‘Kindness is power’ with The Dog Chick

By Amy Nicole Tangel

Throughout the pandemic people have been rapidly leaving cities and moving to suburbs to live more of the “simple life,” and with that new life many are adopting dogs for the first time. One woman who has dedicated her life to training dogs across Long Island is now at the forefront of what’s to come in training dogs in a new world.

When Charlene (Charli) Sorrentino was a little girl growing up in Rego Park, Queens, she said she was the kid who was always daydreaming out the window during class and paying close attention to everything that was happening outside.  She said she knew early on she wanted to dedicate her life to dogs especially, but she just didn’t know how.

“Family parties, I was sitting with the dog or the cat.  That was me; I just had something,” she said.

In 1986, Charlene moved to Long Island and that is when she said she took her first course in dog training at a behavior center for dogs in NYC.  They offered a course on dog behavior that was the clicking point, and from that moment she realized she wanted to build her life and career upon training dogs.  At the time dog training was not mainstream, so Charlene said she started out small and as time went on over the years her work became widely used across Long Island.

While Charlene was busy raising her daughter, she said she always had anywhere from three to five dogs and offered her services to people in the neighborhood, just because it was something she loved to do.  Her husband at the time was an equipment manager for the NY Mets who provided a comfortable living for the family, and she said while he always encouraged her to just enjoy being a stay-at-home mom, that was something she couldn’t do.

During this time is when Charlene, known to many as “The Dog Chick” today, said she started working with friends and family pets and began earning her first income, but she still felt she wanted to do so much more.  Before dog training became more mainstream, Charlene said she would read every book on dog training she could find, but she felt everything she read was punitive.

“You learn a lot experience wise, but you have to have that formal education to balance it,” she said.

Soon after she began training in her neighborhood, Charlene learned of a school in Queens, The Academy of Canine Education, and enrolled in a 16-week dog training program.  For Charlene, she said the experience was an eye-opener and she quickly came to realize she did not like the methodology of the “force” based mindset of training she was receiving.  She knew, then, it was not how she wanted to train.

For Charlene, who has been in her Huntington, N.Y., location since 2014, and built her training today based on 17 years specializing in positive reinforcement, it was educating herself through the positive- based practices and instructional tools of veterinarian, researcher and teacher, Dr.  Ian Dunbar, whom she said changed her life and inspired the methodology of training dogs she uses to this day.

“He’s fantastic, and he came up with the saying, ‘shelter dogs aren’t born that way.’  Meaning, all of them are born as puppies, it’s what we do to them and with them; that’s why my thing is, ‘kindness is power,’” she said.

Charlene, who said she is led by instinct, believes the only way to train a dog to do what you want them to is to get on a level of their understanding and said, “No can be your warning word just like the sound ‘uh-oh,’ or snap your fingers and then comes ‘leave it’.”

That is when, Charlene said, you have to teach them what to leave it actually means.  Otherwise, she said they are just not going to get it. However, she said never to push them beyond their comfort zone when teaching your dog anything new, especially if they are afraid.

“Small, small, small.  Baby steps,” she said.

Even though Charlene said she is personally afraid of planes and flying, being able to actually go to MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y., to train dogs how to fly is one of those moments where she feels in awe of the work she is able to do and the impact of how training these dogs is changing people’s lives for the better.  For Charlene, she said the ultimate goal in behavior training is when she can help make a fearful dog to at least feel more comfortable.

“Of course, you always reach for the stars and you may not get that, but if you can keep a dog in the home…it’s really about saving them,” she said.

Charlene has stood in court to defend dogs and has testified to stand-up for the rights of the voiceless, because she said trainers like herself follow a bite scale written by Dunbar with the belief that “a bite is not just a bite,” and somewhere along the line there were warning signs given by the dog that were missed.

“Dogs bite with intent,” she said.

Education is key with Charlene, who has made it her mission to educate whenever the opportunity arises, and until everything was halted by COVID, she had even begun teaching lessons at a grade school in Whitestone, N.Y. After training two dogs to be therapy dogs for the school, Charlene said she was invited regularly to come to the school to teach kids about what to do and not to do with dogs.  She said she attended career days, as well, and gave the kids visual demonstrations to see the dogs reactions.  Charlene said teaching children from early on how to properly treat a dog is key to instilling the proper learned behaviors that will stick with them throughout life.

