Francesca, an Italian greyhound, will be two years old in September. “She’s a beauty, she stops traffic — really,” says Frank Smith, an LA-based film exec who owns her with husband Marco Leone, and may be a little biased. “But the breed is kind of overexcited and hyperactive, so we knew training was going to be very important.”
The couple wanted their dog to be able to handle frequent transfers between their two homes, be well-behaved when eating out at restaurants, and remain calm when entertaining strangers. Through word of mouth, they found their answer in the 28-year-old coach Michael Hill.
Hill is one of a new generation of dog whisperers who specialize in helping a discreet elite of wealthy Americans who rely on her for anything dog-related. Whether it’s teaching a pup to stay calm on a private plane (making it easier to keep those cream rugs spotless) or helping older dogs survive the encroachment on their territory that summer galas will bring, Hill and his kind cater to a very specific set of four-legged needs.
When it came to Francesca, for example, Smith and Leone’s love of entertaining at home was central to their education. “We have a lot of formal lunches by the pool, and you have to have a dog that doesn’t annoy anyone.”
says Smith. “Michael teaches dogs to adapt to the owner’s lifestyle. We liked that about him.”
To keep Francesca from chasing after well-heeled guests, Hill advised the couple to leave their spoiled pooch upstairs until all the guests arrived. “Then the right time to introduce her to the party was later, on a leash,” explains Hill. “Then you have an exit strategy with a nurse on call to take her away when she’s ready to stop attending the event.”
She even completed restaurant training during a field trip with Hill and the couple for a quick al fresco lunch to acclimate. “Another couple walked in and looked over,” says Leone, “and without hesitation, Michael said, ‘We’re still training that dog — do you mind sitting at a different table?'”
Often clients teach Hill from the start – in other words, they hire him to find and then train the dogs that come into their homes. “I call myself a matchmaker and I look at the impact of that kind of lifestyle — for example, living in LA, New York, and Paris,” says Hill. For his wealthiest clients, he often recommends sporting or hunting dogs, breeds that are genetically predisposed to looking for clues from their owners. Take the English Pointer he just placed with a pair. “They love golden retrievers, but a partner is an artist and it just didn’t suit them artistically – the style and the looks – so I surprised them with it,” says Hill.
More difficult for the jet-set lifestyle, he warns, are terriers (“They’re pure instinct, unaffected by their person — if she’s furry and moves, they’ll hunt her down and kill her”) and bulldogs, with their innate stubbornness and frequent Breathing problems that make flying more difficult. “The French can’t even be shipped as cargo, and you have to teach them how to manage stress,” says Hill. Some smaller dogs can be antisocial and less comfortable in homes where entertainment is a part of everyday life. “Chihuahuas are emotionally monogamous and their whole world revolves around their one person; they can hardly stand other people,” he laughs.
Hill will take in clients’ dogs when they are on longer trips. He has even started sitting on the dog for clients at large events. A client who was getting married in Napa flew Hill in over the weekend to take care of his dog. The wedding planner recommended his services, which has led to a regular part-time job at such events. “Lots of strangers, flashing lights, lots of different houses – they have to stay calm,” he explains.
That was Karen Silverman’s problem. She lives in the Hamptons on an oceanfront estate in Wainscott, a full squat where she often entertains. That was a challenge for her Yorkie, Princess Isadora (call her Izzy). “The gardener came to water the plants and she immediately attacked him through his pants and boots. Whenever people worked here, she would bark,” Silverman recalls. Then she turned to bash dibraa New York-based dog trainer who, like Hill, also has a blue-chip client base.
Dibra suggested to Silverman that if the dog’s barking got out of control, they grab a pot and bang it hard with a wooden spoon; It was so effective at quelling her excitability, she says, that now Izzy stops barking whenever she sees Silverman reaching for a pot. Dibra also worked with Silverman’s daughter, who often rides planes with her Frenchie; the puppy had resisted all attempts to be lured into a holdall. “At the end of that session, the dog went straight in and lay down on command,” says Silverman, still slightly stunned.
Dibra’s approach to entertainment is novel: He says you should think of your dog as a co-host at every party you throw — it helps calm him mentally and make him less concerned about encroaching on his territory. The biggest problem at most parties, Bash says, aren’t the animals; Rather, it is the increasingly tipsy people who often smuggle hors d’oeuvres to dogs, even when asked not to feed them. “One of my customers was so frustrated with this incident and asked me what to do, so I said to tell the customers that the dog has a stomach problem and if you feed him the wrong food there will be diarrhea all over the place.” he says.
Dibra also prepares animals for seasonal changes, whether it’s skiing in Aspen or heading east to spend the summer at the beach. “It’s like a vote to make sure they behave better – we could walk up and down the seafront so they don’t smell the salt water and lose track of where their people are,” he explains. Pool preparation is also important. “It’s a symphony of weirdness when everyone jumps in the pool and you have to teach the dogs how to get out and how to swim — every dog has to have an oar or a tail to swim with.” After a client’s basset hound in hers Pool drowned, Dibra was tasked with training his replacement to avoid the water at all costs.
Sonny Kilfoyle has worked on similar challenges. The Hamptons-based trainer and breeder runs Saltaire hounds with his wife Danielle. “Not all dogs should swim – I wouldn’t put a bulldog in there as their legs are too short and their bodies too heavy,” he warns. He also enjoys training dogs in the sea to better deal with currents and undercurrents. “I remember once taking an older dog in Peconic Bay that happened to be deaf and I threw a ball out about 75 yards and he went towards it,” says Kilfoyle, “the current would take him and I had to jump in the water and get him out because he couldn’t hear my warnings.”
Kilfoyle also notes that the end of summer is a crucial time for pets who have spent months in recreational areas, whether it’s Martha’s Vineyard or Mackinac Island. “A dog gets used to being free roaming, has a carefree attitude about it, and then has to go back into town – that can have serious consequences,” he says. “You have to take training seriously if you want to go back and forth in places like this. Luckily, 1% guys tend to be very smart people and naturally competitive. They want to do a good job in everything, including training.”
That certainly applies to Smith, who owns Francesca. He proudly recalls an incident that he cites as ultimate proof of Hill’s influence. He, Leone, and their dog were sitting on the beach at a five-star hotel in Santa Barbara; Francesca lay quietly on Smith’s lap as he sipped on a martini. “The next day we were walking through the hotel – we didn’t have her with us – and a woman stopped us and said, ‘Do you have an Italian greyhound? It’s what I’ve wanted my whole life: a dog on my lap while I sip a martini. Who’s your coach?’”