Heather Rife, D.V.M., just might be a modern-day Dr. Doolittle. The East Haven, Conn., veterinarian can hear what her dogs tell her. OK, they don’t bark or whine to let her know which performance events and other canine activities they want to do. Nor do they speak English. But she watches their reactions, gauges their enthusiasm, and then, she listens.
It’s a bit surprising considering that Rife didn’t grow up in a “dog family at all,” or so she says. What she means is that she wasn’t born into a house where dogs were bred or shown or trialed. Her early years weren’t even graced with a canine “sibling.” But when she was about 8 years old, she wrote a letter to a friend, telling her that she’d decided to run away from home unless she could get a horse. As a way of “talking” to her parents, she left the letter out where they would see it. “My mom said, ‘there’s no way you’re going to get a horse.’ So I switched to a dog.”
The Road to ‘Dogs’
Her mother, of course, laid down some late-1950s rules. “Mom didn’t want the dog to ever go in the house.” The family got a Collie puppy. “It never spent a night outdoors,” Rife says.
It wasn’t long before the family realized they couldn’t handle the dog, “so my mom took her to obedience classes.”
About three years later, the canine-crazy kid decided she wanted to raise Seeing Eye puppies. Because the family lived in New Jersey, they knew about the Morristown-based organization that trains service dogs for people with sight issues.
Clearly by that point, Rife’s mother had drunk the canine Kool-Aid, so to speak. She started a 4-H Club so the young girl could raise a puppy. “Sometimes our house was filled with as many as five dogs at a time,” Rife says. At the same time, Rife was doing Junior Showmanship with her Collie. By 13, she had moved on to German Shorthaired Pointers. “My folks were very supportive. They took me to dog shows. I’m sure there was quite a bit of money spent that I wasn’t aware of. I do have to thank my parents for never saying, ‘we can’t really afford it.’”
By 1971, Rife was showing at Westminster, placing third to the Best Junior Handler in ’72. Like many female teenagers with animals, she became “really interested in veterinary medicine” during those years.
The skills she would eventually use in her vet practice and in her extracurricular dog activities as an adult were slowly developing all those years.
The Path to Obedience
Rife’s college years were not without a few hitches. OK, maybe one big hitch. She flunked out of Kansas State University after four semesters. She’s quick to explain, though, that it wasn’t because she was partying or neglecting her studies. “I hadn’t learned how to study, to apply myself,” she says. She didn’t know how to explain to her parents that she wasn’t going to be a veterinarian after all. “So, instead I decided to tell them I was getting married.” And she did – get married, that is. “It was a big mistake,” she says.
But the derailment didn’t last long.
Soon enough she’d gotten divorced and gone back to her parents’ home in New Jersey “for a bit.” She told her parents that she “really, really, really” wanted to go back to school as a pre-vet major. So they agreed to send her to a very small college. While there, she started showing other people’s dogs to make money. When she got into Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, she focused on school and work. She didn’t have a single dog “because I was so incredibly busy.” She graduated in 1985.
While doing an internship in Connecticut, she got her first rescued Doberman. “The owners had beaten her so badly, they finally broke her leg.” She named her Kiska, after one of the Aleutian Islands. “She was one of the best dogs I’ve ever owned in my entire life,” Rife says. “She followed me everywhere. She was the perfect dog. After she passed away, I rescued a drug dealer’s Doberman. He was like a kid who had been locked in a closet for five years. He’d never been in a house, didn’t know his name, had been starved. I had to take him to obedience class.”
That dog, Tucker, was Rife’s introduction to competitive obedience.
At that obedience class, the young vet met a woman “who had the most perfectly behaved Doberman.” She became a performance mentor to Rife, who hasn’t looked back since.
Tucker eventually earned his CDX (Companion Dog Excellent) in obedience, “which was a flippin’ miracle,” she says, considering his early so-called life. “His greatest feat was earning his therapy dog title and going to a local hospital as a therapy dog,” Rife says. “On the street, people were so frightened of this 90-pound Doberman, but in the hospital he would lie down and roll on his back for very small children to stroke his chest. The kids loved to measure their tiny hands to his huge feet. Guess I listened to him too and let him find his niche.”
The Track to Australian Terriers
As Tucker aged, dog show friends started telling Rife’s husband, Tony Cafiero, “She’s got to get another dog because when Tucker dies, she’s going to be distraught.” Rife knew it would have to be a small dog “because another Doberman would probably knock Tucker over and kill him. I’m thinking I’m not a little dog person. They’re yappy; they’re snappy. I couldn’t think of anything that I wanted.”
However, an Australian Terrier in her practice named Thunder changed her mind. Of the thousands and thousands of dogs she’s had in her practice, Rife has told about five owners that if anything ever happened to them, she’d take in their dogs. Thunder’s owner, an older woman, was one of those. Though a Terrier, the breed did qualify as a smaller dog that Tucker could likely handle, even in his old age.