“I know through education I can offer the next generation at least the right way to do it, so that’s a goal of mine,” she said.

Charlene said in the dog training world, trainers are a dime a dozen these days thanks to shows like, “The Dog Whisperer,” so for her it is a priority to advocate the real importance of a formal education.  She is an official mentor for The Animal Behavior College and CATCH Canine Trainers Academy, and she said she has written articles to help educate other dog trainers and pet owners alike.

“We are not regulated, that’s what the positive reinforcement world is pushing for; to get regulations in this business,” she said. 

With education in mind, Charlene said she has seen a surge in business with families staying home and becoming first-time pet owners.  She said when last summer rolled around she became busier than usual, and began offering virtual lessons through video and text when it could not be done in person to do whatever she could to help her families feel like they were all in it together.

On the flipside of more people staying home, Charlene said what she is seeing a spike in now is separation anxiety with new pets, who were adopted during quarantine, and with people now returning to work many dogs are being left home alone for the first time ever.  She said calls are beginning to roll in from people who are coming home from work to find the dog has eaten their couch, for example, and are now turning to her for help.

In addition to separation anxiety, Charlene is also concerned about dogs who were used to very active lives becoming unsocialized, and she fears this is a behavior in dogs that is only going to increase.  While Charlene works hard to help every family and pet in need no matter what the reason, she said the true focus of her work is behavior and she is bracing herself for what’s to come as things open back up.

At the end of the day, Charlene said she hasn’t advertised in years and all of her work comes through word of mouth.  However, with the times changing, Charlene like many others began to think forward during the shutdown and said she finally was able to get her website complete making her more accessible virtually.  The website is full of many resources and information about all of the services she provides.

No matter what the dog’s stage in life or issue it may be having, from puppy, to a blind or deaf dog, a companion to an elderly person, or a service dog for a veteran, Charlene said the softest spot in her heart is for dogs who have been surrendered.

“My focus is to work with the ones that people surrender.  To bring them to a point where they can live a happy life; that’s where my heart is,” she said.

Charlene said ultimately she is grateful to make a living doing what she loves, but would be doing it anyway even if she didn’t and will continue to help any dog she can for the all of the days of her life.

“If I had to do this and not make a penny off it, I would still do it,” she said.

To learn more about Charlene and the services she provides, please visit www.thedogchick.com.

Photo Credit: Charles Salidino

A Rockstar in the Midst

By Amy Nicole Tangel

People say, ‘It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish,’ and for one rocker vocalist who was diagnosed with cancer over a decade ago, there has been no stopping him from rising above and moving forward with life, music and gratitude.

Long Island native and metal rock band Holy Mother front man, Mike Tirelli, has recently reunited with the band after a 17-year-hiatus releasing their new album, ‘Face This Burn,’ and he said he is ready to get back to life from the pandemic, on the road touring and to really being able to live life again after recovering from his battle with stage three stomach cancer.

“I have definitely been fortunate. I can say that,” he said.

Holy Mother was founded by Mike and drummer, James Harris who released the self-titled debut album in 1995 with the late bassist, Randy Coven (known for working with the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai), and guitarist Spike Francis.  Today’s band includes the two founding members Mike and James, alongside new bandmate and New York native bassist, Russell Pzutto of Dee Snider’s band and former understudy for Twisted Sister bassist Mark “The Animal’ Mendoza,” and guitarist, Greg Giordano.

The band has a total of seven albums released to date with most of their early success coming from playing large festivals in Europe, including Wacken Open Air; one of the largest annual heavy metal festivals held in Germany for over 30 years, but Holy Mother has not been Mike’s only claim to fame.  His list of collaborations is extensive, and Mike said he is always writing. “I write every day,” he said.

Writing everyday is exactly how the reunion of Holy Mother organically came to be in 2020, when Mike said it occurred to him all of the new music he was writing back and forth with fellow band member James was something they really needed to put down, so he simply decided it was time to reach out to a few labels. “Face This Burn” was released last month under Massacre/AFM Records and is co-produced with Mike by, Kane Churko, renowned producer to artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Disturbed and Five Finger Death Punch.

“Every aspect of the whole album, the writing, the continuity that’s on the album; we have traditional songs-we have everything for everybody as far as fans go,” he said.

