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Friday, December 28, 2007

An Unforgettable Student: Erline Reber

We'd get a lot of strange calls at Manning Dog Training and we learned to take them in stride. When this woman named Erline Reber called me about three years ago with a somewhat odd request, I figured I'd probably never hear from her again. Wow, was I wrong!!

Erline and her husband were both retired and in their seventies, at least. They wanted to get a dog, their first dog, and had researched several breeds. They had settled on a Kerry Blue Terrier. Everything they'd read about Kerry Blues confirmed that this was a good match for them at this time in their lives. They'd located a good breeder in North Carolina and wanted me to send a letter of reference affirming that Erline and Jack would provide a good home for the puppy they'd chosen. So, naturally, Erline wanted to come in and talk with me in person so I could get to know her before I wrote the letter.

I'd had no personal experience with Kerry Blues, but plenty with terriers in general. It would not have been my choice for two older first-time dog owners. In fact, I tried to dissuade her over the phone, but I could tell it was a lost cause. So we made an appointment for her to come in for an "interview."

When Erline came in a few days later, my reservations disappeared. Here was this vibrant, intense, sophisticated woman who was 150% committed to making this dog thing work. She was also a package deal; her husband Jack and son Andy, who was an architect in Seattle, were behind her all the way and willing to make the Kerry Blue adventure a success. We discussed training options and she assured me she'd follow my guidelines to a tee. So I wrote a letter to the breeder, assuring her that Erline "passed muster" as a prospective dog owner.

The dog arrived shortly thereafter. The Rebers named him "Ruby Walsh," after the famous Irish steeplechase jockey. That was my first clue as to the life experiences and many facets of Erline. She was raised in Ellensburg and had a great interest in horses in her youth. She and son Andy had been to England several times and had seen Ruby Walsh ride (and win) the Grand National. (Remember "National Velvet"? Same race.) I guess they liked Ruby's flare and spunk, because that's certainly what this Kerry Blue showed.

Ruby the dog was a predictable challenge, but he was also a bundle of joy for his family. Andy made regular "support trips" from Seattle to help his mom and Jack raise this happy little "terror." Erline made frequent calls to Manning Dog Training, asking for advice on housebreaking, play biting, and all the usual puppy problems. She attended Puppy Parenting Class, had several private lessons, and enrolled in Leadership Class as soon as Ruby was old enough.

Ruby was (and still is) the center of this family's life. Erline remarked one day that they'd never expected a dog's bowel movement patterns to become such an enthralling part of daily conversation. On another day she called me, frustrated with Ruby's destructive antics, and wanted to know how much longer they'd have to use baby gates all over their house in order to confine him where they could supervise him. "I feel like WE'RE living in a f______ crate!" she exclaimed, revealing her absolute exasperation with the situation. She wasn't laughing, but I did! It was another glimpse of how "real" this normally gracious woman really was! And of course anyone who's raised a puppy can relate!

Jack would later tell me of how Erline would rock this puppy to sleep in her arms while singing hymns and lullabies to Ruby. Jack, by the way, was the official family photographer. He accompanies Erline and Ruby everywhere, snapping thousands of digital photos to record every step in Ruby's development and education.

Erline faced another unusual challenge with the headstrong Ruby. She has no right hand, which means, of course, no fingers to hook leashes and collars together, and fewer tools for holding onto Ruby's leash. She's never considered it a disability, however. (In fact, she is a classical pianist and an expert downhill skier!) So we simply worked on modifying techniques and equipment to make it a bit easier to control Ruby. A mini-prong collar provided welcome relief in that department.

Ruby and Erline repeated Leadership Class several times and then got interested in Betty Pace's Rally Obedience classes. At the time, Erline was more interested in agility, but Ruby wasn't mentally ready; he was too unpredictable and prone to bolting. Everyone thought the Rally classes would give this team more practical working skills that could be used later in other venues. However, they did so well that Ruby and Erline started entering Rally trials. Within a few months, young Ruby had his first Rally title, complete with blue ribbon. They kept on training and went into conventional obedience competition. This venue was more challenging, but the duo still earned a CD (Companion Dog) title in short order, again with blue ribbons and great scores. Not bad for a first-time dog owner and a difficult (if adorable) young dog! When I left Yakima, they were still training weekly with Betty, pursuing more advanced titles in obedience competition. I fully expect Erline and Ruby to earn a Utility Dog title in the next few years. They train every day, everywhere. There's no stopping them!

They hit a life-threatening bump in 2007, when Ruby was diagnosed with cancer. The family pulled together, along with Erline's "family" at Manning Dog Training. Many fervent prayers were exchanged. Ruby went through chemotherapy (more on that story in a future post) and was pronounced cancer-free several months later! Erline (and everyone who knows her) is convinced that divine intervention helped save Ruby, who has been such a huge blessing to Erline, Jack and Andy.

Ruby's been a blessing to me, too, because he's the reason I had the opportunity to meet Erline, who has the strength, multi-faceted brilliance, and enduring sparkle of a diamond!

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