An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
Wherman’s K9 Academy
By Meredith Levinson
The demise of Mr. Andy Wherman’s K9 Academy began during Intermediate Puppy Class one Tuesday evening in July. The evening was cool and Mr. Wherman decided to hold class outside. They were focusing on resisting distractions, and what better place to practice that than the great outdoors?
The class participants starting arriving a little after 7, even though the class wasn’t until 7:30. Always punctual, the human counterparts took their studies at Mr. Wherman’s Academy very seriously. The application alone took months to process and those that made it onto the waitlist had been known to wait there sometimes upwards of a year. By the time the animals met their trainer for the first time, you could often tell by the fear in their quivering jelly-eyes that their owners had had a talking-to with them, and that they had better do well and graduate on time.
On this evening though the dogs and their owners were all smiles. After learning class was being held outside—what a nice change!– everybody made their way down to a well-groomed lawn inside a fenced pen. The dogs were free to run around and socialize, with the expectation of course that the owner pick up any “messes” their dog made. Many of the owners brought little baggies from home—the orange ones that the newspaper comes in. But if you wanted to splurge a little, you could spend $4 and buy a roll of custom-made doggie mess bags with Mr. Wherman’s face printed on them. These also sold on the internet and those who didn’t make it into the Academy could at least clean up their dog’s messes with the help of Mr. Wherman.
By the time it was 7:15, all seven human students and their dogs had arrived. Mr. Wherman’s assistant brought out the treats for the humans –doughnuts this evening–and arranged them stylishly on a glass table in the back. Small class sizes and human comforts were part of what made the business model for Mr. Wherman’s Academy great. The humans gravitated towards the doughnut table—they had earned their treat by means of the hundreds of dollars of tuition they paid to have the best-trained dogs in Iowa—and chatted about weekend plans, so-and-so’s son on the high school football team, and of course the travelling topiary exhibit that was coming to town. The temperature had cooled down to a comfortable 75 degrees—perfect t-shirt weather—and a few of the resident lightening bugs had come out, making Mr. Wherman’s last night as a successful animal trainer especially beautiful.
At 7:25, the man himself strode onto the thick grassy area. Mr. Wherman surveyed the activity of the dogs the people socializing. Yes, things were going according to plan. By week 4 it was important that at least some progress had been made, otherwise clients might lose faith in the program and then tell their friends and family. By week 4 it was important that puppies at the intermediate level be able to socialize independently without any major dog fights, and be able to respond to simple commands from a familiar human. In fact just before he came onto the lawn he’d been standing behind a pillar in a shadow listening for a dog-fight or one of the humans to exclaim “Don’t eat that!” when the doughnuts would surely tempt the dogs. But none of that had happened! Maybe he was a better dog trainer than even he expected. Either that, or this was an exceptional group of puppies. Regardless, Mr. Wherman was quite pleased with what he saw and believed that they were ready for the next unit: resisting distractions. He stepped out into the middle of the lawn on the dot of 7:30.
For the distraction lesson Mr. Wherman had each human command their puppy to sit and stay inside their assigned plastic hoop and then walk half way across the lawn. The key was to keep your dog completely still and have their eyes on the treat at all times. Once everyone had done this- and this took a bit of time—Mr. Wherman brought out his own neighborhood mailman, Chuck Wood, who had graciously volunteered to be this week’s distraction. It isn’t always true that dogs have an aversion to mailmen, that’s the stuff of movies, but Mr. Wherman found that this usually entertains his human students to no end, and so he struck a deal with Chuck to keep coming on week 4 of Intermediate Puppy class.
It was in the middle of Chuck’s great mailman distraction that disaster struck. He was pretending to go about his mail route, meandering across the yard, handing out “mail” to the human students (it was actually the Academy weekly newsletter) when suddenly, in one swift motion, something massive and feathered swooped in and snatched up little Tino, the Pomeranian. Was this part of the act? It took a moment for everyone to realize what had just happened. Suddenly there were seven plastic hoops and only six puppies. Everyone looked to the sky just in time to see the vague outline of a large bird flapping away over the cornfields into the darkness, Tino, barely visible within its grasp.
The rest of class was cancelled of course. Mrs. Steinhouser, Tino’s owner, was in hysterics, her pride and joy had disappeared-forever- during distractions class! Mr. Wherman began to sweat profusely, this was not what was supposed to happen at week 4. There was nothing at animal training school that could have prepared him for this. He said how deeply sorry he was to Mrs. Steinhouser, that something so awful should occur under his watch—but to Tino’s credit, in his last moments he was sitting completely still and had kept his eyes on the treat. Mr. Wherman even let Mrs. Steinhouser take all the doughnuts home with her. Even so, when he went home that night he had a sinking feeling that the legacy he had built for himself was now over.
Indeed it was. No one showed up for the next day’s classes, nor the following day’s classes either. They all later learned the culprit of Tino’s death: Two great horned owls had escaped from the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines earlier that week, and were ravenous. That brought closure to Mrs. Steinhouser, but only a focus point for anger for Mr. Wherman. By the end of July, word had spread about Tino’s disappearance from Mr. Wherman’s Academy and enrollment was at an all-time low.
Frantic, Mr. Wherman called up his most faithful clients. No one wanted to take their dog to a school that was unsafe, where their beloved puppies could be snatched up from birds in the sky. Even his clients with great Danes, dogs far too heavy to be lifted by great horned owls, didn’t want to return (“who knows what’ll escape from the zoo next!” they told him). It was mid-August when Mr. Wherman knew he had to throw in the towel and call it quits. Because of an owl his whole booming business had died. Because of an Owl he had to change vocations at the age of 47. He decided to take his left over doggie mess bags with his face printed on them and join his friend Chuck wood in delivering mail.
© 2013 Meredith Levinson