San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fiebre del Oro: Canine Reform School with Love

A TRIP to Fiebre del Oro, a school for dogs nearParaíso, Cartago, was all it took for Snuffy to channel yearsof bad memories of an abusive past into a rehabilitatedfuture that took his negative energy to produce positiveactivities.Snuffy, the Tico Times office dog, is a white-and-milk chocolatebrown rare Collie-Spaniel-Scottie-Labrador-Sausage cross with all the hair and energy of these breedscombined. Yes, Snuffy’s a mutt, and was adopted by thenewspaper some four years ago after he wandered in offthe street seeking shelter from the rain and captivatedeveryone with his endearing under bite and soulful eyes.“His cuteness and playfulness made it easier to overlookhis less lovable habits, such as occasionally snappingat feet he didn’t approve of, attacking all visiting dogs –even puppies and seeing-eye dogs – and falling intogrouchy funks,” said Dery Dyer, publisher of The TicoTimes.But when Snuffy bit one of his adoring Tico Times fansin an apparently unprovoked fit of pique, the newspaperstaff became alarmed. Snuffy’s veterinarian, Dr. EduardoBitter, ruled out physical causes and referred him to trainerOscar Cordero for a psychological evaluation atCordero’s school, Fiebre del Oro.Three days later, the trainer called with his diagnosis.Snuffy was highly nervous, the result of having sufferedabuse as a puppy, and his snapping and biting were “legitimateself-defense.” Complicating his case was the factthat he’s a dominant dog whose 50-some doting admirersat the newspaper office had spoiled him rotten. He hadcome to believe he was the boss.It was reform school for Snuffy.CORDERO explained that training in obedience andagility would not only help straighten Snuffy out, it wouldrebuild his self-esteem and calm his nerves.Fiebre del Oro, located on two hectares high up in themountains overlooking a valley and creek, specializes incorrecting bad or aggressive behavior in animals – dogswho would bite or fight walking on a leash now jumpthrough hoops and combat obstacle courses with ease.The reformation of these dogs is attributed to trainerCordero, who seems to have a magical way with them.“He likes the dogs so much, he’ll sometimes get up at6 a.m. and will still be up at midnight talking to owners andshowing them the dogs,” said Cordero’s wife, Patricia.From the moment he meets with the dog and owner,Cordero is preparing for rehabilitation. The process beginswith an evaluation that explores the expressed problems ofthe owners. Based on the nature of the dog’s problems,Cordero will recommend a training schedule for thecanine.BUT training isn’t limited to those with four legs; ownerstoo must take an active role in the rehabilitation of theanimals.“I try to get them (owners) to come here at least once aweek,” said Cordero, 43. “Owners need to see what goeson and take part. It’s as much a learning experience forthem as it is for the dog.”Cordero starts the training by giving the dog time toadjust to his new surroundings and “take care of business”– for Snuffy, it meant doing so all over the plastic tube usedfor obstacle course activities.Then Cordero starts simple.“I ask them to give me eye-contact, using the command‘watch me’ and give them a treat if they pay attention,”Cordero said. “The body language of a dog is exact, it tellsyou everything.”And from there, a working relationship is born as thedog learns basic “sit,” “stay” and “heel” commands on tomore advanced tricks, such as running obstacle courses andover balance beams.“The most important thing is that the dog be happywith its trainer,” he said.AND for Cordero, the training isn’t just about learningnew tricks, he also incorporates love into the program. Heoften strokes the dogs, praises them, grooms them andensures they are clean and healthy with weekly visits froma veterinarian. His students reciprocate by joyfully followinghim around and cheerfully obeying his commands.As you walk toward the amazing mountaintop view,you pass the large open metal building that serves asCordero’s office. The building houses a tall table insidewhere Cordero cleans the animals and where another partof the training begins for the disobedient dogs.“You have to get them to trust you, and that means theymust let me handle them while I’m cleaning them.”Cordero explained as he demonstrated how far Snuffy hascome since he arrived. “You see how I am brushing Snuffyunder his front leg, he just let me start doing that.”The animals stand on a three-foot tall table and areharnessed by the neck to keep them from jumping off or biting. After a dog is properly trained theharness is no longer necessary.Well-shaded and ventilated dog houses(where dogs bark with excitement as theysee a stranger approaching) are located inthe large yard past Cordero’s office. Smallerdogs, who are sometimes held in their ownsmall fenced-in areas, run around in circlescompeting for the attention of those walkingby.THE change in the dogs can be seen ina matter of a week or two at the center.Carolina Vanegas, a sales representativeat The Tico Times who used to walk Snuffydaily, visited the dog twoweeks after his trainingstarted.“It’s amazing,” shesaid. “You can reallynotice the difference.Before he would never lethimself be combed, andnow he’s getting alongmuch better with otherdogs.”After six weeks atFiebre del Oro, Snuffy isdue to graduate soon.Although Cordero saidhis student hasn’t progressed quite as fast ashe would have liked, the unlikely littlechamp now enthusiastically sits, heels,stays, lies down and performs a whole arrayof agility feats, just like his younger, better bredschoolmates. He even gets along withCordero’s four cats. Tico Times staffers arelearning how to relate to the new, improvedSnuffy, and look forward to his return as acivilized office canine.The school is also home for many purebredsfrom throughout the country, althoughthe training itself differs little from that of amixed breed. Generally, Cordero said, purebredsare easier to work with because mixedbreeds’ history is usually unknown and theyare more likely to have been badly treated.“In agility competitions, how the doglooks doesn’t matter, just the size,” he said.CORDERO’S hard work shows professionally,as his dogs took the top three honorsin the agility section of the Pan-Americandog show held in Guatemala in July.For dogs who aren’t competing in professionalelite competitions, Cordero beganorganizing informalagility competitions.These began on a smallscale in Paraíso, but hehopes that there will bemany more mixed-breeddogs entering the competition.“I think people inour agility group willrealize that dogs are fabulous,not because oftheir beauty, but becauseof what they can do forus,” Cordero said,adding that he also trains service dogs forthe handicapped, including autistic children.“What makes me the most proud istraining dogs for people with disabilities.”FIEBRE del Oro is truly a family business.Cordero’s three daughters help train andmanage the dogs, while his wife runs theadministrative side.“All the family helps out a little,” saidCordero’s wife, Patricia.It started in 1981 when he joined withGolden Retriever trainers to develop thecenter. Over the years, it has grown not asmuch in size, but in quality as they haveproduced many Central American champions,he said.Although the school is generally forboarders, Cordero also organizes individualsessions for those who can’t part with theirfurry friends. The center also has dogs forsale and offers boarding for animals whilethe owners go out-of-town.The consultation costs ¢15,000 ($33)and the training programs start at ¢45,000($100) depending on the number of hoursand whether it’s a boarding situation.For more information on Fiebre del Oro,call 574-7985 or 382-0840.(Tico Times Reporters KatherineStanley and Miguel Lasala contributed tothis report.)

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