By Melissa Mendonca
Dog Expert Gary Watts Trains for ServiceStory by Melissa Mendonca Photo by Eric Leslie
When 41-year-old Gary Watts was young, he had a typical boyhood obsession with dogs and puppies. Unable to have a real one of his own, he began collecting miniature glass dog figurines with his allowance money. His collection grew to more than 500, along with his knowledge of dog breeds and characteristics.
“I pretty much knew at an early age that I wanted to be around dogs and be a dog trainer,” says the owner of Envision K-9, a Red Bluff service offering beginning to advanced obedience training for dogs.
He was elated when, as an a dult, he was able to get his first dog, a boxer puppy. “I made the typical mistakes that people do—scolding the dog when it was something I caused,” he admits.
While Gary’s early years were filled with typical experiences—from a boyhood obsession with dogs to rookie dog training moves—the ensuing years have been anything but typical. His is a story of perseverance, patience, love, and, well, dogged determination.
“I lost my identity,” says the Iraq War veteran of injuries he’s sustained from combat. “Now I’m somebody else and I have to learn to deal with it.” Life for Gary and his family—wife Danelle and 6½-year-old daughter McKenna—is a day-to-day journey through the ramifications of post-traumatic stress disorder and a closed-head brain injury that leaves him unable to remember many things or organize himself consistently.
And yet, his childhood dream of being a dog trainer has been realized and is even supporting his healing journey. “It relieves my stress,” he says. “If I’ve had a bad day, as soon as I’ve got a dog in front of me, I’m good.”
“Dog training is great for him,” says Danelle, also an Iraq War veteran. “With Gary, animals keep him calm.” They also keep him focused. His skills with dogs, honed through a 2½-year vocational rehabilitation program with renowned dog trainer Carl Reifs in Colorado, have enabled him to train a service dog for McKenna that can save her life on a daily basis.
McKenna has Mitochondrial DNA Deletion, an extremely rare disease that most children don’t survive past age 3. Gary has trained Jagger, a tiny Papillion-Chihuahua rescue dog, to detect fluctuations in McKenna’s blood sugar levels. The family sleeps better each night with Jagger at McKenna’s side, ready to announce changes in her body chemistry that could prove lethal. In McKenna’s eyes, Jagger is a treasured companion who accompanies her to monthly appointments at Stanford Medical Center and seems to revel in her rambunctious play.
McKenna’s chubby cheeks, wide smile, deep dimples and dancing eyes belie her time spent in hospitals and doctors’ offices. “She’s got more frequent flier miles than people who travel for a living,” says Danelle of her daughter’s many life flight trips. Jagger offers comfort, security and safety, but just as important, he allows McKenna to run and jump and laugh with him. She loses herself in joyous play with him, and he never turns on her.
Gary’s skill and story prompted Tehama County’s Chief Probation Officer Richard Muench to bring Gary and his dog, Abby, into the Juvenile Justice Center to model compassion, discipline, integrity and consistency to juvenile offenders. Once a week, Gary and Abby volunteer to go through training techniques with the young people. “They see somebody other than who they see every day and they get to see a dog,” says Gary. He has noticed immediate bonds between some kids and Abby, as well as a coming around of those who were initially reluctant.
The family recognizes that illness and injury have been barriers to inclusion in many day-to-day activities with others. However, as McKenna’s health has improved, she has been able to take ballet lessons, which has opened a door to a world of new friends for all. Gary’s dog training business has grown as word has gotten out about his tremendous talent.
“I’m super motivated. I love being this busy,” he says. “We’ve learned to figure things out,” says Danelle of the coping and organizational skills the family has developed. “We’ve struggled with it, we’ve battled with it, but we’ve found little ways to deal with it.”
And while they value sharing their story of Gary’s brain injuries because it promotes understanding of other injured veterans, they are quick to note that it is not the draw to their business. Says Danelle, “He’s saying, ‘Come to me because I’m a good dog trainer and I want to make your life better.’” •
Envision K-9 (530) 529-5465