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Potential Unleashed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The program was designed to teach people on the mend how to train dogs. As they celebrated graduation Friday, however, it was evident that far more important discoveries emerged along the way. Students had found hope, and the instructor, one of the nation’s leading experts on dogs, had found a family.

“I never expected to feel this way,” said Matthew Margolis, known as Uncle Matty on his PBS series, “Woof! It’s a Dog’s Life.” “I didn’t realize how touched I would be tonight seeing them here with their families and friends.”

Forty students, almost all of them participants in programs for the homeless, addicted and abused, began the new 10-week program at the Salvation Army in Whittier. Twenty made it to completion.

One of the graduates, Sharon Morrison, 37, attended the ceremony with her three sons. That they still believe in her is reason enough, said Morrison, for her to believe in herself. Before she went into recovery, they followed her from hotel to hotel. At one point, they were homeless and slept in a car, and when she was too high to care for them, they cared for each other.

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“My goal all along has been to get my family back together,” she said. “I know that will happen, but I never, ever thought I would be in a position where I could own my own business. That’s what I’m hoping for, a business that my whole family can be a part of.”

It’s a long journey of carefully placed steps as she moves away from her past. Even now, an image keeps coming back to her. Two years ago, while she was high and homeless, her three children farmed out to family and friends, she saw the depth of her slow, long fall. It was as if she were seeing herself for the first time through the eyes of her children.

“I stood outside myself,” she said, “and saw the whole picture.”

She realized she needed help, so she checked herself into treatment and now lives with her 5-year-old son at the Salvation Army Santa Fe Springs Transitional Living Center in Whittier. Her oldest son, Chris, 18, stays with family friends, while Matthew, 16, lives with Morrison’s mother.

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Midway through the program, Morrison told Margolis she was afraid to get her hopes up too high. What if she expected too much, and what if her expectations led to disappointment?

“You can’t have great expectations without disappointments,” Margolis told her. “Ask anybody who has tried to climb a mountain.”

Morrison nodded in agreement. Seated next to her was Kristina Tonkin, 31, also a resident of the facility. On Oct. 21, 1997, Tonkin gave birth to a daughter who tested positive for methamphetamine. Tonkin had used the drug throughout her pregnancy, up until an hour before going into labor. Her treatment at the Salvation Army is a condition of maintaining custody of her daughter.

Morrison and Tonkin know about mountains, and they know it’s a long road back from where they have been. What they didn’t know was that the road would lead them to a man known as Uncle Matty.

Margolis has trained the dogs of Hollywood stars including Whoopi Goldberg, Cher, Goldie Hawn, Merv Griffin, Drew Carey, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor and the late Jimmy Stewart.

He writes books and appears on television talk shows delivering his mantra of “love, praise and affection.” That so many shelters should be filled with unwanted dogs has always bothered Margolis. Then, last year, he received a telephone call from Dore Charbonneau, executive director of development for the Southern California division of the Salvation Army.

Charbonneau’s home was being ravaged by puppies she had adopted from a shelter. Margolis went to work on her problem, and they started to talk. Dogs, said Charbonneau, weren’t the only ones housed in shelters.

And that is how the program began, how Margolis and his students came together at the bottom of a mountain.

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‘It Was Like Living in Hell’

Even in daylight, it was dark where Winton Hill lived. Destiny held no pity for a junkie and thief, no remorse for a downward spiral, which, in 1996, delivered him to a place of ruins abandoned even by the dead.

Hill was living in a ramshackle funeral home, deserted except for the ghost-like community of homeless people who shared its darkness. Looking back, what he remembers most vividly are sounds: people milling about, gunfire and, on one occasion, police knocking in doors in search of a murderer.

“It was like living in hell,” Hill said.

His sisters searched for him and there were many people who would have taken him in, but, instead, he chose drugs and all that they entailed. Arrested seven times as a juvenile and more than 20 times as an adult, Hill spent 5 1/2 years in prison on drug-related charges.

