David Reinecker is the most famous dog trainer that no one has heard of. Certainly not the average dog owner who watches Cesar Millan on TV or buys the training manuals of the Monks of New Skete, Barbara “Walkies” Woodhouse, or the dozen other high-profile dog whisperers around. David’s is not a familiar face in the dog-eat-dog world of the pet industry, which is estimated to have generated $60.6 billion last year. He doesn’t have a book or a brand or much in the way of an Internet presence. What he does have is the ability to glide his white Ford Expedition (license plate DG TRANR) up to the gates of Bel Air’s and Beverly Hills’ most jaw-dropping mansions, push the intercom button, and cheerfully say, “It’s Uncle David.” The gates silently slide open, and very rich and famous people with problem dogs wait for him at the door.
David is the guy Hollywood pet owners call when other trainers have botched the job. He specializes in aggressive dogs, shelter dogs, rescue dogs, feral dogs, abused dogs, and, possibly most difficult of all, pampered and spoiled dogs. His name and cell phone number are spread through word of mouth by the people you see on the covers of People magazine, at political fund-raisers, and cocktail parties where a Real Housewife is aghast because her Goldendoodle has peed on a guest’s Louboutins.
David has come to the aid of actors, directors, producers, athletes, rappers, tech titans, and at least one celebrity couple known for its portmanteau nickname. If the gossip tabloids ever caught wind of his closely guarded client list, they might tease it like this: “What muscle-bound governor and his TV-anchor wife have an out-of-control dog?” Or “What silver-haired TV mogul has a crazy mongrel?” “What ageless singing icon can’t straighten out her dog like she does her hair?” Having an unruly pet is not part of the perfect image that celebrities want the world to see. If you can stop aging, keep your figure like that of an 18-year-old, and walk on the red carpet in six-inch heels, then why can’t you get your dog to stop digging up the yard?
David refers to himself as “Uncle David” because the people whose dogs he trains have become his family. He has been training dogs for 33 years. He loves them and he loves their owners, although he knows that whatever is wrong with a dog is often the owner’s fault. His job is to subtly retrain people in the guise of training their pets.
I have joined David on a two-day jaunt through the most expensive contiguous ZIP codes in Southern California to watch him work. Before he let me join him on the journey, he flew east to meet me and Cecil and Elmer, my two French bulldogs. I wanted to test him with the peevish fact that Elmer (who passed away this summer) still preferred to have me be his personal doorman for his 2 a.m. pee than to use the doggy door that Cecil jumps through with ease. I was surprised when after I explained this “major issue” to David he said something to the effect of “so what?” Meaning that except for this one semi-annoying thing, doddering old Elmer (then way up in the double digits) was a perfect dog. I was impressed that David knew a real problem from a petty one.
Now on the most beautiful California day, with a sky like blue enamel and the lavender jacaranda trees littering the ground with their blossoms, I am riding shotgun in David’s SUV. David is talking nonstop, as is his habit; a meandering and entertaining loop of information that is partly driven by his diagnosed ADHD. Our field trip begins with a tour of the stars’ homes. He points out the place where Michael Jackson died, the sprawling estate of the chairman of Paramount, the Osbournes’ former house, the home of the people who paid $8,000 for a mean and nutty dog, the cheapest gas station in town, the best Starbucks; David mentions something about a dog-owning shaikh who regularly flies him over to Qatar, and, every once in a while, a nugget about the art of dog training.
David talks in rapid half sentences, his focus shifting from vicious Chihuahuas to his first career as an actor. He appeared in such forgettable pictures as the 1989 horror movie Clownhouse, in which he played Lunatic Dippo, a psychotic clown. He reminisces about the few TV commercials he snagged decades ago, and about how he once had a twirly Rollie Fingers mustache and hair down to his shoulders, how his first wife was Massachusetts old money, how his down-to-earth second wife saved his life, and how he went from having no prospects to the aha moment when he realized that he wanted to devote himself fully to working with dogs that were as mixed up as he was.
The epiphany happened years back at a ritzy wedding for which he had been hired as a novice trainer to keep the bride and groom’s dog (a wolf hybrid) away from the guests. “Anyway, I was at this huge estate in Malibu and the wolf and me were looking out at the ocean—we were both lonely and bored—and at that moment it all became clear what I was put on the planet to do. I was here to help dogs have happy lives.”
Dog trainer is one of those serendipitous professions that does not require a college degree or for you to hide the fact that you once played a psychotic clown in a D movie. It soon became clear to David that what was needed for his new career was a respectful upstairs/downstairs personality around his high-profile clients, the ability to keep one’s client list as secret as that of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, and, most important, a knack for getting rowdy, bellicose animals to mind their manners. This last item is a gift not easily transmitted to anyone else, no matter how much they pay.
As a journalist, I have observed Seeing Eye dogs get trained. I have watched people who tame circus and exotic zoo animals. I have been in the company of dog-show handlers and world-class horse trainers. Some have been upsettingly rough behind the scenes; others have been woo-woo, using spiritual techniques like Reiki and drum circles to break through to the animals. What all of them share is that they make it immediately clear to the dogs (often without doing much of anything visible to the human onlooker) that they are the boss. Like when a young Mike Tyson would enter the ring, the fight had already been won before the first punch was thrown. A true alpha knows they control things and that the outcome has already been written.
