Wendy Kelly has worked as an animal behaviorist for over 20 years. Her clients live all across the country, but she is most often in the Sunshine State, where she lives and her business is based. She owns Pet Peeves Animal Training in Pinellas Park, and her style of behavior modification training emphasizes positivity for both the pet and the owner (Kelly refers to the latter as the “parent”). Her work regularly takes her all around Tampa Bay, into the Orlando area, and even down to Miami and Key West.
She also founded The Pawsitive Life Foundation, which takes rescue dogs and trains them to detect cancer in humans. Her rescue dog found her cancer in an early stage and saved her life; this story is chronicled in her book Buji and Me: 7 Lessons From The Dog Who Rescued Me. It is available for purchase online and at brick-and-mortar booksellers such as Barnes & Noble.
I spoke with Wendy Kelly about her line of work, her foundation and her book for Hotspots’ annual pet issue.
How did you decide you wanted to pursue a career around animal training and behavior?
Truly, all my life, I have sought out the companionship of animals. It may sound strange, but they somehow made me feel like I belonged, that I was a part of something bigger, that I could understand and be understood without uttering a word or doing a thing. I felt complete just by being in their presence. This connection led me to my current path.
I went from being a psychotherapist to an animal behaviorist because I believe that animals are our greatest teachers and healers. I realized that I could help others more effectively by combining my work with animals into my work with people. Since then, I have come to realize that if we will listen to our pets, if we will watch and learn, our pets will teach us how to be whole.
Where did you go to school?
I attended the University of Kansas and Wichita State University. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and sociology and a Masters degree in clinical psychology. I have postgraduate studies in applied animal behavior and cognitive behavioral science. I have 20 years’ experience working in the field as an Applied Animal Behaviorist with dogs, cats, horses, and birds as well as the people who love them.
What’s a typical work day like for you?
My typical day of work as an animal behaviorist involves providing training for dogs, cats, horses, and birds. My day includes phone consultations, home visits, assessments, evaluations at animal hospitals, supervising my staff, overseeing the operations of Pet Peeves Animal Training and The Pawsitive Life Foundation. I also teach courses for students interested in making a career out of working with pets through my School of Applied Animal Behavior. In addition, I work with a limited number of clients as a life coach and provide services as a psychotherapist, mainly for the LGBT community.
When people bring in their pets for training, is it for typical obedience training? Or are there specific behavioral problems that the owners need help with?
Oftentimes, with dogs, it involves obedience training, but I frequently see the gamut of behavioral issues with dogs, cats, horses, and birds. I see cases of aggression, thunderstorm phobia, separation anxiety, destructive behaviors, house training issues, and those in need of training for service or therapy dogs.
I begin with an animal behavioral assessment to determine the cause and severity of the behavior as well as the goals of the pet parent. Then, I develop an individualized treatment plan to target and resolve the problem behaviors. Clients may either come to me at the animal hospital or I can go out to them at home. I also provide phone consultations for clients that are outside of the state of Florida.
The number one request I get for cats is to teach them to use the toilet. Cat owners are thrilled to lose the litter box and the mess that goes along with it. It takes only four weeks to complete the training.
Tell us about The Pawsitive Life Foundation. What is its aim?
The Pawsitive Life Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization I founded after my rescue dog, Buji, found my cancer and saved my life. Our mission is to save dogs and train them to enrich and save the lives of people. We train dogs that would otherwise be euthanized to provide early cancer detection in humans as well as provide therapy and service dog assistance for those in need.
Pawsitive Life rescues abandoned or homeless dogs and gives them a second chance to “pawsitively” impact a person’s life. There is no better reward than to save a dog to save a life.
How can a dog detect cancer?
Any breed of dog can successfully be trained to “sniff” for cancer. We teach this highly effective skill by training dogs to identify a very distinctive scent, or biochemical marker, that is emitted by the human body when cancer is present. A dog’s sense of smell is so keen and accurate that they can identify the chemical traces of cancer in the range of parts per trillion. This means that a dog can detect cancer in a human months before it will show up on any current medical test we have today.
How can someone pledge support to the Pawsitive Life Foundation?
We are a 501(c)(3), so all donations are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated to further the mission of The Pawsitive Life Foundation. Donate [by going to] cancerstinks.com or pawsitivelife.org. There is no donation too small for a cause so great!
You wrote a book about how your dog Buji saved your life. Tell us a little bit about it.
My book [is called] Buji and Me: 7 Lessons From The Dog Who Rescued Me [and] it is for anyone with a love of life, a love of animals, and the desire to be inspired. It is sprinkled throughout with inspiring quotes, thought provoking goodies, and funny observations. Literally, you can open it anywhere and discover the very words you need at the very moment you need them.
I wrote it with the intention of passing on the love and light that life has graciously shared with me. My book is also part biography, so it is a healing story appropriate for someone who is on a journey to wellness, battling cancer, or knows someone who is walking or has walked that path.
The art in the book was illustrated by Dean Young who draws the cartoon “Blondie.” What was it like to work with him?
Dean and his wife, Charlotte, are friends and clients of mine. They are both wonderful! Dean is about the nicest person I know. I first met him ten years ago when I trained their two Yorkshire Terriers, named, of course, “Blondie” and “Dagwood.” I am currently in the process of training their new pup, a Havenese named “Mr. Beasley.”
The illustrations came to life when Dean and I sat down one Sunday morning at his house on Clearwater Beach. Over a couple of mimosas, we bounced ideas back and forth with one another. I shared with him some rough drawings I had sketched the night before to illustrate each chapter. We talked them through and he was able to bring to life the seven life lessons in a humorous and brilliantly simple manner. He graciously drew and redrew the cover until it was just right. He polished my humble sketches and made them the awesome illustrations they are today. He is amazing, brilliant, and kind.
I discovered later that my book is the only one, besides his own books, that Dean has ever illustrated. I am grateful to this great man and talented cartoonist! Actually, grateful doesn’t even scratch the surface!
What are some nuggets of advice you’d give to people who are interested in giving an animal a “forever home”?
My four nuggets of advice in giving an animal a “forever home”:
1. Do your research about the characteristics that accompany the particular breed or species of animal that you are interested in before you adopt.
2. Take a honest assessment of your own ability to provide the enrichment and care that an animal needs to be healthy and happy. Ask yourself: “Do I have the time, space, lifestyle, and resources necessary to make this animal’s life a great one?”
3. Rescue an animal. Millions of animals are abandoned or surrendered to shelters each year because their owners didn’t ask themselves the first two questions. Sadly, approximately 2.7 million healthy dogs and cats are euthanized each year, simply because they don’t have a home.
4. Seek help. If you are experiencing behavioral problems with your pet, don’t give up. Know that there is hope and help for your furry friend. Find a good, qualified positive-based trainer or animal behaviorist.
For more information about Pet Peeves Animal Training, visit petpeeves.info. The book Buji and Me: 7 Lessons From The Dog Who Rescued Me is published by Medallion Press.