In honor of the very, very special therapy dog "Elka", I wanted to re-post this interview that I did with her owner Pam Gaynor a year or so ago. Elka was beloved at Hospice, but sadly, she passed away just a day before the luncheon that was to honor her retirement as a therapy dog. Pam somehow held up to go and honor her memory.
This is one of my favorite photos of Elka, wasn't she absolutely gorgeous? And she was even more beautiful inside than out. We will never forget you Elka. We know you are strong and free now and Pam and I will see you again when we get to heaven. You are not forgotten...and the love you shared with families during some of their most difficult times will also live on forever. Pam, you and Elka have been angels to so many while Elka was here on earth and I know your work continues with Cowboy. Thank you for all you do. Hugs, Melanie
Talking Shepherds with Pam Gaynor, September 25, 2011
I have known and admired German Shepherd fancier Pam Gaynor for many years. I actually met Pam years ago when by chance we were both walking our dogs in Country Park in Greensboro, NC. She was walking a beautiful, huge black and tan German Shepherd who looked vaguely familiar to me. When I asked her where she got him, I found out that "Helmut" was actually a dog that Pam had taken in from one of my former training clients, a young couple who had bought him on impulse and simply were not cut out to be GSD owners.
As I got to know Pam, I soon realized that this particular dog (Helmut) could not possibly have ended up in a better place! Pam understands this breed as well as, actually better than, many breeders I have met through the years. Besides a deep devotion to her own dogs, Pam also has donated to help many GSDs that have had the misfortune to find themselves without a home. When Pam donates, I don't mean she just sends a check--I have known her to spend hours contacting various GSD Rescues until she finds help for a special needs dog.
Pam and "Elka"
While I still lived in NC, and was back and forth between NC and VA, I found an adolescent GSD in a rural animal shelter. This dog we named Derby, and I will put a photo of him at the end of this article. All it took was one phone call and Pam was on her way to the kennel, rolling up her sleeves, giving Derby a flea bath, fluffing him dry (quite a bit of work for dogs who often have never had a bath!) and brushing him out so we could get good photos of him. Pam is the type person who will network all over the country if needed to find donations to help a German Shepherd make it out of a shelter, and secure donations to help with needed veterinary expenses .Yes, her current dogs came from one of the top GSD breeders in the world, but Pam has a heart for all Shepherds, and she doesn't mind emailing her friends who don't even own this breed when she is on a quest to help (and those who know Pam, love her and always kick in to help when they can!)
Pam is unusual in other respects as well. I have been impressed not only by her devotion to the German Shepherd Dog, but also by the fact that she will admit that they are not the dog for everyone. Pam understands the breed's heritage and temperament. Not many of us can take a GSD from working bloodlines and turn it into the impressive therapy dog that Pam's "Elka" has been. Pam and Elka and their work at Hospice are "famous" in their area and have even been featured in television segments.
There truly are angels who walk among us...some have four legs like Elka, others are in beautiful human bodies, like my friend Pam Gaynor. That is why I talked her into doing this interview for my readers to enjoy.
Pam, what led you to the German Shepherd dog? Did you have a German Shepherd in childhood or were they a breed you chose as an adult?
My Dad was a MP in the Air Force. He worked with the K-9 dogs in Morocco, Africa on the base. I would go to the kennels with him and play with the dogs and brought my first GSD home when I was 5. His name was LUX and he was a Sable Shepherd.
Have you always taken your Shepherds to training classes, or did you train your first dogs at home?
I have always taken my dogs to organized classes. The social training is the most important part of this breeds training. They must learn to interact with people and other dogs when they are puppies. The socialization must be constant as they grow. Training in groups keeps their attention on you, not other distractions which will prove useful as they do more and more things outside their home.
Did you have any adult Shepherds when your children first came along? Did you see any jealousy problems?
I did have an adult female GSD (Smoke, see photo above) when my youngest daughter Summer was born. We brought a blanket home with Summer's smell on it and we let Smoke see her immediately when she came home. I never had a jealousy problem. When I got home, my attention to Smoke did not change. We still went on regular walks, her life did not change. She walked next to the stroller and became protective of Summer but never to the extreme.
Pam and "Helmut", a big boy Pam adopted when his former owners could not keep him.
I've always been amazed that your dogs are always so well groomed and live in the house with you. Do you have any grooming tips for folks who have coated breeds that shed?
Best advice? Buy a good Vacuum cleaner! My plush coats do not shed like a regular coated GSD. They blow their coat in May and shed a little more during the Summer but by Fall, they have their Winter Coat and my life gets easier. They get brushed 2 or 3 times a week and I add Fish Oil and ground up Flaxseed to their food. This also helps to keep the shedding minimal
I love your beautiful plush coated Shepherds. Is Elka the first plush coat you ever owned? How did you find her breeder?
