“There is a big problem in New York City right now. There is a little doggie holocaust going on.”
Back in college, Raja Shah wanted to develop a theory that would change society. “In my senior year I realized that this wasn’t realistic,” says Raja, who a few years ago returned to Sunnyside, where he was born. Over the years he has worked with the homeless, at literacy centers for children, with kids in gangs and with ex-cons. But it was as a volunteer at an animal shelter that he realized he could follow his calling and still make a living. His behavioral training of dogs that were deemed unadoptable yielded good results, and shelters as well as individuals began to hire him. The Dog Guru was born.
In the past Raja had to travel to shelters and foster homes to train dogs rescued by Barc, Stray from the Heart and actress-cum-animal-rescuer Bernadette Peters. But on July 20, 2010 he signed the lease for the old 43rd Street Cinema at Greenpoint Avenue, where he now provides housing and training for 20 of these rescue groups’ most challenging dogs. Once the dogs are socialized they will be put up for adoption.
“There is a big problem in New York City right now.” Raja says. “There is a little doggie holocaust going on. If you have 35 dogs being put to sleep 365 days a year, that’s a serious issue.” While he of course loves dogs, his motivation has always been to try to make society a better place. “Until we create a bigger solution,” he says about New York’s large euthanasia numbers, “I’m going to do my best trying to ease that number.”
How does he do it? One dog at a time. The day I happened to run into him on the street, he was teaching George, a gigantic German Shepherd, some basic dog commands. He calmly walked around him, whispering commands and stepping over his tail in an attempt to take away George’s fear of being approached from behind.
“Aggression is not always the worst problem,” says Raja, whose canine clients are primarily pitbulls. Take, for example, Penny, a three-year-old, 40-pound pitbull. Indoors, Penny just sat head down and moaned, while outside she was terrified. Raja was the last in a line of multiple trainers who had tried their hand on Penny.
Penny would stiffen her front legs like a cartoon animal, making Raja drag her down the street. Raja tried to put a strap around her belly and bounce her on her front legs; he tried food motivators—dog treats, hotdogs and hamburgers—but nothing seemed to work. So Raja decided to train “the doggie,” as he lovingly calls his rescues, strong disciplinary skills indoors. Slowly he worked up her confidence and gained her trust. Eventually Penny became so focused on Raja’s commands that she forgot her fear when out on the street. Raja became her main focus.
“I had a party that night,” Raja says about this turning point in Penny’s life. But he quickly admits that there have been dogs he had to give up on. While he contributes some behavioral issues in dogs to mental disabilities, he is also humble. “It’s not that they are not savable,” he says in his characteristic soft and low voice. “It’s just that I myself don’t know how to save certain dogs.”
To find out about upcoming adoption events at the Dog Guru’s shelter, connect with him via Facebook.