On a clear, windy day, three strangers knocked at Joan Mansfield’s door in Erie. Eddy the pit bull waited just inside, growling. He’d been doing that more and more.
“Don’t respond to him,” Aimee Sadler advised as she stepped inside.
Sadler, behavior and training program coordinator at Longmont Humane Society, was making a home visit to work with Eddy, who is a shelter alumnus. For the next few minutes, Sadler orchestrated a series of comical knocks and doorbell rings with another shelter trainer and a photographer. When Mansfield opened the door and greeted the visitor with a hug, Sadler took Eddy to “safe space” across the room.
“He’s scared to death, And he feels compelled to do something to protect you,” she said.
“He’s just a big baby,” Mansfield said lovingly. An hour after Sadler’s arrival, Eddy had learned to retreat to the kitchen when Mansfield said, “Place.” He sat on the floor, relaxed and happy.
“Call any time,” Sadler said as she drove away.
Aimee Sadler arrived in Longmont by way of Hollywood and New York. She’s spent the last four years focusing on dogs at the Longmont Humane Society. Her innovative “Success Through Socialization” program has earned her top billing at national humane society conferences, earning her respect and praise from her peers. Her work has also saved dogs who might otherwise have been euthanized; instead, they find happy homes.
With a lion’s mane of silver-streaked brown hair, deep summer tan, blue eyes and rows of pearly whites, Sadler has movie-star looks. It’s a matter of genetics: She’s the daughter of actress Jennifer O’Neill, who starred in Summer of ’42 and Rio Lobo with John Wayne. Sadler grew up on set and scampered among celebrities from the time she could walk.
Her work with animals began when she took an apprenticeship for a dolphin and sea lion trainer at Magic Mountain.
“That’s where I picked up all my learning theory,” Sadler said. “If you understand how animals learn, you should have a natural way with all animals.”
She started training dogs for private clients. Her reputation grew, and she drew clients who appreciated her willingness to work in their homes and non-traditional environments.
“I used to have 15 dogs off leash in Griffith Park in the Hollywood Hills,”she said.
From LA, she moved to New York to be near family. There, she found a new slew of clients, one of whom was Susan Allen.
Allen’s name might sound familiar. Her gift in 2005 made construction of the new Longmont Humane Society shelter possible. Part of Allen’s gift was Sadler.
Today, virtually every dog who enters the shelter benefits from her philosophy, particularly her socialization techniques. Anecdotally, staff and volunteers say play groups are keeping LHS dogs calm and happy. They’re laid out like sacks of topsoil when they come back—instead of pacing, barking or nervously eyeing kennel doors.
Sadler also conducts the shelter’s dog-training classes—everything from basic obedience to special work on things like dog-to-dog aggression. She philosophically opposes the current trend of “positive only” training, which rejects the use of certain “tools” like pinch or electric collars.
“I think the biggest thing that sets Aimee apart is her knowledge basis, from working with a variety of animals, including exotics, that she knows all the different (methods) of training and their correct use,” said Laurie Buffington of Dog Days Training Center.
The Longmont Humane Society accepts dogs with issues such as on-leash aggression or guarding food or toys into Sadler’s behavior program, where they receive intensive training from staff and highly trained volunteers to prepare them for new homes. Many of the dogs have been deemed un-adoptable—in other words, they would have been euthanized—by other shelters.
“If you don’t fix those problems, these dogs will die. To not use a tool in the name of doing no harm …that’s bulls**t,” she said. “Death is the ultimate harm—to me.”
Her program is working: None of its graduates have been returned by owners. More than 90 percent of dogs in the program in 2008 found homes.
“By the time they go home, they’re actually better trained than most dogs out there,” Sadler said.
When teaching, Sadler meets dogs and owners where they are, working with the tools they’ve been using. And as vivacious and warm as she is with people, she’s even more connected to dogs.
“She picked up on the individual character of the dogs in class,” Toni Biter said. Biter’s dog Rio went through Sadler’s classes and received some in-home training before earning his American Kennel Club “Canine Good Citizen” certification.
Ultimately, Sadler’s goal is to keep dogs—and people—happy. The better behaved the dog, the less likely he will end up in a shelter; the less stressed a dog is in a shelter, the more likely he’ll find a “forever” home.
“Some animals come in and it’s the best environment they’ve ever had. But it’s not what dogs need. They need relationships. They need comfort. There’s too much auditory, visual and olfactory stimulation,” she said. “But you try to build your facility and programs to minimize that, to keep them as happy as possible while they are there.
“That’s what I’m trying to do.”