Elka is the first "Plushcoat" I have ever owned and I purchased her when I was looking for another GSD because I was ready to do some serious dog training. My youngest daughter, Summer was graduating from college and heading to NY. I always wanted to have a GSD to train in various venues, one that had exceptional breeding plus beauty. I did not want my dog to be shipped on a plane so I was willing to drive.
I found Toni Brezel in Dog Fancy Magazine. I went online and read about her and her dogs. She has a kennel in Hendersonville, NC., Sarasota, Fl., and in Germany. I called her to see if she had any puppies and she said she had a wonderful litter, sired by Burschy sum alten Eichenhof who had just won North American Sieger Champion of 2001. Toni asked me what I wanted to do with my dog and was I interested in "showing" her in conformation. I was not. That is when she suggested I might fall in love with a "plushcoated" puppy that was in this litter. She explained that Burschy carried the "plushcoat" gene and he produces a plushcoat about every 5 litters. I saw a picture of Elka and told Toni we would pick her up in a few days.
Tell us a little more about Toni and her dogs.
When you arrive at Haus Brezel Kennels, you drive into a beautiful driveway and see 15 acres of rolling hills and streams. Toni and her trainers meet you and give you a tour. We waited out on the lawn and she brought out Bella Vom Haus Brezel, Elka's Mother. Bella was typical GSD, aloof but curious and friendly to us and came to me to be petted.
After they put Bella back, the trainer asked if we were ready to meet Burschy. I was so excited to finally see him in person. They brought him out, off leash and he covered acres of lawn with his gorgeous German Shepherd stride (note from Melanie, a well put together GSD is capable of what is called a "flying trot", which I am sure was what Pam saw that day!)
Any GSD person knows that stride and like Toni says in her ad, "Beauty In Motion" that is Burschy. He was a typical Male GSD, aloof but curious but had no desire to worry about pleasing you, his devotion to Toni was extremely evident. His confidence level was amazing. No need to prove himself, we all knew who was the King that day. They finally brought Elka out and she was a big black ball of fur. It was Love at first sight. Toni's puppies are handled by her from the minute they are born. She has been breeding GSD's for over 40 years now. She breeds the West German lines, whose toplines have not been compromised by bad breeding. I would recommend one of her dogs to anyone wanting a GSD as close to perfection as possible.
I know you took Elka through puppy classes, regular obedience, agility, Canine Good Citizens and even Dancing with Dogs classes back when I owned Bed & Biscuit. But was your actual goal with her always to do therapy dog work, or how did you get started in therapy work?
My goal with Elka was not Therapy work at first. I was doing Pet Therapy with my Chow/Corgi mix Starr at the time. When Elka was 12 weeks old, I thought I would take her with Starr to the nursing home one day so the people there could see her. I thought they would get a kick out of watching her grow. My first visits with her were magic. She was a natural. Her laid back personality and confidence made her the perfect Therapy Dog. Her confidence level comes from Burschy. Her laid back personality comes from Bella. She walked into the places we visited like she lived there. It was done, this is what she was meant to do.
Pam, you know I love you like a sister, and I met Elka when you first brought her to our training facility in Greensboro for puppy classes, and I watched as you continued training her in Canine Good Citizens, agility and more. It is very nice of you to give her breeder, and her sire and dam, the credit for Elka's wonderful temperament.
But...I watched her go through some typical GSD adolescent stages, and YOU were the reason that Elka learned to be calm in all situations. I remember that she often wanted to be the protector (remember when she would bark if someone who was not a regular member of her training class would walk in the door?) but you taught her to look to you for direction. She was not born a therapy dog, but she was born with good genes and she was fortunate enough to end up with you Pam!
Please share with our readers one of your most special experiences with Elka at Hospice.
Elka and I were walking through Beacon Place in Greensboro doing our regular visits. We walked into the room of a man who had 4 or 5 visitors.They all turned to see Elka and I told them who we were. They were very happy to have a distraction from the sadness that filled the room. Elka walked over to the bed and put her nose on the patients hand. We were told he would not respond. They did not know an angel was at the end of my leash.
The man opened his eyes and reached out for her and smiled. No one spoke except me and I told him all about Elka and that she was here to visit with him. He asked me her name and what kind of dog she was etc. We stayed for a few minutes as he started to drift off. We said our goodbyes and his wife followed me out to the hall. She thanked me over and over again for bringing Elka in to see him. She was so happy to have her husband back for a few minutes.
I found out later he died two days later but every time he woke up, he asked about Elka and remembered her name Is she an angel and is this her calling? I am sure of it. I am just here to help.
That story gives me cold chills and brings tears to my eyes. I am sure that Elka has been an angel to many, many people. I remember that one of the local television stations even filmed Elka in her therapy work and included her in a special story about therapy dogs.
How old is Elka now? Do you have another dog you are training to use for therapy work when she retires?
