Profiled Trainer: Sue Sternberg
Excerpt from Dog Training: A Lifelong Guide Training Your Dog
Sue Sternberg was four years old the day her parents returned from the veterinary clinic without Pepita, the family’s beloved standard schnauzer. She saw their reddened eyes, heard their sobs, and knew without a word being spoken that Pepita wasn’t coming back. “Pepita had an incurable skin problem and had to be euthanized at age two,” recalls Sue. “It was the first time that I saw my parents cry.”
Dogs were bestowed full-fledged family member status in the Sternberg’s New York City household so it didn’t take long for the family to adopt a dog like Pepita, this time a black Labrador-mix (“my parents liked the name—it means little pebble in Spanish”), and Minnie, a dachshund. Both dogs lived well into their teens.
Sue’s mom, Norma, worked as a leading pediatric oncologist, developing treatment protocols and improving survivor rates among cancer-stricken children. Her father, Stephen, preferred behind-the-scenes research as a top pathologist. Both are retired and maintain close contact with Sue and her sister, Alessandra, a clinical psychologist. “My parents are passionate people who are very inspirational to me,” says Sue. “Everyone else in my family has multiple college degrees but me. My mother encouraged me to do what I wanted and never to do it on a small scale. My parents have never said that they were disappointed that I did not become a doctor.”
When it comes to shelter animals, Sue is the modern Doctor Doolittle. She is good at reading a dog’s body language (she can tell that a circular tail wag is far friendlier than a high-over-the-back stiff wag), deciphering a dog’s temperament, and identifying good matches between adopters and shelter dogs. Arguably, she ranks as the top trainer of shelter dogs in the country. Sue began as a dog control officer, switched to an obedience trainer, and is now a dog behavioral expert, shelter consultant, and kennel operator.
Sue credits the late but great Ramona, a shelter dog she adopted, for guiding her toward her career. Ramona, tells Sue, was part of a litter headed for certain death by a frustrated breeder of Great Danes. It turns out a neighborhood black Labrador retriever mated with the breeder’s champion bloodline Great Dane, resulting in a batch of crossbred puppies. But when the litter arrived at a local shelter, a shelter worker took them home to foster. When Sue, who was working as an animal control officer at another shelter, came to visit, Ramona was the last puppy available for adoption. “The second I saw her, I knew I had to have her. She didn’t effusively wag her tail, but there was a chemical connection between us,” recalls Sue. “Ramona was my first dog as an adult, a once-in-a-lifetime dog who lived to be thirteen years old.”
Ramona paved the way for the six adopted or found-as-strays dogs with people-sounding names who now reside with Sue. She runs down the canine crew:
- Larry. “He’s a thirteen-year-old French Bulldog from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York City. He can be intense, a real fireball that gets aroused around most dogs. And, well, he looks like a Larry.”
- Vinnie. “He’s an eight-year-old German Shepherd my friends found in Queens, running down the street dragging a chain. Vinnie is outgoing with a great temperament, and I named him after my friend who found him.”
- Carmen. “She is my soul mate, this five-year-old half Rhodesian Ridgeback, half Doberman pinscher-mix, I guess. I drove her home from a nearby shelter and she sat in the front seat and just stared at me. Within twenty minutes, she put her paw on my shoulder. It is as if she knew she had found heaven.”
- Dorothy. “We connected the day I saw her at a shelter in Kansas. But I flew back to New York. Two weeks later, she was still at the shelter and four weeks later, after sending for her, she arrived at La Guardia Airport into my open arms. Naturally, with her being from Kansas, I named her after Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.”
- Beatrice. “She gave me that sweet, soft look when I was conducting a shelter workshop in Ardmore, Oklahoma. I adopted her, but she broke with distemper and almost died. My guess is that she is a half cattle dog, half Border collie-mix.”
- Hop Sing. “I’m spending three days vacationing at a ranch in Utah and notice this cattle dog puppy. His owner, a cowboy, said the puppy ‘didn’t have no instinct’ and asked if I wanted him. So, I vacationed with Hop Sing, took him on hikes, and of course, fell in love. Talk about your souvenirs.”
Sue travels coast to coast, working with big shelters, little shelters, public ones, and private ones, introducing ways to help increase their adoption rates. She also lectures to dog trainers and dog lovers at workshops, always in her down-to-earth, startle-you-but-teach-you style. At a recent American Association of Pet Dog Trainers national conference in San Diego, a wall-to-wall crowd squeezed into one of the larger rooms to hear her speech. She arrived with a grin on her face, donned in a catch-your-eye, red-and-white polka dot dress. The minute she took the microphone, she had her audience mesmorized, amused, and attentive.
Sue willingly takes on more crusades. In a true Charles Kuralt travel-down-the-back roads style, she recently created the Training Wheels Outreach Program in which shelter workers and trainers travel in vans throughout rural communities, meeting dog owners, donating free pet supplies, and offering free training advice. Eventually, she envisions a national on-the-road program that uses neighborly advice to help owners be better guardians to their dogs. “Our goal is to bring the shelter to the people, instead of waiting until it’s too late when people are bringing their animals to the shelter,” explains Sue. “We want to intervene early enough so that a puppy or adult dog doesn’t end up chained outside or relegated to an outdoor pen, and we want to interrupt the cycle of pet overpopulation by spaying females before they become pregnant.”
As she talks, she starts to smile as she recognizes that in her own distinct way she, too, is carrying on the Sternberg family tradition. “My parents taught me to think big and change the world for the better,” says Sue. “It took me a long time to realize just how I could contribute. We are literally saving lives—and improving the quality of lives with this mobile outreach program.”
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