The other day, a boxer owned by a local state rep got loose. While rusty-red boxers typically ripple with muscle, they are not necessarily mean or vicious animals. In this case, however, the dog attacked the neighbor’s golden lab, “Diego,” a loopy, good-natured perro. Now both the lab and owner are traumatized.
Across town, photographer Joan Frederick is talking about divorcing “Bear,” a rowdy black Great Pyrenees mutt. The 80 pounds of fur Frederick adopted from the Animal Defense League is terrified of storms and regularly jumps her Homeland Security-grade fencing to roam the neighborhood. The dog doesn’t “appreciate” all she’s done for him. “He reminds me of my ex-husband! I am not going to go through this again!”
Now Bear is chained in the yard, obviously feeling misunderstood himself.
Behavioral problems can land dogs on chains, thrown out of home, or dumped in city parks. How many dogs are out there wandering the streets? It’s not like there’s a census, but San Antonio’s Animal Care Services received over 70,000 calls about stray dogs and cats in 2009. And while it’s a common sight for people who are from here, it’s frequently a shock to those from elsewhere. Qué chingaos.
While spay and neuter programs — if they can gain popular support — can go a long way toward fixing the problem, some say that it’s San Antonians who need to be retrained. I think I have the man for the job.
If you’re lucky and happen to be downtown on a Saturday morning, you may see this cool-looking, athletic dude from the Southside with eight or nine dogs under his total control. Andres Valdez smoothly fast-walks his pack through traffic, crowds, and around children with no incidents. Using commands of “Pack Left!” and “Pack Right!” the dogs follow him closely — never zig-zagging out in front. It’s the same when he’s on rollerblades in Olmos Park, too. Valdez is the undisputed pack leader.
I’ve witnessed Valdez calm a “dog aggressive” pit bull in 20 minutes and then take the happy animal for a walk. Weeks before that, Valdez patiently showed me how to be the pack leader for a desperate pit bull mix who’d been chained up for years. “Reach the Labrador in him,” he advised.
Spending time with Valdez is like feeling buried memories come back to life. He speaks with calm, assertive power, possessing that internal fire that we all crave, and that dogs must have to be stable. Therapists and would-be artists take note: If you want to learn how to use your intuition to the nth degree, get to know this man. His work is about nuance, subtlety, observation, and listening. After all, if you misread a pit bull, you may not get another chance.
What’s the secret to controlling your dog? Valdez says dogs are primarily physical creatures, but that most people make the mistake of communicating with them as if they’re human. “No baby talk,” in other words. You have to think about the dog’s needs before your own. Dogs need to be exercised twice a day, if possible, and they need adventure. When they don’t get this, “they will dig holes, tear up fences, become frustrated, and possibly aggressive,” he says.
Dogs are “pack animals,” he continues. They follow a leader. If the owner won’t fill the role, the dog will take over — no matter their size. Dogs require discipline and affection too, he says, but their physical needs are the most important of all. “We’ve turned it upside down,” he says. Many of Valdez’s clients are middle-aged women, he tells me, who have a tendency to lavish their animals with love. “Is this good for the dog?” he asks.
Valdez operates a bustling dog camp from his rural home. It’s a boarding site that is also frequently a last-chance rehabilitation center for big and small dogs of all colors, sizes, and breeds. Amazingly, they all get along. He had 13 dogs on the day I interviewed him, ranging in size from a Great Dane to a Yorkie named “Rusty.”
Valdez says he grew up with dogs, and credits his late father, Andres F. Valdez, along with the groundbreaking Cesar Millan and a stack of books he’s studied meticulously, for guiding him in what he considers his life’s true calling.
Shshshsht. A hand as a stop sign. With this sound, or snapping fingers, or both, Valdez stops the dogs from jumping on him, from eating another’s food, from starting a fight. They obey his leadership without question. At his dog camp — complete with kennels, play areas, and located close to hiking and swimming — the dogs calmly play with each other. There is no begging or whining, and they don’t dare jump on me, the video guys, or photographer, who appears to be in shock from it all. There’s a few who try to get our attention, but Valdez seems to have eyes in the back of his head.
“You have to learn how to talk, walk, and pay attention to what the dog’s doing so you can correct it — immediately.” Shshshsht.
He introduces his dogs, feeding them in order of their behavior that day (the best eat first) and after they’ve been exercised. “Alaska,” an Alaskan huskie; the border collie, “Shin-Obi;” “Tifa,” a five-month old black lab. I prod him for their stories.
“Ruben,” he introduces a pit bull mix. The dog “wanted to kill `me` at first, so I gave him a job.”
“Lucien Nathaniel,” a beagle who was “re-homed twice before he ended up here.”
“Kratos,” a rust-colored Doberman who was “left tied to a tree by his owner who’d gone on a trip.”
“Pseudo,” a German shepherd-husky mix, and his “right-hand man.”
Most arrived with sad stories, but are now enjoying happy endings thanks to Valdez.
Later, we meet Valdez back at the Alamo to watch him work in public. So why are there so many dogs roaming the streets of San Antonio?
“Most dogs you see are power breeds that are misinterpreted and misunderstood,” he says. “Someone has to be a spokesman for the dogs.” He says this calmly while standing in front of the Alamo, with people photographing him and his pack instead of the landmarks. Valdez and his pack are reaching something in their souls that a war monument can’t. Something ancient, instinctive, physical, and truly powerful.
Sometimes we just remember the wrong things.
To contact Valdez, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (210) 584-4413.