At our first stop, an astoundingly sumptuous mansion in Bel Air, the front door is opened by a uniformed maid. Standing behind her is a well-dressed man—the chairman and CEO of a major Hollywood studio—holding the leash of his English Mastiff. “I called God and he sent me David,” he says. Looking around the place, I have no doubt God takes this man’s calls. He hands the leash to David and closes the door.
Our second stop is a multilevel penthouse overlooking the sprawl of gravity-defying houses carved into the canyons near Marina del Rey. I am introduced to a couple whose golden retriever, Blondie, has been under David’s tutelage for a while. The man of the house has had three dogs, all named Blondie, and has a charming wife who is also blonde but appears to have no behavioral issues.
All three Blondies were special. The most recent one, whose proper name is Blondie TOO!, has her own business card, a useful prop when the dog accompanies her master to oversee his many work sites. Blondie’s owner, for his part, has one of the most extraordinary business cards I have ever seen, containing this alphabet soup of distinctions: PE, CCE, CCS, PE, CPMP, CVS, CBO, CMC, CSP. I have not a clue what any of these letters mean except CVS, which the man assures me is not the drugstore. Blondie is looking a bit down today and her owners are powwowing with David regarding what to do about her recurring urinary tract infection. As they talk, Blondie swoons Camille-like on a huge puffy dog bed. Even though Blondie’s bladder is the topic, I can see that David is calmly and discreetly working with her. He puts the dog’s favorite nibbles a few inches from her nose and makes her wait patiently until he decides she may eat one. “Training never stops,” David whispers to me.
As we progress from one client to the next, David confides that the most difficult thing to deal with is when one half of a couple does what he says and the other doesn’t. “It makes the dog schizoid.” He also dislikes it when owners scream the word no at their dog. I learned this personally from David when he visited me in Connecticut and we went together to the local dog park. I never realized that I had become the self-styled sheriff of this little park, freely bellowing “No!” at my own dogs and anyone else’s whose behavior I didn’t like. I thought I was being an alpha when in fact I was being an asshole.
I am quickly learning David’s zen-like approach. At first it seems as if he is ignoring the dog. He instructs his clients not to make eye contact with their dogs when they come home, to keep praise limited, to not reward every single command with a treat, and to not indulge in long good-bye scenes at the door, which encourage separation anxiety. He uses no choke chains and especially no electric-shock collars.
David says his most demanding cases are those dogs who display “fear-based aggression,” as opposed to dogs who attack with no provocation, usually based on a severe neurological defect, which, sadly, often cannot be fixed. Fear-based aggression is common in rescued shelter dogs that have come through their ordeal understandably not trusting anyone. They often viciously guard themselves, their food, their toys, and even the people who rescued them, lashing out defensively when anyone approaches their turf.
If one is used to the typical canine-training guides, it is hard to understand what David is doing much of the time because he does not follow the usual script of “sit,” “down,” “stay,” followed by an edible treat. Commands are not spoken. Instead David works through finger snaps, breath sounds, and cues that look almost like a private sign language between him and the dog. There is nothing aggressive about David’s approach; he knows the futility of threatening a dog that has already endured threats to its survival. His advice to me about what to do if you are at a park with your pet and you see a mean dog approaching is simple. “Leave,” he says bluntly.
Now we are on our second day together. We are stopping again in Bel Air to meet a big briard named Goldie, a longtime charge of David’s. Briards are herding dogs and they can be pushy, and in Goldie’s case, aggressive. As much as I am trying to focus on David, the briard, or even the dog’s owners, it is hard to ignore the fact that I am standing in a museum masquerading as a house. Virtually every object and piece of art in this fabulous mansion is worth more than I have made in my lifetime as a writer. This is a collection of the finest paintings, furniture, sculptures, western memorabilia, Asian vases, folk art, all mixed together in a way only a true connoisseur (as opposed to an interior decorator) could achieve. We take Goldie for a ride in the car to the local dog park, where she runs around happily, plays nicely, and acts perfectly.
What strikes me after two intense days with David is how loyal his clients are to him. I can’t imagine many business partnerships or marriages in Hollywood lasting as long as David’s relationships with his clients. And despite the fact that his canine clients and their humans live in houses and neighborhoods that inspire awe and even trepidation, each person I met treated me like a friend. I attribute this to the magic of dogs. Dogs immediately bond people together. They take the starch out of any situation. It is impossible to be formal when a dog passes gas or steals a piece of cheese from a silver tray.
At the end of a long day at work David is exhausted and a bit gloomy. We pull over for some coffee. He again alludes to the more famous dog whisperers and the empires they have built. He is tired of telling people that he is not Cesar Millan and admits that when another dog trainer gets a rave on Yelp it hurts him to the core. I ask David if he remembers the funny guy from years ago that wore a paper bag on his head and told stand-up jokes on TV. He was billed as the Unknown Comic. “Yes, that is a good idea,” he says, his mood lightening a bit. “I will wear a paper bag on my head and become the Unknown Dog Trainer.” It is a bittersweet laugh that follows, but it is blessedly balanced with the certainty that tomorrow and the day after that, and then again, very famous people and their dogs will be waiting for Uncle David to ring the bell. He is making dogs happy.
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