SOUTH SALEM, N.Y. – Sarah Hodgson knew from the time she started walking that her calling would be working with animals.
“I was talking to animals before I was talking to humans,” the South Salem resident and internationally-renowned dog trainer said. “I was even talking to guinea pigs. And I was training my own dogs before I was eight.”
Hodgson has written 12 books on the subject, including three in the “Dummies” series: “Puppies for Dummies,” the third edition of which comes out in March, “Agility and Dog Tricks for Dummies” and “Understanding Your Dog for Dummies,” which was co-written with veterinarian Stanley Coren.
“I’ve been doing it [for a living] for 27 years,” Hodgson said. “I actually trained my first dogs professionally when I was 12 and became a corporation when I was 19.”
Hodgson’s business, When Dogs Talk, Sarah Listens, offers groups classes, private lessons and phone and e-mail sessions. She’s a syndicated columnist and a frequent guest on network and cable TV shows.
“I’ve always communicated to dogs,” she said. “It’s not some complicated, domineering, cumbersome exercise. It’s something you do with them. Once you can communicate them, you can teach them.”
Hodgson said dog training should be a happy experience for both the pet and the pet owner and not an arduous task. She said owning a dog and not communicating with it would be akin to having a child and not communicating with him or her.
“There was really no such thing as a ‘dog trainer’ when I was a kid,” she recalled. “Lots of people noticed that I had this gift. They called me the Pied Piper of dogs – they would follow me around.”
Hodgson went to veterinary school but didn’t like it. She said the animals were often in such a high state of fear that she could not communicate with them. She left school and went home and started a pet-sitting service. It was then that a customer asked her if she could train their dog. She did, and word spread.
Soon she met Job Evans, author of “How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend,” who became her mentor and introduced her to his publisher.
“My first book came out when I was 24,” she said. “It was called ‘You and Your Puppy’ and was co-authored with James DeBitetto.”
The Hodgsons own three dogs of their own – Whoopsie, Hootenanny and Balderdash, as well as two cats and a rabbit. Whoopsie, a Labrador retriever, acts as a therapy dog in Hodgson’s therapeutic outreach program.
“We are also big cat lovers,” she said. “I used to work with cats too, but the business got too big.”
Hodgson said dogs have the same brain capacity as a 1 1/2-year-old child and need to be taught how to communicate.
“What I teach is that dogs are always interacting and relating to you,” she said. “You have to listen to them and understand and teach them a communal language. That’s paramount. Dogs want to know where they’re supposed to go and what they’re supposed to do, otherwise they will just become reactionary and do what they want. Dog training is actually really very simple.”