by Marci Narum | Photography: Photos by Jacy

201701-betsy-011-2Betsy Hamkens has been happily married to her husband, Steve, for 43 years. But she still remembers her first love, long before Steve was in the picture.

“When I was growing up, my dad was into dogs,” Betsy says. “Dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs. And we had six kids in our family. That many years ago, as a girl, you were expected to be in the house helping with cooking and cleaning. My dad was with his hunting dogs and I just found that it was so much more exciting to be out with him and his hunting dogs.”

And it was more than puppy love for young Betsy. At every opportunity, she was learning all she could about dogs, different breeds, and how to train them.

“I got started reading training books as a kid. At that time there was no such thing as the Internet. I would be reading and talking to people and I started applying what I could find out there. I started doing my own kid training and that just sort of evolved into adult training. It’s always been in my background.

“I did a lot of competitions with my own dogs, not so much for the competition aspect, although that was great. I competed in order to get through the different levels of obedience, getting certified by a judge, and getting titles on my dogs. It was proof that yes, indeed, I know what I’m doing and I know how to go about training dogs. I went to a major amount of seminars and did a lot of networking and observing, including learning behaviors of many breeds and groups of dogs.”

In the late 1970s, while working a full-time job, Betsy started offering private lessons on the side. She was becoming the local expert on dog training.

“People were calling from all over the place. They needed help with their dogs and since that’s my first love, I thought let’s take that leap of faith. I’ve been going ever since.”

LOVE & FAITH

And people have been putting their faith in Betsy and her Pawsitive Motivational K9 Instruction for 35 years. She has helped countless individuals and families in Bismarck and Mandan train their dogs, and is still considered the local “dog whisperer.” People have come from communities across North Dakota with their dogs to take the dog training classes Betsy teaches at Bismarck State College. Betsy also gives private in-home lessons and holds class in her backyard during summer months. People from all over the state and beyond call Betsy for advice on everything from house-training to basic commands.

“I still get a lot of calls from women who say, ‘My dog listens to all the male figures in our family but will not listen to me.’ And that’s due to how the woman is more nurturing and needs to be more assertive—not angry or more aggressive, but more assertive. And I get simple calls about dogs that won’t come when called.”

Brian and Jeanne Masseth recently called on Betsy, after surprising their kids with a puppy in December. 201701-betsy-051-2They needed advice on potty-training their 10-week old black Labrador, Molly. And this isn’t the first time the Masseth’s have worked with Betsy. She also helped train their first dog, Copper, a chocolate Labrador.

“The first time Betsy ever came to our house, she gave us all sorts of advice as far as tips on finding a good place to keep Copper in the shade during the day if we’re at work, and here’s a good place to section off in your garage for him.”

That was 15 years ago. Jeanne says they have taken all of Betsy’s classes and are signed up for her spring class at BSC.

TRAINING INJURY

Betsy has seen generations of devoted followers like the Masseths. But lately, she has been doing less training—doctor’s orders. In March 2016 Betsy had shoulder replacement surgery, but the incision has not healed properly.

“The surgeon said, ‘I really wish you would quit doing training for a while, because any movement on that shoulder that is above and beyond normal, is setting it back.’”

In December, Betsy’s prosthetic shoulder had to be removed. Her surgeon will perform a second operation this March. In the meantime, there is a spacer where her shoulder would be, her arm is supported by a sling, and Betsy is managing the pain until she gets her new shoulder. She is due to begin teaching classes at BSC March 15.

“A couple of people will help me. The surgeon and his team will determine whether I’m ready. But I’m still wanting to do something to get back into the game. I’ve told the surgeon, ‘I want my life back!’

“When this happened with my shoulder I was in a funk for a long time. It really got me down. I thought, I can’t end like this. I can’t end it. I’ve got to be able to keep going.”

LOVE HURTS

December brought another round of gloom for Betsy, when she had to say goodbye to one of her Australian shepherds. Twelve-year-old Rain had bone cancer and began to fail rapidly on Christmas Eve.

“Steve and I made the decision on Christmas morning to send Rain on his journey to the Rainbow Bridge.

“Rain was one of the most special dogs I ever owned out of 35 years,” Betsy says, her voice cracking. “He was my buddy. My challenge. He was just a glorious, beautiful dog.”

Rain was as well-known in the dog training community as Betsy is. He went along with Betsy everywhere, including pet therapy at the hospitals. So when the messages of love and sympathy for Betsy came, they poured, like rain.

“They knew him through competitions. We were always in the ribbons. Rain was just a magnificent competition dog. I’ve had others, but Rain did the best of all my dogs, ever. In 2015 he was listed as number five at the Utility Obedience level in the Australian Shepherd Journal for the United State Australian Shepherd Association. He was a fine dog.”

Betsy’s other two Australian shepherds, four-year old Haze, and 10-year old Cloud are still adjusting to a new routine and life without Rain.

GOOD DOGS

Over the years, Betsy figures she’s had more than a dozen of her own dogs, and has especially been fond of the herding group dogs for their high level of intelligence.

“I actually like the challenge the herding breeds will give you. Unlike some of the other groups, when you start teaching the herding groups, they will study and think about what you want them to do. They don’t just jump in and do it because you’re asking them to do it.”

All of her dogs have been obedience-titled and some confirmation-pointed and championed. Betsy and her dogs have earned so many ribbons, trophies, and certificates, she began running out of wall space to display them all. So she started scrapbooking. Each of Betsy’s dogs has its own set of scrapbooks.

Betsy will be the first to tell you that your dog doesn’t need to earn ribbons or trophies to be a winner. You have a top dog when you have a well-behaved dog that listens to your commands. Her goal is to give clients the tools to achieve that.

“I just want people to be happy with their dog, so I jump in with both feet trying to find something that will work for dogs. If one thing doesn’t work, I’ve got a good toolbox so I can pull out other things that work.

Betsy can’t say exactly how many dogs she has helped train in 35 years, but it’s safe to say it’s been thousands.

“And I’ve loved every moment of it.”   

To see more photos of Betsy and the Masseth family, click here.