Elka is 10 years old now. Am I training another dog for Pet Therapy work? I haven't really thought that far. I do have "Cowboy" my Shih Tzu who has been to all the facilities we visit and they love him. His style is completely different than Elka's. He runs down the hall on his retractible leash and gets into the room before I do. He slowly walks to the bed and puts his paws up and peeks over to see if someone is there. He can actually get in the bed with people and he loves to snuggle. Would he pass the Pet Therapy Dog test? No.His obedience training is not like Elka's.
But sometimes a little lap dog doesn't have to have formal training in order to visit and cheer people, at least that has been my experience.
Yes, I think that is true and I'm glad I have Cowboy.
Tell us a bit about your other GSD, Xander, and the differences you have seen between male Shepherds versus females.
Xander is Elka's half brother. Same father, different mother. Both of Xander's parents were Shutzhund III and both are Sieger Champions. Xander's mother Acka is as macho as Burschy which makes Xander's personality more of a high prey drive GSD.
"Xander the Man, looking very handsome in the snow!
Xander is the most macho/alpha dog I have ever had. I soon realized I needed expert help as he had "claimed" me and our property and he was starting to make the decisions as to who was going to approach me. I found a wonderful K-9 officer who trains dogs for Personal Protection. He met with Xander and I and loved him and understood his personality immediately.
I was so happy to find a trainer who really knew this breed and understood how they think. We just took all that protective instinct he had towards me and got it under control. We did lots of obedience work at different locations. We let him "claim" me, our home, my truck and our street where we walk. But, I make the decision whether or not he reacts. He is allowed to bark and even show his teeth but all this is done as he is by my side, not pulling on the leash. If I needed to have him react, he and I know the signal to "Go". I am so confident in this dog now. Typically, a male GSD with a female owner will give his life for you, no fear. My experience with females is they too have all the traits that I love in the breed but when it comes to actual protection training, a male just seems to have that "edge".
You have done a great job training your dogs to look to you for direction, even though GSDs often like to take things into their own hands! What kind of training advice can you share with our readers, regarding how to keep GSDs as family dogs--a dog you know will protect when needed, but keep them socialized and trained so they can still be good citizens so you don't have to worry about them biting someone when you are out in public?
My advice to anyone thinking about getting a GSD is you must be willing to train and exercise your dog daily. his dog is part of your family and wants to be a part of it, so it is important that they not be purchased and just thrown outside to be a "backyard dog".
Pam working Elka in our training building back when we owned Bed & Biscuit. What an attractive pair!
They must be socialized even more than other breeds. They have the ability to reason more than other breeds and will soon take over the household if nobody else is in charge. If you, the owner let them know you are the leader of the pack, they will relax and let you run the show. It is very important to do obedience and any other training you can think of to bond with your dog.
If you express any weakness, they will take over. If they are bored, they will destroy your home or turn to aggression. So they MUST have a job! Elka knows her job is Pet Therapy and she enjoys visiting lots of facilities. Xander's job is protecting me. We walk three miles every morning and he knows it is his street. He patrols it like he is on duty. That is his job.
I will always remember what the K-9 officer I met who gave me my first GSD said: "Your Dog can't help you if your dog is not with you". That means if your dog is in the back yard or tied up, he cannot come to your aid and do what he was meant to do. Expose them to EVERYTHING when they are puppies so they build confidence. You just have to experience a German Shepherd dog in your life to know the loyalty of this breed. I know my dogs would give their lives for me, no hesitation.
Thank you so much Pam, for taking time for this interview and for also for sharing these photos of your dogs! I took the liberty to include this last photo of all three of us, as it is pretty obvious from the look on my face that when Elka was training with us in her younger days, she was definitely a favorite client! I have some other really gorgeous photos of Elka, including a beautiful headstudy, but am having trouble finding the CD where I saved these photos. Hope to post soon, just so any readers who have never seen a plushcoated German Shepherd can enjoy more photos of Elka.
(Note: German Shepherd breeders do not breed for this coat type, it is simply a recessive gene that pops up from time to time. But aside from a little extra brushing, there is absolutely no negative to adopting or purchasing a longer coated GSD as a family pet or performance training dog. The important thing, when considering this breed, is to work with a breeder who breeds for soundness of body and mind. You can also find very special Shepherd mixes in shelters, as well as the occasional purebred. There are also many German Shepherd Rescue Organizations throughout the United States. As long as the group has experienced foster homes and ethical leadership, adopting through a German Shepherd Rescue group is a great option, particularly if your heart longs to save the life of an adult German Shepherd in need of a forever home.) Derby, pictured below, is one of the many German Shepherds whose lives have been saved through Pam's help. He was in the Pittsylvania County "dog pound", and was one of the very first dogs allowed to be transferred to another group in order to give him a chance at finding a loving home (in addition to Pam, thanks to SPCA of the Triad and Danville Area Humane Society).