Sabrina Watts

Pacifican Sabrina Watts, a graduate of Animal Behavior College, started her dog training business Good Dog For Life in 2005. It became her full-time gig within six years. In addition to dog training, Good Dog For Life offers boarding services and fitness packages that include Coastside hikes.

Watts has a 9-year-old daughter, and she is also mom to Kaya, an affable black Labrador, and Luka, an attention-grabbing Cane Corso. Watts had her first dog, Patches, as a child, and when Watts entered the juvenile justice system in her early teens, Patches became the only constant in her life. While completing a court-mandated drug rehabilitation program at Daytop Village in Redwood City, the tenacious Watts successfully petitioned to keep her dog. After rehab, she had no family to go home to and became a resident at Daybreak, a transitional living program for homeless teenagers in Redwood City. Patches moved with her.

As an adult, Watts first worked at San Mateo County Animal Control so that she could help animals in crisis. Her experiences as a humane officer eventually parlayed into her current career as a professional dog trainer.

Coastside Magazine’s April Seager talked with Watts about the human-canine bond, dog training methods and making sure our four-legged companions live their best lives.

Tell me a little bit about your life with Patches.

I had her from (age) 8 to 23. She was a Heinz 57 little border collie mutt. Daytop took my dog for a minute and they put her in an animal shelter. I went to the director at that time, and I was, like, “They put my dog in the shelter. I will run. I will live on the streets with my dog.” The maintenance guy took me down to the shelter, and they let me have my dog in rehab. It changed my life.

Later, my dog kept getting in a fight with another dog at rehab, and she was going to have to stay in a kennel. My Daytop counselor, who I still talk to, took her. She stayed with him until I could find a place to live after rehab where I could have her. And when I didn’t have money for dog food, (my probation officer) would never give me money, but she showed up at the (Daytop) shelter in Redwood City and gave me dog food. At the time, I was 17 and I was still in high school five days a week. I could only work 2 ½ days and I made $5.75 an hour — so it wasn’t a lot of money.

What makes the bond between a child and a dog so special?

My dog was always my safe place growing up. My dog did everything with me. Patches hit the mountains with me. She went to the beach with me. She slept in my bed. Kids grow up with their dogs, you know? Especially if their parents are distracted, kids are going to be in the yard with the dogs. Dogs will be on the trampoline with them. They’ll be in their playhouse with them — as long as the dog is a kid dog and it’s not an independent breed that wants nothing to do with the kid. Like, Kaya is my dog, but she’ll go and be with (my 9-year-old daughter) all day. (My daughter) will drag her around and do everything. Luka won’t leave me. He’s, like, “That’s my mom. That’s my person.”

You’ve worked a lot with kids in your career. How did that get started?

I was in dog training school when I was a humane officer, and I had ideas about working with kids and dogs. I went to someone on the board of directors of St. Francis of Assisi Church (in East Palo Alto), which had an afterschool program, and I said, “Hey, I want to do dog training with the kids, and I want to bring dogs from the animal shelter.” So, I started working with the kids there with dogs from the shelter and also my own dogs. We would do a three-day program. The kids would sign up, and we’d do dog grooming, dog training and obedience. And for any kind of holiday event, we would bring the dogs. We’d dress them up in outfits and play with the kids on Halloween and Christmas. I got to see kids that were in this afterschool program for four or five years grow up there. And they got to grow up with my dogs. East Palo Alto just kind of wrapped me up. I just wanted to do something there because the need was there. I’d grown up here (in Pacifica), and so I just had never been in a community with so much need.

Later, I also brought dogs from Pets In Need, a no-kill animal shelter in Redwood City, every Saturday, and did training with the kids at Daytop. So I went full circle.  

What is your basic approach when teaching families how to train their dogs?

When I’m training with a family, I always train with the whole family the first time. That way, we get everybody started on the same path. Then if people have different schedules or I need to work with the child one-on-one so that the dog respects the child more and I need to help give the child some handling skills, then I will do that.

It usually is one person in the family that works the dog the most. The dog, depending on the breed and the dog’s personality, still may pick somebody else in that family. So, you might have a stay-at-home mom that walks the dog and exercises the dog, but when the dad comes home, the dog could care less about her and lives for that man. We can’t control those kinds of things. If you get picked by the dog, you get picked by the dog.

On the Coastside, we have a lot of beautiful hiking spots. How do dogs benefit from spending time outdoors?

My dog and I sometimes start at Rockaway Beach and do the mountain. And then we go over to Linda Mar Beach. Obviously some dogs hate the rain and some dogs love the rain. So, you’d want to be mindful about your own dog’s preferences and not drag them on a hike if they hate being in the rain. You have to try to either not get a dog that needs that kind of lifestyle or see what you can do that is going to satisfy you and your animal at the same time.

