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Tampa dog academy, Animal Services at odds

TAMPA — Some call it the helicopter.

You hoist a dog off the ground by a choke chain and leash, then spin together. The airborne dog, revolving around you, fears for survival.

North Tampa dog trainer Clarke Inghram uses the move to establish dominance, saying it subdues even the most hostile animal.

But the American Humane Association and Association of Pet Dog Trainers have decried the practice as cruel.

Inghram landed in Hillsborough County Court last year defending the maneuver after he used it on a Labrador. A judge found he did not violate animal cruelty ordinances.

The complaint was one of several lodged against Inghram by Hillsborough County Animal Services, at odds with his Sit 'N Stay Dog Academy since April 2004, seven months after it opened.

In the last five years, the department pursued animal cruelty charges on four occasions. The academy also has been cited for nuisance barking and other minor infractions.

In the office of his Wilsky Boulevard training camp, Inghram tells a different story. He says Animal Services investigators have been on a "witch hunt" aimed at closing his business.

For every allegation, Inghram has an answer. For every answer, Animal Services has a retort. It's a back-and-forth that Inghram said could once again spill into the courtroom.

• • •

Civil charges against Inghram have twice resulted in fines.

An April 2004 citation says Zoe, a black schnauzer in his academy's care, died of heatstroke when left outdoors with inadequate shelter.

Inghram said a kidney condition contributed. He paid a $310 fine.

"Things happen with dogs," Inghram said. "It's like day care."

Six months later, 10 or more dogs were found confined in direct sunlight without water. Inghram paid $40.

Animal Services investigations manager Pam Perry called both punishments insufficient.

"As far as I am concerned, there is not a price on an animal," Perry said.

A February 2007 neglect complaint, involving a dog named E.J. who lost weight and came home dirty, didn't make it to court. The owners waited too long to seek a medical opinion, Perry said.

Inghram said there was no neglect.

E.J. "came in at 17 pounds, left at 15 pounds and should have been 12 pounds," he said.

• • •

It was August 2007 when dog owner Peter Castelli took his Labrador retriever Max to Inghram, planning to leave him for five weeks of training.

On a visit, he saw Inghram pull Max off the ground by his leash and spin him in a circle. Then, Castelli says, the trainer punched Max under the chin and the dog vomited.

"He said, 'I had to bring the dog under control,' " Castelli recalled.

Inghram said he used the spinning maneuver on Max but didn't punch him. Max became ill because he was dizzy and had just eaten.

In court on the cruelty to animals charge, Inghram told Judge Nick Nazaretian it was a viable training maneuver. Nazaretian found him not in violation.

Though angry, Castelli left Max with Inghram after he used the maneuver, but later had doubts and returned for the dog.

"How do you know? You need your dog trained and this guy's supposed to be an expert, so you give the guy a little leeway," he said.

• • •

Inghram got his start in the military. In 1969, he graduated from a dog training program at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where he said dogs learned to kill and do the work of five security officers.

For years, he trained dogs out of his home. Then, one holiday season, he noticed there were more dogs around than people.

Sit 'N Stay opened in 2003.

Now his multicolored pickup truck serves as a rolling advertisement for his business, adorned with images of children and their dogs.

Inghram, who has seven dogs of his own, offers boarding in addition to training.

His clientele includes professional athletes, such as former Buc Michael Pittman and John Grahame of the Lightning.

Inghram trains service dogs and attempts to rehabilitate dogs with severe aggression issues.

"I have a very loyal customer base," Inghram said. "If I were beating dogs and hurting dogs, I wouldn't be here."

Betty Valenti stands by his tactics. Her cavalier King Charles spaniel, Sir Bentley, has trained at Sit 'N Stay for a year.

She credits much of the dog's success in a recent agility competition to Inghram's obedience training.

Cindy Davis brought Inghram an unruly German shepherd. She hoped the dog could be trained to walk alongside her son, who has cerebral palsy. The dog now walks at the pace of his crutches, she said.

"It's amazing. We never thought this dog would be able to do this," said Davis, a veterinary technician in Tampa. "I refer people here all the time, and they have positive results."

• • •

On a weekday evening, Sit 'N Stay prepares to close as clients bustle in and out to pick up dogs from day care.

Asked about the helicopter move, Inghram summons his own miniature schnauzer, Pixie. Without prompting, he hooks a leash to her collar, spins around with her a few times, then settles her on the floor.

He reiterates the court decision: He was not found guilty of cruelty over the helicopter move.

"I had my day in court," he said.

Elsewhere, spinning dogs by the collar has fallen out of favor.

Jan Gribble, president of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors, said it should be used only in self-defense against an aggressive dog.

"Nothing controversial about the technique; it is animal abuse clear and simple," said Connie Howard, the former director of shelter services at the national American Humane Association.

Lackland Air Force Base reports its trainers don't use it.

Nor do most professional trainers, said Mychelle Blake of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, based in Greenville, S.C., which boasts nearly 6,000 members.

"A long, long time ago, in the early days of dog training, it was used," she said. "It's not a technique that anyone who is a professional would be using."

• • •

After five years of complaints, the relationship between Inghram and Animal Services has grown contentious.

"They seem to take great issue with the suggestion things are wrong, even when animals are in distress before their very eyes," agency spokeswoman Marti Ryan said.

Inghram admits their encounters haven't gone smoothly, but he also voices frustration.

Investigations manager "Pam Perry has never been out here, never talked to me or my clients," Inghram said. "The facts are all I ask for. It hurts that they have a vendetta against me."

Perry said no vendetta exists.

"We are answering legitimate concerns and complaints," Perry said. "We aren't out to get him and crucify him personally."

Animal Services isn't alone in its scrutiny of Inghram's academy.

Inghram used to belong to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

The group revoked his membership in May, based on complaints from other trainers, said Kellyann Conway-Payne, head of the board of directors when Inghram's status was put under review.

"I believe we had three professional members bring it to our attention, then (we) followed up with Animal Services," she said.

Conway-Payne said in her six years on the board, memberships were seldom taken away.

"It is not something that happens on a whim," she said.

Staff writer Steven Overly can be reached at soverly@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

Tampa dog academy, Animal Services at odds 07/26/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 26, 2009 8:17am]

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