Auntie Chris' Pampered Pets is packed away in a tiny white building trimmed in pale blue, just off Fillmore's main street. Adjoining the shop is a thin slice of lawn where Miss Piggy, a blind cocker spaniel with fur the color of cardboard, romps and occasionally bumps into the fence. Inside, dog training manuals are propped up by dusty bookends shaped like Snoopy. The place smells like wet dog.
Chris Ellsworth, the shop's owner, is the only dog groomer in town--the person Fillmore folks visit when they want their dogs bathed, brushed or trained.
Dog training is a side business for Ellsworth, but it's one that lends the most adventure to her enterprise.
"It's their first group class," said Ellsworth, getting out of her car at a nearby cul-de-sac, where five dogs await her instruction. "Don't expect much. The first class is always, well, insane, hysterical, unpredictable."
The dogs had recently completed what Ellsworth, 38, called "puppy kindergarten," the basics, which help curb barking, chewing, jumping and weak bladders.
At the sight of Ellsworth, five dogs dragged four owners down driveways to an neat asphalt circle that formed the cul-de-sac. "This is going to be a long 10 weeks," Ellsworth said under her breath.
The dogs are fence-mates and belong to four families who moved to the cul-de-sac in 1988. Coincidently, the owners all began purchasing dogs about five months ago to round out their growing families. There seemed to be enough material in the scenario for a television sitcom. "Married . . . With Dogs" is how one neighbor put it.
Ellsworth trains dogs using guidelines set by the American Kennel Club, a nationwide registry for purebred dogs and dog shows. Her shop also serves as Fillmore's makeshift canine adoption agency. "People are always dumping litters of six or eight over the fence," said Ellsworth, who charges $50 for 10 one-hour classes.
After a chat about "taking dominance over your dog or else your dog will take dominance over you," Ellsworth demonstrated the first lesson. Rosie, Ellsworth's keeshound, was the model pupil.
After executing commands of stand, sit and stay, Rosie smartly trotted around the circle at the command of heel. The students, Annie, Shelby, Ben, Jem and Pepsi, yawned and scratched their ears.
"OK, we're going to try the heel command," said Ellsworth, snapping Rosie's leash on her palm. "Just dive into it. Ready? And forward!" Annie, a Dalmatian, hit the asphalt and went belly-up. Jem, a plump St. Bernard the size of a fire hydrant, and Pepsi, a chunky Labrador retriever, wouldn't budge and laid down when Ellsworth said, "And halt!"
Rosie surveyed the group from her center position in the circle.
"This is work," Ellsworth said. "This is the first day."
The dogs, Ellsworth said, were just being dogs. It was up to the owners to give their charges stronger commands.
"Put some real drama in your voice," Ellsworth said. "When you say no, sit or heel, say it like you mean it."
The group tried the commands again. Although the soft-spoken owners were clearly the source of all confusion, Ellsworth made Pepsi, the chubby, 4-month-old Labrador, an example for the group.
Ellsworth walked the circle with Pepsi in tow, yanking the choke chain when the perplexed dog lagged behind or wandered off. "HEEL PEPSI, HEEL!" Ellsworth commanded, patting her leg. Pepsi yelped repeatedly as she was yanked in. Other owners followed Ellsworth's example, and their dogs quickly learned the command. Pepsi was still having difficulty. "C'mon, everybody else is doing it," Ellsworth pleaded.
"Would a treat help?" asked Kathy LeBard, Pepsi's owner, who was splitting her attention between training Pepsi and looking after Michael, her 7-year-old son, who romped the neighborhood with friends.
"She hasn't done anything right yet to deserve a treat," Ellsworth said flatly.
Ellsworth squatted to eye Pepsi. "No, no one's going to help you." Pepsi still wasn't getting it. After a few more minutes of leash yanking, Pepsi--with a kind of blind obedience common to rabbits held frozen by glaring car headlights--began to heel.
" Good girrrrl!" Ellsworth purred. "Good girrrrl!"
As the lesson ended, Ellsworth encouraged the owners to spend 20 minutes a day reinforcing the lesson. "But with Pepsi, go slowly," she said to LeBard. "You might want to try two, 10-minute sessions."
"I'm really impressed with the results," said LeBard to Ellsworth afterward, scanning the neighborhood for her son who was out past bedtime. "Do you do this for kids, too?"