There were warrants for his arrest while he was living in the funeral home. He seemed to be always on the run, and it was wearing him down. He never really felt free until he turned himself in, and while serving a 120-day sentence in Los Angeles County Jail, he listened to his past.

“I sat there and meditated on different things people told me. I reviewed the madness and the chaos I put myself and others through.”

Some of the words he remembered came from his mother.

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“Life never ends,” she would say. “There’s always a new beginning, but it’s up to you to make that change.”

Upon his release, he walked to the Salvation Army building in downtown L.A. and checked himself into the program. Upon completion in 1995, he was hired by the Salvation Army. Now 37, he is program supervisor-manager at Harmony Hall, in downtown Los Angeles, where residents live during their final phase of treatment.

Hill is starting a part-time business, Smart Dogs, and already has four customers lined up. He and five other Harmony Hall residents who completed the program will share the work.

Margolis, said Hill, has taught him about more than dogs. People too need love, praise and affection.

“When I correct one of my staff here, once he or she has made the correction, I reward them, praise them. Matty teaches us that. . . . He’s more than a teacher. He’s a motivator, and now he’s family.”

The Trainer Undergoes

a Change Too

These feelings caught Margolis by surprise. Throughout the 10 weeks, he had seen the transformations in his students, but he didn’t see the changes taking place within himself.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he told the graduates at Friday’s ceremony. “I knew I was going to be teaching you to be dog trainers, but I didn’t know I would find a family of loving, wonderful, dedicated people.”

He knows that the hard work is ahead of them, that they must now go out on their own and learn through experience. He is sending letters to veterinarians and shelters to help find placements. For as long as the graduates need his help, they are welcome to call or come to him for assistance. That’s how families should be.

Margolis, 58, grew up poor in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens in New York. His sister slept on the couch, and he had a cot in the foyer. He was often in fear of his father, an alcoholic capable of great love but also fierce anger.

“I know exactly how a shy dog feels. I felt the same way. That’s why I always train a dog from the dog’s point of view. How would I want to be treated if I was a dog?”

His connection with dogs was present even during childhood. When his mother first got Smoky, a Dalmatian, Margolis slept with him in the kitchen. Eventually, there were three dogs living in the tiny apartment. When Margolis brought home a fourth, his father told him that either he or the dog had to go.

“I spent three days in Central Park,” Margolis said. “I loved dogs. They were my savior. They made me feel good all the time.”

After trying his hand at sales and failing to bluff his way into acting, Margolis, at 26, had no idea what he wanted to do in life.

He took a friend’s suggestion and took an aptitude test. Among the lists of potential careers, “dog trainer” caught his eye. He lit up with a certainty that shocked him.

In 1968, he founded the National Institute of Dog Training, purchased an ad in the New York Times and waited for the telephone to ring. To his surprise, it did.

He developed his own techniques, beginning with an analysis of the dog’s personality and did his training in the owner’s home. With the help of Mordecai Siegal and other writers, he has co-written 17 books, including “Good Dog, Bad Dog” (Henry Holt), which has been translated into six languages. His most recent book, “GRRR! The Complete Guide to Understanding and Preventing Aggressive Behavior in Dogs” (Little, Brown), was released this year.

Margolis visited L.A. for the first time in 1973 while promoting “Good Dog, Bad Dog” and appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. He was having lunch one day at Alice’s Restaurant when he fell in love with Southern California, its weather, beaches and people. In 1976, he and his wife at the time, Beverly, and son, Jesse, made the move.

For years, he worked out of his home in Beverly Hills. Eventually he bought a kennel in Monterey Park and opened offices in West L.A. He recently closed the kennel because of noise complaints and to focus on other aspects of his business.

His work with the Salvation Army has opened new doors, and he hopes the program can be expanded. As he thanked students for their work and commitment, he told them that the program really wasn’t about training dogs at all.

“It’s about you,” he said. “It’s about self-esteem and who you are and what you are capable of achieving.”

It’s about climbing mountains.

Duane Noriyuki can be reached at duane.noriyuki@latimes.com.


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