Dogman of Wabash County shares 45 years of dogs changing lives

by Kalie Ammons


While the Dogman of Wabash may sound a bit like an evil creature from a horror film, students in Dog Club and obedience training feel he is more of a superhero.

“Gary has a gift that I’ve never seen in anyone else before as far as all the different temperaments of dogs, being able to read the dogs and know what works best to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish,” said Erin Hickman-Cohee, six year 4-H Dog Club veteran.

Gary Henderson has been training dogs with 4-H since 1969. Henderson currently uses his talents to teach an adult obedience course.

As with anything worthwhile, successful members explain it takes more than two hours a week to perfectly train a dog.

“It is a full time thing; I ended up not doing any other 4-H projects because it was such a full time thing,” Hickman-Cohee said. “It was very, very rewarding and it builds an experience with your animal that you don’t really have otherwise. It’s definitely worthwhile.”

With the help of Henderson, Hickman-Cohee was able to take her Bichon FrisÚs to the State Fair and win first place out of 135 her very first year.

“I saw some of the most aggressive dogs I have ever seen and Gary was able to help kids who were about the same size as the dogs be able to control them,” said Hickman-Cohee. “My dog was only like twenty pounds, and she was very shy, and he helped bring her out of the shyness.”

After watching Henderson teach, it’s easy to see that his ability to read character extends beyond that of dogs.

“The first thing I want to do if a child comes in, well, see that little man with the big dog?,” said Henderson, his eye caught by a little boy struggling with a German Shepherd. “He’s fighting pretty hard. For every child that comes in this room we have a goal for that child. It’s not necessarily what everybody would think, but for me, you can see maybe some issues there, our job is to bring that issue out.”

Henderson explained how just a little confidence boost would help the boy realize his ability to control the dog and calm his frustrations.

“I’ve never met him, but I can tell you by how he’s acting that he needs it,” said Henderson. “And God has a tendency to put these dogs together with the right people, I don’t care who they are, it’s just the way things work out.”

Henderson describes how children use dogs to help them through difficult times in their lives, whether it is the stress from a pressure to be a high achieving student or dealing with a difficult foster family situation.

“A lot of times we have foster kids bring their dogs, parents will bring their foster children in with their dogs and they form such a bond and they listen and they grow together and it brings the child out, whatever issues they have because they’re able to talk to the dog,” said Henderson. “I like that. I got this thing in my head that no child be left behind.”

Henderson relates to the children who confide in their dogs.

“I had ulcers at 15 years old, I grew up during the Vietnam War with my brother being in the Vietnam War, so inside I was probably all, tightened up, you know. So, the dog, I’m a little different, people tell me I’m different, dogs are really what brought me out and gave me someone to talk to and listen,” said Henderson.

Henderson then walked over to the boy and adjusted his grip on the dog, explaining to him how to praise him after he does something right.

“You take a child who has issues at home or whatever and they bond with their dog and the dog gives them so much confidence, and he needs it,” said Henderson after he left the smiling boy.

Any money raised from these classes goes to an account for the 4-H Dog Club and the animal shelter. The non-for-profit “Dog Works” was started by Henderson, Ann Scanlon and Amy Fisher.

“I’ve always loved dogs, I’ve always loved kids,” said Scanlon. “I moved to this area a little over ten years ago, and I got involved with the 4-H Dog Club at that time, actually through my sister who’s the agility leader for 4-H Dog Club.

“I started volunteering and Gary and I and Amy Fisher started a non-for-profit, Dog Works, to help assist the 4-H County Dog Club and the animal shelter to help dogs. They’re great people; it really is a good group of people.”

“The reason for starting this class is to raise the money for the kids and for whatever issues we can help,” said Henderson. “The number one thing is the child, whatever that child needs from us, that’s what we give.”

“They were able to send me to state last year,” said Tori Plath, an interning student with the Club.

While working with the dogs and kids a little over ten years ago, Henderson received seemingly disastrous news.

“Something happened in 2003, I knew that there was something with me that was not right, so I was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer,” said Henderson. “I handed the obedience class over and that gave me the opportunity to start the adult class. Obviously, I’m still here. Yes, I did have stage 4 cancer, it was a rough road there for a while, but they’re doing a fantastic job with the kids.”

Henderson specifically seeks out caring and loving people to work with the club.

“We constantly have kids coming up to us wanting us to hug them, to hold them, wanting constant approval or whatever they need and that’s what we do, so I have to search for the right people,” said Henderson. “Tori Plath is a very special young lady, I can tell she has what it takes. You have to learn how to train the dog, but more importantly, you have to learn how to be with the child.”

Henderson finds ways to parallel lessons learned in the course with life in general. If a child is struggling with shyness, stress or anger issues, they can work with the dog to deal with them in a healthy way. Teaching a dog to be well-behaved gives confidence to the student. Those involved in the course have to be consistent with their pets, and Henderson makes sure the student successfully completes a training command on their own to show that anyone can do something they put their mind to

“The dogs know the commands after about four weeks. It usually takes people about six, eight or ten weeks to fully understand them. But we work with them and they get it down,” said Henderson.

Henderson also stresses how talking to your pet helps so many children throughout their lives. In at least one case it seemed like a dream come true.

“We’ve had a foster family, and the daughter was so hard because of what she went through. This dog brought her out and it was the first time she ever said ‘I love you,’” said Henderson.

“She knelt down by the dog and she couldn’t understand why the dog kept coming after her and I knew the dog, it wouldn’t do a sit-stay, it kept coming to her, and you know, I messed up, I said, ‘it’s just like your dad, when you’re scared, you need your dad.’ And she said, ‘I’m not afraid of nothing.’ I knew then, oh man, Lord, I messed up there, how am I going to get out of it? And I said, ‘Well, the dog needs you. She just needs to be loved.’ So she talked to him for a few minutes and patted him.

The next week, the dog kept coming at her, and this is an experienced dog, she never broke sit-stays, and she said, ‘Well what’s wrong now?’ And I said, ‘She just needs some loving.’ And her parents were standing behind her and you see this little girl knelt down and put her arm around her and you see her mouth the words ‘I love you,’ and that’s the first time that little girl has ever said that.”

Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted the unconditional love felt by pets. Henderson, Scanlon and Fisher have found a way to try to return their love through Dog Works. The organization helps with vet bills along with the cost of Dog Club itself.

Posted on 2014 Jan 28