By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – No matter how badly she wants the treat, Paula Jean, Tom Shelby’s standard poodle, knows that if she hears the word “leave it” to do just that.
“’Leave it’ is such an important command,” said Shelby. “You can use it for pizza crusts on the street, a person who’s afraid of dogs or if they see a porcupine.”
Shelby, who has trained dogs for nearly 40 years, recently moved to Pioneer Street from Martha’s Vineyard, where he had a column in the local paper, answering questions about dog behavior.
Shelby began his dog-training career after he saw an advertisement in a newspaper. “They said ‘experience needed,’ so I lied,” he said. “When I got in, the owner handed me a list of 30 names and told me to call them to make appointments!”
But he quickly got the hang of it, and soon was being mentored by Matthew Margolis and Brian Kilcommons, both nationally known dog trainers.
He has trained dogs for Joan Rivers, John McEnroe, Eddie Murphy and even a few star dogs themselves.
“I trained a dog for the off-Broadway play ‘Jasper in the Park,’” he said, “It was a terrible dog, this huge white shepherd, very aggressive. They were going to do some filming with it and the director told me they didn’t need me, and then she called me the next day to say they couldn’t get a single thing done because the dog wouldn’t listen!”
Part of training a dog is figuring out what kind of aggression a dog is struggling with, including predatory aggression – protecting his owner – fear aggression, pain aggression, redirected aggression – such as biting someone when he can’t chase a squirrel – or territorial aggression, where a dog will guard food or its owner.
“I used to train as many as 800 dogs a year,” he said. “When people would bring the dogs to the shelters in Manhattan, they would say: ‘Don’t euthanize that dog, call Shelby’.”
In addition to training the dogs of the rich and famous, he also volunteered to do search and rescue for local law enforcement.
“My first dog, Michelle, found two people alive,” he said. “And several people who were not. We were sent to look for body parts along the Garden State Parkway because they thought a serial killer had thrown them there.”
He once tracked a woman 11 miles after her husband reported her missing following a fight. “The dog is on a 40-foot leash, but I’m at the end of that leash!”
And he had some fun with his searches too. “My daughter Carrie was told she couldn’t go to a party,” he said. “My son came to me and said she has gone out the window. I took Michelle to the ground under her window, pointed and said, ‘Track Carrie.’ She went to the state park across the street and caught Carrie getting into the car!”
But he used his training for fun too. “My daughter’s friends would love to come over and hide in the woods for the dogs to find,” he said.
He wrote a book, “Dog Training Diaries,” in 2018, for Skyhorse Publishing, detailing his tricks and tales.
Upon his arrival in Cooperstown, he reached out to the Susquehanna SPCA with an offer – he will offer training, free of charge, to anyone who adopts their dog from the shelter.
“I want to make sure that adoption sticks,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to be generous – the more I give, the more I get. When someone adopts a dog, they save a life.”
“I get paid to play intelligently with dogs,” he said. “Dog training has made my life spectacular.”