wilson. “Most problems are pretty easily resolved once the person understands how to communicate with the dog. We train people to train their dogs. So it doesn’t matter to us what age or breed or problem.”
The couple contribute to Parade magazine, and make frequent appearances on television. Their seventh book, My Smart Puppy, is due this fall, complementing an already released DVD by the same name.
According to Kilcommons, much of what passes for dog-training gospel is not particularly effective. “There’s a lot of confusing terminology,” he says. “â€˜The dog’s dominant,’ â€˜the dog’s alpha’ — it’s all communication of conflict. But these dogs aren’t waking up in the morning going, â€˜Hey, what can I do to really piss ’em off today?’ They try to please us. It’s really about teaching them wanted behavior. What’s nice about this work is you’re dealing with something that people really love and care about. And once they learn how to communicate, it changes everyone’s world.”
Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson can be reached at 845-255-4713, or visit www.mysmartpuppy.com.
It’s not nice to ask a woman her age. But if, as her bio states, avian and exotic species specialist Dr. Laurie Hess got her doctorate from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in 1994 and spent four years at Yale before that (graduating summa cum laude), then she grew up in the ’70s and early ’80s, when the market for what she does today hardly existed.
Until recently, few people thought of taking anything but a cat or dog to the vet. But with the recent explosion in ownership of oddball pets such as prairie dogs and sugar gliders, these attitudes are changing. Dr. Hess — one of about 110 board-certified avian and exotic species vets in the world, and the only such practitioner in the Hudson Valley — is ready.
Dr. Hess, who splits her time between four locations (one in Dutchess County and three in Westchester) believes that exotic animals are people, too. “They get everything that happens to everybody else. They get infections, they get worms, they get cancer, they need surgery. But you don’t get a lot of training in veterinary school in these specific species, and there are lots of different species to know about.”
The variety of problems in exotic animals includes feather picking, hair loss, skin chewing, egg binding, not perching, being fluffed-up, lethargy, biting, vomiting, itching, mites, coughing, sneezing, seizures, broken legs or wings, lumps, bumps, and wounds.
“I’ve treated birds with cancer,” says Dr. Hess. “Ferrets get lymphoma quite frequently, and I’ve done chemotherapy on those animals. I had a rabbit last year that had a mass in its chest that we did some radiation therapy on….Exotic animal medicine is not at the level of cat and dog medicine, but it’s getting there.”
Certain diseases are more prevalent in certain species, a fact often related to their human owners not understanding the pet’s nutritional and environmental requirements. For example, birds suffer reproductive ailments due to stress from egg-laying. Cold-blooded reptiles have specific needs that, if not met, throw their immune systems out of whack. Guinea pigs need plenty of vitamin C. “That’s something specific to guinea pigs,” Dr. Hess says. “They can get scurvy.”
Much of the doctor’s time is spent dispensing knowledge. “I do a lot of wellness care, and talking about how important it is. People buy a turtle, and it doesn’t go to the vet until it gets sick. Exotic animals need a checkup when they’re first purchased, and then checkups annually, just like a cat or dog. We can prevent a lot of illnesses if we just get the education and do some blood work to make sure things are fine, get rid of parasites and things like that. No one really thinks of that when they buy whatever they buy in the pet store.”
Dr. Hess (who has two kids, four cats, and a Pionus parrot) also conducts seminars and lectures, bones up on the latest in exotic animal medicine, and participates in various professional associations. She’s been asked to join the board of the Hudson Valley Raptor Center. About the only thing she doesn’t treat is insects. “You can’t be good at everything,” she says.
On the Cutting Edge
Dr. Joseph A. Impellizeri is the Hudson Valley’s only full-time, board-certified veterinary oncologist, and one of only 150 in the world. Luckily for the region’s well-heeled pet owners, he plies his trade at Hudson Highlands Veterinary Specialty Group, a state-of-the-art, multidisciplinary facility nestled against a green hillock in Hopewell Junction, Dutchess County.
Knowledgeable about the latest advances in animal oncology, inquisitive, and open to trying new therapies, Impellizeri is the sort of engaging young professional who inspires confidence — probably in animals, as well.
The large veterinary practice was designed by the late John Whitefield to place almost every conceivable veterinary specialty under one roof. Using the facility’s recently installed in-house CT scanner, Impellizeri can order up a full set of 3D images of your pooch’s interior — brain, spinal cord, joints, nasal cavity — determining whether, if surgery is going to be performed, he can get all of the cancer. Besides Impellizeri’s oncology practice, the group includes a cardiologist, a surgeon, a behaviorist, a dermatologist, and a dentist, all of whom are board-certified. The building includes an orthopedic surgical suite, a rehabilitation area with an underwater treadmill, a pharmacy, and a diagnostic lab.
“My specialty is just cancer medicine — that’s all I do,” says Impellizeri, who joined the practice last June. “People think, â€˜My God, that must be horrific.’ It’s not. It actually involves a lot of hope and there are a lot of options.”
One of those options is chemotherapy. “For animals, chemotherapy is nothing like it is for you and me,” says Impellizeri. “We don’t make animals sick just to keep them alive. If I can’t maintain a good quality of life, we will not treat.”
Impellizeri is also involved in collaborative efforts with entities such as Vassar College, which sends pre-vet students to Hudson Highlands and, in turn, opens their facilities for cancer research. “Maybe we’ll have something in the future that will block where a [certain cancer-causing] gene is being expressed,” says Impellizeri. “So it’s exciting — it’s not just a matter of giving a drug and saying, â€˜Hey, good luck.’ It’s really almost mimicking what human oncologists would do.”
