On this spring day, celebrity pet trainer Bash Dibra walks with Delilah (nickname: Dee) by his side. Once shy and skittish, the English sheepdog is basically strutting down the New York sidewalk.
Dibra and Dee are taking me to Canine Court, a space for dogs and owners that Dibra established in 1996 in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. It’s America’s first pet playground with an official city ordinance, different from your average dog park thanks to its agility components. This playground―which also has separate areas for different size dogs―encourages owners to play with their dogs rather than just watch them play with each other.
“It’s almost like an umbilical cord, you know?” says Dibra, describing the physical connection (leash) between dog and owner that then cements the emotional connection (love). “I try using the new technology of the millennium with people―hardwire, wireless, and content. I have all the content.” He laughs.
Dibra is one of the nation’s top pet trainers, with 40 years of dog expertise. He’s trained the dogs of A-listers like Jennifer Lopez, Martin Scorsese, Henry Kissinger, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Calvin Klein―or rather, he’s trained the humans themselves. “Everything’s the owner,” Dibra says. “It’s not the dog―I can make any dog do anything.”
Dibra has worked with dogs and cats for television and film, he’s trained service and therapy dogs as well as prize-winning show dogs, he’s written books, given seminars and just about everything in between. For 15 years, he even raised an actual wolf.
As I lean down to give Dee a hug, Dee tells me that fascination with dogs began in a Yugoslav refugee camp. After escaping from communist Albania, he and his family were caught and thrown into the leftovers of a concentration camp. Dibra spent eight years in the camp, from age one to nine.
Attack dogs patrolled the camp to ensure that no one escaped. As a child, Dibra was mesmerized by the furry creatures. Every day, he would go and pet them, no matter how much the guards yelled at him. Eventually, the guards gave up; they showed young Dibra all the things the dogs could do, and Dibra would mimic them. “That was my therapy,” says Dibra, who now lives in Riverdale, New York, a subway ride out of Manhattan. “That opened up a whole world.” And it’s been his world ever since.
I spot Delilah on the park poster as we walk in. There are three or four other dogs there, accompanied by their humans. Dibra demonstrates the agility features with Dee―a wooden frame, a tire, a tunnel, and a ramp. Dee makes them look easy, the result of patient repetition.
Dibra has owned many dogs over his lifetime. At one point, he had 12 dogs and 15 cats all at once. It doesn’t matter, he says, whether he’s got one dog like Dee or a dozen. Once they’re trained―on leash and then off―they all behave in unison, as if in a choreographed dance. He incentivizes dogs not with food but with praise, except when on set, like the times when he worked in Hollywood with the trainers of Lassie and Benji.
After leaving the camp, Dibra met dog trainers around Europe and then came to the U.S. to begin veterinary school at Cornell. But his father’s death led him to switch paths and go into animal behavior, a field that didn’t yet exist at the time. Back then, at Columbia University, they called the combined program “psychobiology.”
After completing his master’s degree, Dibra came into possession of Mariah, a six-day-old grey wolf born in captivity. Mariah became both his soulmate and his muse, teaching him much of what he knows about canines and primal drive. She became a goodwill ambassador, traveling the world to educate audiences on endangered species and ecosystems. But she was a 24-hour responsibility, and while Dibra socialized and developed her, he emphasizes that no one should own wild animals. He never wanted people to see Mariah and think of getting a wolf or tiger as a pet. In fact, he says, if you’re never had a pet, better to start small before getting anything too big.
A few owners slowly wander over towards Dibra and Dee, curious. Dibra briefly introduces himself, mentioning the free training sessions he hosts regularly at the park. One by one, he walks each owner through the basic training steps. “Bonding together with better training―that’s a good thought, right?” he asks. “Do this as much with him as you can.”
He guides each dog with the leash, congratulating her after she gets through the tunnel or over the ramp. Soon, every dog in the playground is trying her paw at the ramp, owner close by her side. “Praise her, praise her! Kiss her, hug her! Wonderful, wonderful!” Dibra says as he encourages everyone along, dog and owner alike. The dogs seem chipper, but it’s the owners who really look newly animated after a few minutes with Dibra. They keep saying how they are going to come back and try it again.
An hour later, as we leave the playground, I ask Dibra why some people don’t seem to like dogs at all. He says they just haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing one. Recently, he tells me, he trained a billionaire client who’d never had a dog. She has all sorts of staff, but Dibra told her that she had to take care of the dog herself, instructing her on how to brush and bathe him.
“Even the royal power brokers of the world, I tell them, you gotta be there, and they show up,” says Dibra. “I won’t mention names―but they’ll show up, and they’ll tell everyone ‘I’m in a meeting,’ but they’re actually working with me.”
Now, his recent client says that when she’s afraid, the dog comes to sleep in her room. “Now she’s like: how’d I miss this?”
Dibra tells me that his publisher has been asking him to write a book about his experience with celebrity clients and their dogs. Though he’d prefer to protect his clients, he says that after a while, he might be open to it. “There are so many stories―you won’t believe me! Oh my god. And people, and human nature!” He cracks a huge smile. “It’s so wonderful, you know?”