MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 24th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a visit to an unlikely dog trainer.
Now yesterday, we reported on challenges that people with criminal records face after they serve their time and earn their release. It’s hard to find a well-paying job.
It’s hard to find a job, period. Perceptions follow ex-offenders that they haven’t really changed.
REICHARD: WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg met a man like that in Springfield, Missouri. He’s got a long rap sheet. But that’s not who he is anymore, thanks to God, a mentor, and some of man’s best friends.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Inside the Howliday Inn, it smells like dog food mixed with a tad bit of wet dog. Brandon Gerhardt says that smell doesn’t bother him. He has buzzed brown hair, black glasses and a serious demeanor. That is, until he’s talking to a dog.
GERHARDT: So back here is where the pack is. Let me peek my head in there and let them know that you’re going to poke your head and—you guys, okay?
Gerhardt opens a heavy metal door. Inside a large room, nearly 50 dogs, big and small, roam around a gated enclosure. Gerhardt calls this “the pack.” But there’s no barking or whining, just complete silence.
Four trainers stand around the perimeters occasionally snapping their fingers at the dogs. Gerhardt says the trainer’s snaps are telling the dogs to stay quiet.
GERHARDT: Most daycares you go to, there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of barking. We don’t like to allow that because we like to keep the pack safe and calm, especially when new guests or people they don’t know come in, just so there’s, there is no chance of anything going wrong. Once you leave, we allow all the dogs to start playing again.
Sure enough, when Gerhardt re-enters alone he invites the dogs to greet him.
GERHARDT: Hey, girl. Hey, girl. Hey, Kelly. Girl. Good girl. Good girl. [Sound of dogs]
The Howliday Inn is a a doggy daycare and training center. It’s here that Gerhardt got his unlikely start as a trainer five years ago.
For most of his 20s, Gerhardt struggled with drug addiction. During his third stint in prison, he decided it was time to change. Why? His wife was pregnant.
GERHARDT: When I was in prison, I got my GED, worked hard. When I got out, I thought I had it figured out, but quickly realized that I didn’t, and I went right back to that lifestyle for probably a year.
Gerhardt reached his breaking point when his wife decided to leave with their children.
GERHARDT: I cried out to God in middle of the night, at probably 2 o’clock in the morning: “Please help me fix this.” The very next day my wife came back. I got a job. I’ve never touched another drug again in my life, and that’s been seven years ago.
But because of his rap sheet, Gerhardt had trouble finding a well-paying job. After working several low-paying jobs without benefits, he was ready for a career with more opportunities. But those jobs were hard to find.
GERHARDT: I pretty much thought I had to stick with minimum wage or just slightly above minimum wage work just because of the life that I used to live and the criminal charges I have on my record.
But then, Gerhardt met the owner of the Howliday Inn at his church. That man took Gerhardt under his wing and offered him a job.
GERHARDT: He just taught me a lot about business and about customer service, about the trade of working with dogs, ‘bout how to talk to people about what God wants you to do in your life as far as tithing and being faithful to God. That really transformed my life.
Gerhardt says he fell in love with training dogs, especially abused dogs or dogs that owners have given up on.
GERHARDT: I have a big part in rehabilitating dogs that otherwise would not have no chance. And that’s kind of what God’s doing in my life. He’s constantly rehabilitating me. When a big part of my life. I didn’t feel like I had a chance either, and I wouldn’t if it wasn’t for God.
GERHARDT: Do you want to go work with the puppy? Yeah! OK.
Gerhardt demonstrates some of his training techniques with his pit bull puppy, Otto.
GERHARDT: As far as just basic commands, you can do sit, down, stay, stay.
Gerhardt drops a small treat on the ground. He tests Otto’s will power to walk away from the treat without eating it.
GERHARDT: Okay. Leave it, leave it.
The first time, Otto instantly gobbles it.
GERHARDT: He’s still a puppy, so he’ll still try to test me every once in a while, but I’ll do it a couple more times just so it always ends the right way.
The next time, Otto bobs his head down, but a quick snap of Gerhardt’s fingers brings his attention back. Otto walks away from the treat.
GERHARDT: Good boy. Good boy.
Gerhardt likes to use rewards and affection to train his dogs. Not punishment. Even though sometimes working with dogs can be frustrating.
GERHARDT: Probably the most difficult behavior that you deal with is fear, anxiety, nervousness. Those are very tough because you just have to take what the dog can give you. It’s a very slow process of getting the dog to trust you and love you.
The business only uses word-of-mouth advertising, but it’s grown to become one of the largest doggy daycare and training centers in the tri-state area.
Soon, Brandon Gerhardt and his wife are going to purchase the business. That’s even though Gerhardt discovered that while his heart loves dogs, his body does not.
As Gerhardt pets his puppy Otto, he points to an angry red rash on his bicep.
GERHARDT: I’m actually allergic to dogs. I’m breaking out right now, just him being with me. But it’s what I do. It’s what I love, and I’m not going to change it.
As time goes on, Gerhardt is beginning to share his story even though it could possibly scare away customers. He’s telling it because he wants people to know that God really can teach an old dog new tricks.
GERHARDT: God’s opened a lot of doors in my life and it’s given me a lot of knowledge, and I’ve got God’s favor, and at the end of the day everything will be okay.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Springfield, Missouri.