LINCOLN — You know Linda Oliveira is sincere and serious when she says she loves her massive, long-haired German shepherd Smokey, and has since she first gave him a home at seven weeks.
Still, about the time he turned 10 months old, Oliveira — the owner of Sunset Stables at Lincoln Woods State Park — became worried. Whenever she walked him on nearby trails, he would become overly belligerent with his own kind.
“I was having a serious problem,” she explained. “He was being really aggressive with other dogs, charging and growling at them. I couldn't handle him. He wouldn't come to me when I called him. I tried to deal with it, but he was close to 100 pounds. He was out of control, even on his leash, and I became fearful that he'd hurt somebody, or of a lawsuit.”
Desperate, she phoned one dog trainer, who promised he could “fix” Smokey's aggressive nature. When she asked to meet him, the trainer told her that wasn't necessary, and that he wanted to be paid in full beforehand. He also said he'd be at Sunset Stables in minutes for Smokey's initial session.
“I ended up saying, 'No, that's OK,'” she mentioned. “It sounded a little suspicious to me. Finally, a client of mine suggested I try his dog trainer, as he had done wonders with his dogs. I called him, and I found talking with him to be really comfortable, that he had a certain confidence.”
That call last February to Ernie Trafford — a Providence-based master trainer who owns both K-9 Training Academy (for residential needs) and K-9 Security/Guard Dogs for Hire (for commercial protection) — changed her life, not to mention Smokey's.
“I met him that afternoon, and I was so overwhelmed by his professionalism, I hired him right away,” Oliveira raved. “In essence, he gave me options. He told me if I needed life-long assistance after his training was done, if the dog just needed a ‘tuneup,’ he'd be there for us.
“I saw a difference in Smokey the first time Ernie handled him,” she continued. “Smokey was listening right away because he was ahead of the dog's thoughts. As soon as he started to become excited, Ernie reeled him back and corrected him. It was beautiful, how he anticipated what Smokey would do next.
“The thing is, not only was he training Smokey, he was training me, too — about the dog's behavior, how to move around him, how to issue simple commands, and he did it in German! That blew me away. Now my dog is 98 percent there — not 100 percent, as he still has his moments — but I can walk him around other dogs, and he comes when I call him.
“I'm tickled pink about that. I can't say anything bad about Ernie. I actually think of him as the ‘Dog Whisperer.’”
Fact is Trafford, 51, has been training canines since shortly after his 16th birthday. However, his secret, which isn't a secret at all, he says, is boosting the confidence of the dog owner.
It may sound crazy, but he has dozens of past and current clients who swear by his techniques with both canines and humankind.
To understand how he developed his mindset, one needs to know more about his background.
As a student at Our Lady of Providence High School in 1976, he began helping Jerry Lepore — an Air Force master trainer, Vietnam War veteran and friend of the Trafford family — at his dog training business.
“My father was a combat medic for the Army in World War II, and we always had shepherds; Jerry knew that,” Trafford noted. “I had just got my license, so Jerry called me and asked me to work with him. He wanted me to pick up his dogs and drop them off at businesses for security purposes, then bring them back to his kennels in North Providence.
“I wasn't afraid of dogs because I had a ton of confidence in him, and in his abilities,” he added. “He trained me the right way. I'd handle these guard dogs, feed them, water them, kennel them, and he taught me the proper way — how to conduct security, building searches, perimeter checks, with them.
“I loved it; I've always loved dogs and the way Jerry handled his operation. As a teen, I was in full charge of over 20 dogs.
“I was really impressed with Jerry; when businesses came to him and told him they had security guards and alarm systems, and criminals kept breaking in, he said he had the solution. When we posted the dogs, they sought another business to break into. The business owners were amazed at the dogs' success.”
Trafford graduated from OLP in 1978, then chose to follow his sister, Pat, to Des Moines, Iowa. She had been attending an osteopathic college there, so he enrolled at nearby Des Moines Area Community College's Ankeny campus to pursue a pre-med degree.
“I went for two reasons: First, I wanted to get away, and, second, because my sister was there, I could stay with her,” he said. “When I put an ad in the newspaper to offer my services, I got bombarded with phone calls because there are no dog trainers in Iowa. Folks told me they had to go to Texas or California for any dog protection training.
“I already had trained with Jerry for five years, and I knew what I was doing,” he added. “Still, I'd call him if I had any questions or needed advice.”
He left college after two semesters, but — about 18 months later, in 1983 — he enlisted in the Army. The reason? He always wanted to follow in his father's footsteps.
“I had gone to school for pre-med, and I had the opportunity to join the special forces as a paratrooper and a combat medic, so I did,” he noted.
In June, he went through boot camp in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., then traveled to San Antonio, Texas. to enroll at the U.S. Academy of Health Sciences for a 14-week program. Other stops included Fort Benning, Ga. for paratrooper school; Fort Bragg, N.C. for Green Beret survival training; then back to San Antonio for more combat medic schooling.
Trafford returned home to report to the R.I. National Guard, and to keep an eye on his dad, who had become ill. Not long after, he attended lab technician school at Associated Medical Labs in East Providence, then was hired at then-Pawtucket Memorial Hospital to be on the stat/IV/phlebotomy unit.
Despite that job, he remained involved with dog training part-time.
“It was my passion,” he stated. “I adored working with dogs, but also people. My medical training allowed me to help humans, and I also was a fitness instructor and personal trainer, so it all intertwined.”
Trafford considers himself the “Captain of Confidence,” and for good reason.
“I'm highly-trained, and it's because I was trained by the best in the world, the U.S. Army,” he stated. “I've also been doing this a long time, so my confidence level is very high. I just apply what I know to be true, and simply not allow negative thoughts to penetrate my mind, or influence my perceptions and actions.”
He revealed turning Smokey into the kind of pet Oliveira always wanted was elementary. First, he placed him on a leash and made him heel and sit, then ran him through basic obedience exercises.
“That first day, I walked him directly toward where another dog was standing,” he said. “Smokey was about to bolt, but before his innate drive was fully stimulated, I followed through with my technique. I kept his drive under control by using disciplinary and master training techniques.
“Jerry Lepore certified me as a master trainer in 1986, and it took 10 years for me to get to that point, but I also began studying animal behavior, human behavior and how they relate. Both have drives, and if you let that drive overcome you, you're out of control. That's why we have road rage, or people taking drugs, or even saying something they may regret later.
Trafford's fees range from $175 to $3,600, depending upon the complexity level of behavioral or developmental issues. He stated anyone who calls will receive a free consultation.
Anyone interested in learning more about Trafford should call (401) 714-7700, or visit www.k-9mastertrainer.com .