Thursday, September 16, 2010

ANN ARBOR: Local dog has star power, wins 20th Century Fox Studios contest

By Sheila Pursglove, Special Writer

When Valerie Wells wanted a canine companion for her Yorkie-Poo, what she ended up with was a four-legged movie star.

Her 4-year-old terrier mix named Howie was among four winners out of more than 300 entries in a contest sponsored by 20th Century Fox studios and USA Today. The first-place YouTube video of Howie "shooting baskets" into a basketball net was featured in the on-line version of USA Today.

The grand prize was for the YouTube video to be incorporated into the end of the "Marmaduke Livin' Large" movie, but 20th Century Fox couldn't figure out how best to use the piece, Wells said. Instead, they invited Wells, a guest and Howie to fly to San Diego for the premiere of the movie in June.

Rather than subject Howie to flying in cargo, Wells declined. Instead, she received a free private, all-inclusive screening of the movie Sept. 11 in Ann Arbor. About 100 attendees got paw shakes and sloppy dog kisses from Howie.

The movie star mutt entered Wells' life after she wanted a playmate for her Yorkie-Poo, Sophie, and adopted a dog from a shelter in Claire County.

The pooch was adorable -- and pregnant.

While Wells found homes for three of the resulting four pups, she found herself unable to part with the runt of the litter

"With two adult dogs, I really didn't need another dog, but I'd already fallen in love with Howie," she said. "He's a smile maker with very expressive eyes.

"I've known him, his entire life and he's always been an amazing dog. We've always had a special bond."

Wells, a local dog trainer and owner of the A2 Canine Coach, trained Howie to take money in his mouth and drop it into the bucket when she volunteered for the Salvation Army kettle drive.

"After learning to do that, shooting baskets came easy to him," she said. "Those are just a few of the tricks he's mastered over the years."

Wells welcomes the challenge to teach Howie new things and the opportunity to work and spend time together.

Once Howie learns something, he knows it forever, Wells said. He has about 50 tricks -- answering the phone, playing a Fisher Price piano, playing basketball, circus tricks, jump and twirl, a nose touch, roll over and more.

"Granted, he'll never win an obedience title. What's important is that we connect," she said. "He learns new things easily because he's been taught to learn, to think and to figure things out when I introduce a new behavior. He trusts me to be respectful of him, to build his confidence level and yet make it challenging.

"He could never have achieved this level of understanding if I had used antiquated dominance techniques or alpha rolls, which often seem like the path of least resistance to the ineffective dog trainer. Dogs need to be engaged and their minds need to be stimulated to avoid unwanted behaviors produced through boredom."

A therapy dog with Therapaws of Michigan, Howie makes bi-weekly visits to the sanctuary on the campus of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.

"Howie loves visiting the seniors. Many of the residents had dogs before, so they will rub his head or pet him and reminisce about the dogs in their lives and laugh at his silly tricks," she said.

The pair attends special events for Therapaws to grade schools, Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan.

"The hospital patients and staff or grade school and college kids are always appreciative of dogs that visit, whatever the occasion. You always leave with a good feeling," she said.

Howie also is member of Dog Scouts of America, a nonprofit organization of people who are dedicated to enriching their lives and the lives of others with dogs.

"Howie loves long walks and he's an avid squirrel chaser. He has a playful nature about him and loves to tease his roommates," Wells said.

In the past, Howie has been active in obedience and agility. Currently he's involved in musical freestyle."

Wells, who has three other terrier mixes that she described as just as amazing as Howie, has had dogs and cats from childhood. The first dog she owned in adulthood was a Yorkshire Terrier named Romeo that she trained using Cheerios to sit in a doll high chair.

Five years later, she adopted Spot, a Yorkie-Poo, and trained him to do tricks.

"Since then, I've had multiple dogs, and have an affinity for terriers," she said.

She adopted her aspiring disc dog, Woofie, a 1-year-old Jack Russell terrier and poodle mix, from the Humane Society of Huron Valley, where she volunteers as a dog walker, dog monitor and assists with special events. She designed and built the indoor agility equipment and trained other volunteers how to use the equipment, and basic dog training skills. She also designed play-yard equipment.

An electrical drafter/designer for a number of years, Wells changed careers to work with dogs.

In 2004, she started "Fetch It Yourself," a dog bakery specializing in homemade celebration cakes and bagels for dogs -- a big hit at dog birthday parties and "Barkmitzvahs."

Wells, who completed a three-year program in dog training and behavior consulting, and is a member of the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals and Association of Professional Dog Trainers, conducts private and group training sessions.

"If done properly, I believe training is one of the most important aspects of living with a dog," she said. "It builds trust and promotes a strong human-canine bond, which helps to create important communication skills. The earlier you start building that bond, the better.

"When people try to train their dog with ineffective methods, they fail the dog and the relationship. In the end, the dog never learns anything other than to be fearful and suppress their behavior for the time being, only to have it resurface at perhaps a less convenient time."

For more information, visit

To view the winning video, visit

Sheila Pursglove is a freelance writer. She can be reached at