Near the large street-facing windows at Starbucks, Sarah and I sat at a table for two, the whir of the coffee grinders providing a pleasant hum in the background as we talked. She sat back comfortably in her seat and listened as I regaled her with the story of this blog, until finally, I asked about her story.
“Okay, my story,” she said, thinking. In 1975 Sarah moved here with her mom from Massachusetts and attended school at the Mary Institute where her mom was the head. Afterwards she headed off to New York state to study art history at Amherst College. Art history was her second choice after veterinary school, but she was intimidated by the chemistry classes.
After college Sarah was working as an assistant teacher in a specialized high school classroom. Her work at the school, provided the opportunity to help students learn and grow, which she enjoyed, but she was frustrated. “The very environment that contributed to the kid’s issues… they had to go back to every night, so it’s hard to initiate change.” So when the glamour of working in a Manhattan art gallery beckoned, Sarah answered the call.
But one day she had a rude awakening. “I had the good fortune of rupturing my appendix and not knowing it. So, at the age of 25 I was very close to death. I consider it what I call now ‘the best worst thing’ because it totally changed the direction of my life. I would have never necessarily had the courage to do what I was passionate about if that hadn’t happened.”
Most of us wouldn’t see this as good fortune, but it was then that Sarah fully grasped her own mortality and decided to react. “When I survived I realized I should be doing what I love and what I love are dogs.”
Hanging Up On JFK Junior
At six years old, Sarah was already riding horses. During her college years she helped friends train their dogs and even continued training while working her full-time job. “I was training because that’s what I love to do, that was my passion to work with animals. So when I got sick that was the obvious choice. I didn’t have the nerve to go in that direction and that gave me the nerve.”
Thanks in part to a ruptured appendix, Sarah is now a dog expert with 9 books on dog training, she has been interviewed by CNN and Good Morning America, and she has hung up on JFK Junior. “I hung up on him when he called because I thought he was joking! I thought it was a friend pulling my leg! I’m like ‘yea right like you’re calling...’ and he was like ‘this really is JFK Junior’.”
Being a celebrity has it’s challenges, one among them, the paparazzi. With this in mind JFK Junior had adopted a dog who was very aggressive, but the dog was biting everyone in the household. That’s where Sarah came in.
Next was Harrison Ford, who had Sarah drive out to Michigan and pick out a labrador puppy for him. She laughed as she told me her reaction to meeting him. “With Harrison Ford I thought I was going to be very cool. I was like ‘I’ve got this. I’m going to be cool’ and then I met him and I was a fumbling adolescent.”
Eight Weeks to Write Her First Book
Not long after Sarah made the leap into dog training full-time, she met Brian. The two were together for 23 years and it’s thanks to him that she began writing. It began with a book deal that he sold to Warner Books. A professional writer tagged along behind both of them (Brian was a trainer, too) and six months later he sent them what he had written...
“We didn’t know this man was going through some terrible depression issues.” The book began with this: we all start in the confines of a hospital and end up in a lonely profession, but in-between dogs comfort us. “It wasn’t exactly what we had in mind for an upbeat dog book.”
After the original writer had a nervous breakdown and wasn’t able to make any changes, Sarah stepped up to the plate. Within a mere 8 weeks she finished the book and gained substantial confidence in her writing skills. Now she boasts books like Tales from the Bark Side, Dogology, and her best selling book, My Smart Puppy.
The Difference Between Male and Female Dog Owners
Tinkering absentmindedly with her cup, Sarah told me that she doesn’t work with everyone. “I won’t work with people who don’t love their dogs. If you just want me to come in and do magic it’s not what I do.” She also prefers to work with female dog-owners because “most women are not motivated by dominant hierarchy, that’s not how we really go about things.”
As conversation about her methods continued to flow, we touched on another famous dog trainer, The Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan. While she’s never met him, she admits her style is different, more focused on communication and connection. “It’s typical of male friendships… they tend to see things more hierarchical. That’s just how they’re wired.” With her masters in psychology, Sarah sometimes feels more like a counselor than a trainer.
“I once had a woman in a seminar and I was going around asking what do you hope to get out of the seminar and I got to her and she had this little 7 month old puppy next to her- ears back, tail wagging, a real sweetie and when I asked her she says ‘I’m here because she is a cold bitch’. I think I literally took a step back and I said ‘well what makes you say that?’ She says ‘well she’s always abandoning me’ and I said ‘what makes you say that?’ She said ‘well she leaves the room’ and I said ‘well she looks like a sort of soft sensitive dog, when you get upset do you yell?’ She says ‘yeah I’m a yeller’. I said ‘maybe the dog is frightened of you’ and her face fell. The only way she could see it was as abandonment but once she saw it as fear she did a 180 and shifted things.”
The Miracle That Is St. Louis
Now, living in St. Louis, Sarah is content with the changes in her life. Transitioning from helping celebrities to consulting with the Humane Society was worth it. “The quality of life is so wonderful in this city and the people are so nice and I have universally the nicest people with the nicest dogs, it’s delightful. So I earn money helping people with their dogs from my books, from my blogging, so I have lots of sources. I’m very happy with my life.”
I had to laugh, “If you’re surrounded by dogs it can’t be bad, right? So speaking of that, what is your favorite thing about Saint Louis?” Sarah did not have a short answer.
“That’s a terrible question... See, I’m torn between quality-of-life and location and there’s a graciousness to the people that I really appreciate having spent a lot of time in the Northeast. And it’s not that Northeast isn’t gracious but Saint Louis is a different sort of thing, there is just that kindness and an ease that I love so much about the town. You can find me when I’m not writing and I’m not teaching, at the zoo or at the dog museum. There’s so many fantastic places to go. I’ve been to more sports, I do social media for part of the Rep and so I’ve been to Rep performances, more theatre this year than I’ve gone in 20 years combined; it’s just so much available. You can be as active or not if you want, but the culture here is vibrant and accessible and fun.”
She continued to elaborate. “You’ll stop at an intersection and there would be a beautiful flowerpot next to it and for someone from New York I look at that flowerpot and go ‘that’s a miracle’. It’s a miracle, it’s beautiful. There’s sketches, there’s outdoor art. I love this town I think it’s the best kept secret. I’m never moving.”