The singer/songwriter said he always loved music from a young age, but it was in his teens when he really got into playing in bands and at clubs.  Raised in a family of police officers, with his father and brothers all members of the NYPD, Mike was encouraged to take the same path, but he said his true passion was always with music.

“My father always wanted me, you know, to follow in his footsteps. My brothers did, and you know what?  It was a lot more appetizing to be into music,” he said.

Talent with Mike growing up was not just in the form of vocals, but he said he was also an athlete.  Mike said he played football and baseball, but it was baseball where he really went places and even earned a try-out with the N.Y. Yankees when he was just 18 years old.  Although it was a moment Mike said he will never forget, he said his heart wasn’t into it like it was for having a career in music.  Mike said he was grateful for the opportunity and it was an amazing feeling walking into the stadium, but he went into it with an injury and he is also a Mets fan, so he laughed it off as being for the best he didn’t join the team.

“And, I am a Met fan by the way, so if they would have signed me, I would have said, ‘No, I am going to the Mets,’” he said.

Aside from Holy Mother, Mike has been the longtime lead singer for the German rock band, Messiah’s Kiss since 2002.  Mike said he joined Messiah’s Kiss (previously known as Repression), after the band had pursued him from their interest in Holy Mother and kept sending him demos asking him to sing for the band.  He said he kept listening to what they were sending and thought to himself, they were really good and he needed a change of pace, so he joined the band. They were signed immediately and he has been with the band ever since.

“They went from a local German band to this National act,” he said. 

In the middle of it all, back in the U.S., Mike also joined the American rock band, Riot, in 2005, and toured with them for three years until he received his cancer diagnosis.  Mike was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2008 and fought courageously for two years undergoing chemotherapy and a gastrectomy; the complete removal of the stomach. 

It hasn’t been an easy process Mike said, but he is not allowing his battle with cancer to define his life. In fact, Mike was still doing his last treatments of chemo in 2009, when he joined the cast of, “Rockstar: The Tribute,” a Las Vegas rock tribute show where he played the role of David Coverdale of Whitesnake.  He said even though he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent during his time in Vegas, he was so passionate about getting out there again and because the show was well-received he said being a part of the cast was a highlight of his career. 

Mike said it’s a learning process everyday juggling how to eat enough small meals and manage his new normal dietary life, but he has worked hard to find balance and is grateful for the miracle he received; often reflecting on how his biggest vocal inspiration, Ronnie James Dio lost his own battle to the very same cancer in 2010. 

“The chemo was probably one of the hardest things I had to deal with.  That almost killed me,” he said.

Thankfully, today Mike has been living a cancer-free and full life in Patchogue, N.Y., with his wife Janet and two children for the past 12 years, and said he just lives simply.  Mike said he has been very proud to watch his 13-year-old daughter, Violet begin to grow musically singing and playing keys, and she can even be heard singing on a track of the new album. 

When Mike is not on the road, he said he has been grateful to have also supported himself and his family locally for years working at the tuxedo shop, Rico’s Clothing, in Center Moriches, N.Y., and Sidhal Industries, a janitorial supply company, based in Hempstead, N.Y.  Mike said the people at Rico’s have been like family to him and the owners at Sidhal have been a great support to Mike and his career.

While Mike said he enjoys his day to day work, music will always be number one and he cannot wait to get back out on the road.  In the meantime, “Face This Burn” has three videos out including the title track with three more on the way in the works, but for Mike he said the most important thing for Holy Mother, like every other band patiently waiting, is to get touring again.

Once things open up, it seems like Mike will be everywhere.  Not only does Mike have touring with Holy Mother on the horizon and new music in the works for Messiah’s Kiss, he also is gearing up for the local music scene to open back up as well.  On the home front, Mike can be found performing with the eight-piece band, Entourage, at weddings, parties and events around New York and singing in the Whitesnake tribute band, Almost Whitesnake.

Until live shows are fully-up and running, you can check out Holy Mother’s three new “Face This Burn” videos on YouTube, and you can also find Mike on the YouTube show, “Band Geek,” featuring Richie Castellano of Blue Oyster Cult, where Mike sings three cover songs from Whitesnake, Black Sabbath and Mr. Big.

To keep up with all things Mike Tirelli and all his musical endeavors, you can find him on Facebook @miketirellimusician and Instagram @mike_tirelli_musician.