Impellizeri can treat animals with drugs before the FDA approves them for human use, and can even participate in the testing of those drugs. “Most major pharmaceutical companies want to have a veterinary oncologist involved,” says Impellizeri, explaining that drug testing on real-world cancer sufferers is preferable to testing on laboratory mice.
“I see naturally occurring cancers. Many of them are identical to what you and I would get. And so these companies are saying, â€˜Well, if we can get a veterinary oncologist involved, maybe we can try some of our Phase 1, Phase 2 studies, and bring it to the human side that much sooner.’ ”
Although treating cancer in animals costs far less than treating it in humans, it’s still out of reach for most pet owners. “A typical 75-pound Labrador retriever being treated for six roughly months with a non-Hodgkins lymphoma combination chemotherapy protocol, you could be looking at a between $6,000 and $8,000,” says Impellizeri. “Typically, it’s a chance to get you 12 to 14 months or longer, and the potential for cure, even though cure’s not a word we use very often. But if a year on a 12-year-old dog means that the dog gets to enjoy another set of holidays and another summer hiking in the Adirondacks, then for many owners that becomes a very realistic option.”
There are pet groomers and then there are pet groomers. Betsy Germain is one of the best, and has the props to prove it. So what makes the Red Hook, Dutchess Countyâ€“based stylist — who also does cats, and the occasional guinea pig or rabbit — so special?
Maybe it’s the state-of-the-art equipment at her small salon. “We have three tables.
They’re electrically adjustable, and they’re on a hydraulic system,” says Germain. “They go up and down, all the way to the floor. They feature a pulley system so that a dog can be suspended in different ways comfortably.”
Or maybe it’s how devoted Germain is to keeping up with industry advances. “Education — I really think that’s the key. My assistants are required to go to seminars and stay up on the latest techniques. There are new things coming out all the time.”
Then again, perhaps it’s her amenability. “If we can make the customer happy, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the animal’s health, I’m willing to do it,” says Germain. “If it’s going to harm the animal, then I would refuse. Little shih tzu with a Mohawk? Okay, we can do that. Can you spike my dog’s hair? Sure. But it’s pretty rare that we get silly requests like that.”
Germain buffs and fluffs between 100 and 130 animals a week, giving standard haircuts, baths, trimming nails, and cleaning ears. Things have evolved considerably over the 25 years she’s been in business, she notes. “Right now, there’s something called The Furminator shed-less treatment. It’s a special shampoo, rinse, and a special brush that we use to card out a lot of dead hair. When we apply all these together, we get out almost 60 percent more hair than you could with just a regular bath. It’s really pretty amazing.
“There have also been advances in little things,” she continues. “For years, we had muzzles, but now they’ve come out with this small piece of foam with a piece of Velcro that you can put around a dog’s neck. The dogs don’t mind it — they’ll just stand there — and they can’t turn and bite you.”
Which reminds her of something. “As a child, I was bitten by dogs twice. Once, I had to go through the series of rabies vaccines in the stomach. I don’t know if that had anything to do with my getting into this profession. But after that, I’ve never been afraid of dogs.”
Call Betsy Germain for an appointment at 845-758-6776.
It’s a medical fact that petting a cat or dog not only helps lower your blood pressure and ward off illness, but serves as a great way to unwind from the stresses of everyday life. The Hudson Valley Humane Society’s Visiting Pet Program allows people in institutional settings to enjoy these benefits.
“We do visitations with evaluated, certified, and insured animals, going to nursing homes, schools, hospitals, assisted living and senior facilities, and psychiatric facilities,” says program director Dolores Schaub. “We even do a juvenile detention facility in Orange County.”
To participate in the 13-year-old Rockland-based program, volunteer pet owners and their critters first go through some extensive training. They observe already trained pet/owner teams during visits, and take a “safe handling” workshop that teaches pets to obey even if confronted with distractions like spilled food or another animal. After passing an evaluation, owner and animal — usually a dog — will be certified as a team.
All pooches are welcome, assures Schaub. “We don’t discriminate against breeds. I’m on my third Doberman, a puppy. She’s five months old and she’s going out and getting some experience in the field. She’s been handled by various trainers, and she has no temperament problems at all. I think she’s going to be an awesome dog.”
At the moment, there are about 15 people and 20 animals in the program, says Schaub, who adds that recruitment is one of her primary duties. “At our peak, we had about 42 volunteers and 54 creatures. But people retire, animals expire. You lose a pet, then you get another one. It takes a while to get it trained.”
While dogs handle the training most readily, other critters do take part. “We’ve had registered cats,” says Schaub. “We still have a guinea pig and a rabbit. And we also have a Moluccan cockatoo, which is my bird. He’s probably one of the few birds in the country that has credentials under his wing.” The director laughs at her joke, then goes on to speak of the rewards of the program. “We see and hear things like, â€˜Mrs. Jones has been here for six months and she hasn’t spoken a word. But she’s talking to your dog.’”
That’s not only good for Mrs. Jones, says Schaub. “It’s extremely rewarding for us to see that our dog — or whatever animal — has been successful in breaking a barrier.”
There’s a list of facilities waiting for a visit from one of the teams, most of which make one or two visits a week. “We’re in demand,” Schaub says. “It’s a hot activity right now.”
Contact Dolores Schaub at 845-429-9507, or check www.hudsonvalleyvisitingpets.com for more information.