“I researched the breed thoroughly,” Rife says. “Everything I read was what I saw in Thunder.”
Meanwhile, friends in larger breeds had scheduled an intervention to keep her from getting a Terrier. Her life had been filled with Collies, Labrador Retrievers and Dobermans. No small dog had ever crossed her home’s threshold.
She remembers her husband saying, “I surely hope you know what you’re doing.”
Rife was convinced she did, so she got in touch with a breeder, explaining that she wanted a dog with a predictable temperament that could go hiking with her, be shown, go to the office with her and compete in performance events.
“That’s how I got Martha,” Rife says. “She came to me in 2004. She walked into the house, walked up to Tucker, took one look at him, and I swear she said, ‘I’m the queen, and you’re my henchman.’ And he was fine with it.”
Of course, Martha didn’t “speak,” but Rife knew exactly what had transpired in those 10 seconds. Again, the Doolittle effect.
Rife showed Martha and started her in agility and obedience. “Slowly but surely people were coming around, saying, ‘She’s sure a quick agility dog. She’s a sweet little dog.’”
“She finished her conformation championship at our National Specialty, owner-handled. She had agility titles at that point.”
And Martha introduced her to a new sport – tracking. Rife took her to Camp Gone to the Dogs in Vermont, where people and their dogs can try out all kinds of canine sports, plus do other things like canoe, hike and swim. They tried tracking there. “She loved it,” Rife said.
But they weren’t quickly accepted in the tracking world. People saw an 18-pound Terrier and said, “How cute is that? Who did you bring to track with?” She got her first tracking title on her first time out, Rife says. And Rife did it by reading a book. “I had no one to help me,” she says. Serious trackers didn’t want to put time into a Terrier. “So, I read a book.”
She says Martha convinced her that Australian Terriers “can do anything.”
Apparently, it’s true. Now 8, Ch. Redwing Its All About Me, ‘Martha,’ has TD (Tracking Dog), MX (Master Agility Excellent) and MJ (Master Excellent Jumpers) titles.
Rife loves Martha so much and was so impressed by what she accomplished performance-wise that she decided to breed her. “All I wanted was a nice little girl puppy. She had all boys. I didn’t want a stinkin’ boy.”
The third puppy, though, was born dead. “I gave him three breaths, and he screamed. I never looked back again. His first breath was mine.”
Of course she kept ‘Reggie,’ GCh. Merrigang Wild N Crazy Guy, AX, AJ, EE, who is now 5.
Yes, that’s an earthdog title behind Reggie’s name, following his Agility Excellent and Agility Jumper titles.
Reggie is the first Australian Terrier to earn an AKC Endurance Earthdog title, and he did it in the least number of trials possible, Rife says. “He passed every trial to get to that.”
“About a year and a half ago, I thought I should give earthdog a try,” Rife explains. “I’m the kind of person who will go anywhere with my dog and try anything. He was a natural. There was nothing to train. I didn’t have to say, ‘You have to go in that hole. There’s a rat in there.’ It was all instinct.”
His mother Martha, however, is not interested in earthdog – at all. “She’ll hunt things in the woods, but she won’t even look at a rat in a cage,” Rife says.
Martha’s lack of interest is something Rife has “listened” to. If Martha only wants to hunt in the woods, that’s just fine with Rife. “One of my theories and policies is if the dog tells me he doesn’t want to do something, he doesn’t have to do it,” when it comes to performance events.
Neither Martha’s dam nor sire had earthdog titles, but “way back” in Reggie’s pedigree there’s a Master Earthdog.
“The fun thing for me is that I’m getting all my Australian Terrier friends interested in earthdog,” she says. In fact, she bugged her breed friends about it so much that some said, “If we go, will you stop bugging us?” She agreed, so 12 or 14 showed up at a single trial. The Australian Terriers made such a showing that someone asked if it was some kind of specialty.
Two of Reggie’s puppies are working on their earthdog titles too.
Reggie is a versatile guy. Rife handled him to his grand champion title with six Terrier Group wins. Plus, he’s currently working on his AKC master agility title, he has two legs on both his rally novice title and coursing ability test, and he’s going to be bred again in January 2013.
Rest assured that Rife isn’t pushing Reggie, like some moms push their kids in sports. She knows that Reggie loves all of these events.
“If the bond is there and you’re a fair trainer, all they want to do is what you tell them to do,” she says. “My theory is that if I ask him to do something and he does it, and then he asks me to do something, I do that. I try to reward him with things he wants to do, not just food or my praise.” Reggie’s favorite rewards are taking a walk in the woods and digging up a chipmunk hole.
During indoor training, one of the positive reinforcements Rife uses is taking Reggie outdoors to pee on a tree. “That’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ for not peeing on the course, not peeing in the building,” she says.
“I’ve just come to believe that any dog can be taught just about anything if you have a strong bond and your training techniques are the right way for that dog.”
Dr. Doolittle, indeed.