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