I like to go to the beach. Well, there are all these mountains by the beach. Kaya loves the beach, she loves the water, and she loves to hike, too. She has a lot of stamina. If we go up and down the mountains in between the beaches, there are different textures and smells for her. She likes to play fetch, so bringing back a ball or finding a good stick helps her get more mentally stimulated and she gets more tired. Then if she’s going to be inside for the rest of the night, she doesn’t care because she’s exercised and her body’s tired. A dog like Kaya — she’s just not living her best life if she can’t run.

Can you share some of your experiences working at San Mateo County Animal Control?

I thought it would be like the TV show “Animal Cops” about the (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). I thought we’d just be doing cruelty cases, and I did do a lot of that. I impounded a pet store before. I’ve also taken 97 animals out of one house. The man had rabbits for pets — and so suddenly he had a helluva lot of rabbits. And then he also had pit bulls, but they were in wire kennels with choke chains wrapped around their necks with padlocks. I took them right back to the shelter and they were euthanized. You can’t really tell if a dog is a pit bull or some kind of other breed that gives it a boxy head. But if it looks like a pit bull and growls at another dog, they’re working with a positive-only training method where they cannot correct the dog for growling at another dog. Therefore, they have to say it’s “behaviorally untreatable” and put it to sleep. So, we would put dogs to sleep. They did not necessarily, in my opinion, need to be put to sleep. They just needed to be trained and corrected, and they weren’t being corrected.  

At Animal Control, you also have to pick up dead animals and dead wildlife on people’s property, and deal with people calling about a dead squirrel in front of a school who are worried about the children seeing a dead squirrel. In the bigger picture of a dead squirrel being on the street — it’s already dead. It’s not going to get any deader, you know what I mean? And to try to shield children from that was just kind of … you see kind of all aspects working at Animal Control.

How did you know you had what it takes to become a professional dog trainer?

I think in Animal Control I could see that I could deal with situations as they arose, and they were situations that were not necessarily all in my control. I was able to handle aggressive people and dogs from all ends of the spectrum in different situations. I felt like, “OK, dog training really is about getting the message across and teaching people either what they need to know for their animal, or teaching them how to teach it, or teaching them how to reinforce it. And you have to be able to teach it to them in a way that they are going to receive it. I got a lot of practice in Animal Control going from the hood to the richest neighborhoods, talking to different people and having to deliver the same messages, but in different ways — in ways that people were going to be able to receive it. How people receive things is usually going to indicate your level of success with whatever comes after that.

I’ve always had a connection to animals, and Animal Control did definitely help me figure out that I would be able to do the thing with the people, too, because that’s half of it. There are a lot of people that work with dogs that are, like, “I hate people.” And jokingly, I get that, but you can’t genuinely hate people and then love teaching them. I think I genuinely love people. I just hate a lot of things people do.

What are some tenets of your dog training philosophy?

I’m a balanced trainer. I do believe in correction. I believe in positive reinforcement. At the Daytop program that I went through, one of the philosophies was, “No free lunch.” So, with dog training, “No free lunch” turns into “Nothing in life for free,” which is a common theory in the dog training world. A dog doesn’t need a cookie to sit before it leaves the house. What the dog needs to do is sit, allow you to get your stuff out on the porch, and then you allow the dog to come with you. That is the reward. But they don’t get to come out of the house with you until they sit and wait for you to tell them. Right? Nothing in life is free.

Another philosophy at Daytop was, “It’s better to understand than to be understood.” So, for dog training, you ask, “Well where is the dog’s behavior coming from?” Once you know, then you can deal with the behavior and have a response to the behavior no matter what. If you have a dog that’s just freaking out on leash when it sees another dog, you have to ask, “Well, is that dog anxious because they’re so excited and they want to go say hi or do they want to eat that dog?” We have to work with the animal so that the animal responds to us no matter what they’re feeling. But our approach is going to be slightly different if we are teaching the dog to be quiet before it’s allowed to say hi — rather than we are teaching the dog not to try to bite another dog’s head off and lunge and snarl.

“To be aware is to be alive” is probably my No. 1 philosophy from Daytop. When you’re at a crosswalk and people are looking at their phone through the whole crosswalk, they may or may not see somebody who is about to run the red light and take ’em out. So, in that situation, to be aware is to be alive.

If you’re walking your dog and you’re not paying attention or you’re on your phone and your dog sees a squirrel, they can trip you. If you have a reactive dog and you’re not paying attention, you’re not going to be able to correct your dog. If you start chatting with someone and you stop watching your dog’s body language, then you’re not going to see that your dog gave you three signs before it started fighting that it was uncomfortable. If you’re not living consciously with your dog, you’re going to have issues. 


April Seager is a staff writer covering events and endeavors in the Coastside community. She received a master of arts in German literature from Brigham Young University and completed graduate work in German studies at Washington University in St. Louis.  

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.