Dog trainer realizes her longtime calling

By Jennifer Shaw



Contra Costa Times News Group


Sofie is learning the drill and knows her paces. Her owners are instructed to position themselves in different places in their yard. Each takes turns calling the 4-month-old Cockapoo, asking her to sit and rewarding her with a treat. This is reinforced by the sound of a handheld clicker and lots of praise.


With her characteristically short attention span, Sofie is jubilantly distracted by the presence of 3-year-old Kaela Bronfeld, before careening around the swimming pool to get her reward.


“Her attention span is short because of her age and having two-legged youngsters running around, but she's clearly getting this," says dog trainer Sasha Futran, clad in a black shirt, appointed with a pair of canine footprints and "paws off." “


The Berkeley resident reminds her clients to work toward an intermittent, random food reward method, ultimately substituting a treasured toy, petting or a bit of play.


Carla and Ken Betts of Piedmont contacted Futran to address problems they were having with Sofie's housebreaking and her penchant for jumping on people.


Futran noted other common concerns a client could have include leash-aggressive behavior, leash pulling and not coming when called.


"We've gone beyond trying to be the experts in all fields," said Carla Betts of their decision to hire a private behavioral modification consultant. Futran was certified at the Canine Consultant Academy at the Marin Humane Society.


But, for Futran, working full time with dogs has been a longtime calling that took a while to answer. Her career path had been in newspapers, radio and television, including a stint as the associate editor of Creative Loafing, an alternative newspaper in Atlanta, and hosting a daily talk show with an unusually conservative CBS affiliate.


"They needed a female and a liberal," Futran said. "I was told I couldn't discuss politics, and that's when we parted company."


The longtime activist segued into public relations for a variety of causes and fund-raising for nonprofits groups.


So, four-plus years ago, when the former consultant with the city of Berkeley had grown tired of the bureaucratic mire, she pitched herself as a dog walker. And, with her do-it-yourself business cards and acumen for designing her Web site, In the Company of Dogs (and cats, too) commenced, and business soon followed.


"Along with training, I have dreams of being the 'Dear Abby' of the animal training world," she said.


For many years, there has been something special about animals for the New York City native.


"Someone would leave a basket of cats on the soccer practice field, and we'd end up with at least one of them. I don't buy dogs; I adopt them from the SPCA, or they wander into my life," said Futran, recalling the terrier that was left on her front lawn.


The "activist for dog's rights" lives close to the 20-year-old Ohlone Dog Park, the first fenced-in park for canines in the United States. She still lobbies to make sure it remains open.


When the Albany Waterfront was to be merged with the East Shore State Park, Futran was part of the grassroots group called Albany Let It Be, advocating that dogs be allowed to remain off leash.


"There are a zillion little paths. You never know what you're going to find around the corner," she said. "It was the best place in the world to walk dogs. Dogs are like explorers. But we fought the good fight, and we lost."


"She's absolutely determined. She'll go after things I don't even think are possible," said Berkeley resident Doris Richards, founder of the Ohlone Park, who served with Futran on its board of directors. "She doesn't let things get in her way."


So it's no surprise that Futran is not giving up. Recently, she's written articles and opinion pieces for Woofer Times, a new East Bay newspaper dedicated to dogs.


And there have been some special canines along the way that have convinced her of their amazing intelligence and perceptibility.


"Dogs can learn up to 1,000 words and understand what you mean when you say those words," she said. "You hear stories of dogs knowing when someone is ill. ... We're different species for sure, but take a suitcase out and see how your dog acts."


Futran's thoughts turned to her beloved, funny-looking Amigo, a mix of terrier with 12 strands of fur on either side of his face, the "escape artist of a Husky," and the course fur of a shepherd.


"He was really a companion, and taught me how much more we could communicate. He had a very expressive face and a very different level of expressing," she said, noting that when Amigo was dying of cancer, she crouched down next to his bed. "I said 'Go ahead, go do it.' ... Those words allowed him to die."


"My mom once said, 'When I die I want to come back as one of your animals,'" she added.


And some of Futran's education in dog training has been in her home. Enter Alfie, a mischievous, 80-pound Belgian Shepherd mix, who "thought it was a riot to stay out of reach," often refusing to come into the house during a rainstorm.


"If you chase after them, they make it a grand old game, so I learned to stop constantly calling him and just closing the door instead" He quickly learned to come when called,” she said, noting that is an effective strategy for other unwanted, attention-getting behavior such as jumping on people.


Meanwhile, it is the near end of Sofie’s training session. Futran finishes with an exercise in heeling that uses the incentive of cheese or liver smeared on the end of a dowel to keep the Sophie in line and the trainer from stooping over.


“Walking quickly will help in teaching her to heel,” Futran said, “and she’ll learn through repetition and consistency.


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