Sunday, December 19, 1999

Dog trainer religious about work




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Murray is agnostic. That is, he is not sure there's a God. But if there is one, he thinks it's me.

        Murray is the family dog. And a very good one he is. Personable, handsome, housebroken. That last thing is simply a very nice gift he has chosen to bestow. In Murray's opinion, dogs were born already knowing how to behave. But they sometimes will follow baffling orders just to please us.

        Part of the trick is being smart enough to let our dogs know what we expect.

        Sometimes we need help.

        Jeff Gilmore, a White Oak computer consultant, turned to Rick Kenkel to help him with his yellow Lab puppy, Dude, who is sprawled on the floor, staring adoringly at the trainer. Jeff's mother, Gail, found Rick's ad in the Yellow Pages.

        “I can't remember exactly what it said,” she says. “It was something about love.”

        I know exactly what the ad said that drew me to Rick Kenkel's Colerain Township home. It was in an issue of Dropkick Magazine, “the official publication of the Northern Wrestling Federation.”

Simple kindness
        Below a logo for Rick's company, Top Dog, the copy promised: “The Lord above has shown me how to train your personal dog. He has taught me to train your dog with his love.”

        I asked how this works.

        “I pray over them, and the Lord gives me the answer,” he says. “Praise the Lord.”

        He puts Dude through his paces. Training equipment is a couple of collars and a 6-foot leather leash. And Rick Kenkel's voice, which is a kindly croon. He likes dogs, and they like him right back.

        “Dogs don't need to be body-slammed to learn,” he says. A few minutes later, Dude ambles to his feet. He was supposed to lie down and stay put.

        “Shame,” Rick says. Dude looks embarrassed.

        Framed photos line the walls of the Top Dog offices. Rick's dog Kirby was in Cincinnati Bell ads and did a brief star turn as Earl Pitts' dog, Buster, on television commercials. Rick says he has trained puppies and problem dogs and guard dogs — all breeds.

        “I've been in this business for 37 years.” But his real work is saving souls. “The dogs are just part of my ministry.”

        He shows me a small vial of oil, “anointing oil, frankincense.” He puts a few drops on his hands and rubs them together. “Then I put my hands on every dog that comes in here. Something happens to the person who has the dog. They start thinking about God.”

        He raises his eyes. “Praise the Lord,” he says again.

        Rick shows me a badge stamped with “Clergy” and “Hamilton County Jail Visitation” and identifies himself as a nondenominational, Pentecostal pastor.

        He says God told him to “reach as many people as possible.” For three years, he worked the gate at professional wrestling matches, stamping people's hands as they went inside. “I put the anointing oil on my hands first and touched them all. I think I reached a lot of people that way.”

        He was delivered from drugs and a life of minor crime — “I did my time in jail. Never in prison. For being a hoodlum.” — and says he grew up in St. Joseph's Orphanage in Northside, a ward of the state. “I never knew my mother, and my dad was an alcoholic. I think you could say I know something about abuse.”

        He says this made him determined to teach the world about love. Putting a nice, well-behaved dog into somebody's life seems to me to be a very legitimate way to go about this, whether you use anointing oil or just plain kindness and skill.

        When I got home, after the usual frenzy of greeting, I fed Murray. As usual in times such as these, he was silent. But this time I knew what he was thinking.

        Praise the Lord.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com, Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.