UM Journalism Student
WATER VALLEY – A smoke-colored Blue Heeler named Boots leaps and barks as a stranger approaches, colliding with owner Doni Burt’s glass front door, rattling the pane to protect his turf.
Burt, an animal lover who works part-time to curb the behaviors of other owners’ dogs, appears from behind and gives Boots a one-word, low-spoken command – a vocalization really, accompanied by a choppy hand gesture.
And suddenly, magically, the dog is transformed from a strong, fierce protector into a gentle, harmless family pet.
“Don’t touch him. Don’t talk to him, and no eye contact,” she says, opening the front door with a smile. “Never give an over-excited canine attention.”
Burt is a non-professional dog behaviorist who offers her “K9 Reconditioning” services free of charge to troubled dogs throughout North Mississippi.
She doesn’t charge, Burt says, because she knows some people can’t afford it; and, ultimately, it is the dog that suffers from a dysfunctional lifestyle. She also does her work to honor the memory of a beloved family dog, Dino, who passed away last year.
Burt, a California native, lives on 130 acres just outside of Water Valley with a white picket fence where she helps people with their dogs when they are having behavioral problems. Her special way of communicating with canines has earned her the title, “The Dog Whisperer of the South.”
“I don’t know if I’d call myself that,” Burt says, laughing. “Dogs are like children. You just have to treat them with love, patience and consistency.”
Burt, a wife and grandmother, shocks clients with the grace and ease in which she can change a disobedient dog. She does it effortlessly, from teaching basic tricks to soothing the volatile aggression of a full-grown pit bull. When others have failed time and again, she succeeds, much to the delight of dog owners.
She projects a calm, steady energy as she relaxes in her tidy, sunlit sitting room interacting with five-year-old Boots.
Pictures of family members hang from the walls alongside pictures of her dogs, which, of course, are family to her as well. Her passion for man’s best friend is evident as she points out the hand-painted sign on the wall which reads, “Life is just better when I’m with my dogs.”
“I feel so passionately about this because we force animals into our world,” says Burt. “But it is very important that we understand their world as well.”
Her business card says Burt trains dogs as well as the humans who interact with them, which in turn helps the dogs.
“It’s not a business per se because I don’t charge. I do it out of the kindness of my heart,” Burt says. “Really, I do it if I sense I’m needed, for the dogs.”
Burt is so skillful that the Oxford-Lafayette Humane Society asks her to assist with some of their most unruly animals. Since offering her services to the public in January, she has helped around a dozen families understand their dogs’ unwanted behavior and improve their relationships.
One of her clients, 33-year-old Amy Tittle of Water Valley, says Burt has been helping her with her two “out of control, energetic” Australian Shepherd Border Collies for just over a month, and their progress has been astounding.
“Dogs just act differently in her presence,” Tittle explains. “Doni showed up and snapped her fingers and they just changed automatically. She doesn’t just make your dog behave; she teaches you to communicate with them. She helps you make owning a dog more enjoyable.”
Burt says her success in conditioning canines is rooted in the concept that dogs are animals first and playful, pet dogs second. She says that humans must embrace a pack mentality and become the leader of the dog’s pack, so that the dog can feed off of human emotion and energy.
“Dogs live in the moment. It is the humans that bring up the past, and the dog follows that,” Burt says, leaning down from her chair to scratch Boots behind his ears. “You have to be calm, collected and show them who is the alpha.”
In the 15 years she has spent working with dogs, she has gained some unforgettable friendships with them. One of these dogs, an Alaskan Noble named Dino, is the inspiration for the work she does.
Dino was Burt’s dog for 15 years. When Burt began to suffer from a medical ailment, they went through the difficult steps of certifying Dino as a service dog.
“We went everywhere together – airplanes, the grocery store, restaurants” Burt recalls. “He was such a big part of my life, and I miss him dearly.”
Dino passed away last September. Burt says she helps people with their dogs in memory of Dino, whom she lovingly refers to as the keeper of her heart and soul. She says she is still not over his death.
“The nights are hard, when I sit or lie and think,” she says, trailing off, turning to look at a picture of Dino above her mantel. “It’s been a tough time. But helping other people with their dogs makes me feel better.”
Burt has gone to great lengths to assist people with their dogs, and has driven hours to help them, a necessary step because she needs to see the human and the dog interacting, in their own territory.
“A lot of people can’t pay for this kind of help,” she says. “I don’t need any payment anyway. Helping the dog is my payment. And, of course, I do it for Dino.”
Burt says she and her husband decided it would be best to not get another dog after Dino passed away because of the pain it caused losing him. However, three weeks ago she began fostering a part whippet named Holly, who was dropped off at a humane society with her six puppies.
She is taking Holly in temporarily because she was concerned that the humane society was going to have to put her down.
“I’m growing fonder of her everyday,” Burt says, a glint in her eye. “It started as a temporary situation, but that might have to change. I think my husband is thinking the same thing.”
Burt is excited about continuing her work with dogs in the future. She says she is always open to meeting new people and dogs in need of assistance and modestly claims that anyone can do what she does.
“People can do what I do if they just change their way of thinking,” says Burt. “You must be calm and assertive so your dog will pick up on that energy. If you do that, there’s no reason you can’t have a long, loving relationship together with your dog.”