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LeRoy Trainer Helps Ugandans Harness The Power Of Human-Canine Bond

Breanna Grow
Tina Zimmerman with her 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, Navarre.

Humans and dogs have a bond unlike any other in the animal kingdom. Fostering that special connection has been Tina Zimmerman’s life’s work, first as a veterinary technician, then as the owner of Manestream Training in LeRoy.

And while Americans treat their dogs like part of the family, that’s not the case in Uganda, where Zimmerman befriended a missionary family teaching farming to rural villagers. There, dogs are seen as “a nuisance animal.”

“They understand that dogs kill their livestock, dogs bite people, dogs carry rabies,” she said. 

Yet Zimmerman has created a nonprofit called Manestream Harvest Guards International empowering Ugandans to train dogs to protect their farms and families. 

Where others saw four-legged pests, Zimmerman and her friends at Harvest Hands International saw an opportunity to provide a solution for a growing problem. 

In the last five years the nonprofit has begun teaching villagers to grow vanilla, a lucrative crop that grows well in southwest Uganda. But the successful harvests began to attract thieves eager to sell the vanilla for themselves.

Zimmerman said the villagers already struggle with poverty and disease. “And so it’s so sad that when they get a skill like farming, and then the crop grows well because it’s a good area for it, and they see the vanilla coming on, and then to just wake up and have it be gone is just gut-wrenching.” 

Zimmerman explained the farmers can’t rely on law enforcement to keep their crops safe. 

“There’s not a police department. Those who can afford security could hire a guard to walk the fields in the evening. They don’t have a lot of access to weapons to protect themselves, and so what they would have would be a machete or a big stick. It would very much be hand-to-hand combat, and it’s just primitive. They can’t dial 911 and have the police chase down the thief.”

The farmers began sleeping in their fields to watch over the crop, putting them at greater risk of Malaria and violent crime. 

“So the missionary that was there had seen some of the training programs that I do in the states said hey, do you think there’s any way you could come here and train dogs to protect the farmers?”

So in March 2017 Zimmerman began planning to launch her first Ugandan training school that summer. Her first challenge was to find trainable dogs capable of protecting the farmers. Zimmerman’s friend assured her the farmers could use some of their profits from the vanilla crop to purchase German Shepherd dogs from a breeder in the capital of Kampala.

“That’s so not what happened,” Zimmerman laughed.

Arriving in the village in March, Zimmerman told the farmers not to bring their dogs to the first day of school. When she asked how much the dogs weighed, she realized things had not gone according to plan. 

“One man said 5 kilograms, and I’m doing math in my head, that’s like a 12-pound dog!” Zimmerman said the farmers had taken the dogs as puppies from the feral dogs that hung around the village.

“I wanted German Shepherds because they’re normal guard dogs,” Zimerman explained. “They love to chase and bite, they love to guard. What showed up were feral dogs who were terrified of people, the people were terrified of them. They brought them in on chains."

Replacing the dogs’ chains with a collar and treating them with flea and tick prevention and worm medication took up the entire first day of school, Zimmerman said. “Just the fear in the dogs eyes and the shock of the people at me taking these dogs and just handling them like I used to at the vet,” she recalled. “That was a tough day for me, I think I went home and just had to cry, just to let out what I had experienced that day.”

The next challenge was to find a way to train dogs who didn’t recognize products like kibble as food. 

“In America you present a dog with a piece of food and then you get them to cooperate and do what you want and you reward them with the food,” she explained. Not only were these feral dogs not motivated by the promise of kibble, but they were too afraid of Zimmerman to even take the food.

“So we just went back to basics of, let’s just be in a place of peace with our dogs, sit down on the ground, pull your dog to you and put your hand on him...and the fear in both the handler and the dog was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Then, Zimmerman said, on day three the magic happened.

“The people were learning to touch the dogs and the dogs were melting, just sinking down to the ground and flopping over belly up, and all of a sudden the humans were realizing that there’s something different about a dog than the cattle that they drive or the goats that they drive, that this dog has a connection with them,” she said. “Then we were really able to start the training process.”

She had heard concerns from the village chiefs for the safety of the residents: Why bring trained attack dogs into peoples’ homes? 

“And so the very first phase of the training is the same as I do here: obedience, obedience, obedience,” Zimmerman said.

The handlers spent the next two weeks working with Zimmerman to teach their dogs to sit, lie down, stay and come when called. “This dog has to be in control,” she said. “It can’t be a wild, mean, they call it an angry dog, it can’t be that, it has to be under control.”

Zimmerman explained once trained, the dogs can be used on patrols. “So they would be walking with the dog, and if they saw somebody in the field they could do much as we do here, ‘Go or I’m going to send the dog,’ and they send the dog on command. But at the same time, if it happens to be a friend or a family member, they would tell the dog, ‘Sit, stay.’ So the dog understands his job. But if he’s tied up, the alert of barking would tell them, somebody’s in my field, I need to go check it out.”

Working all day throughout the week, the class would take breaks under an enormous Acacia tree to talk about their new roles as dog owners. Some challenges included finding local, inexpensive dewormers -- it turned out papaya seeds, plentiful in the area, provided a natural solution. One day while talking about nutrition for their dogs, the farmers told Zimmerman they didn’t know they were supposed to be feeding their dogs.

“‘They just turned them loose like you do cattle, and they’d forage for food,” Zimmerman said. “On top of that I’m telling them you can’t let the dogs run free, you have to keep them confined because you’re training them to guard. And so now the dogs, if they do keep them confined, they don’t have access to the food. And to hear them say, we didn’t know we were supposed to feed our dogs, we didn’t know we were supposed to give them water, that tells you how much of a culture shift we’re having to make there.”

But it was important to respect that culture, Zimmerman said. “We’re never going to make them Americans, and that’s not my goal. Our program has to be reproducible. My goal is to eventually back out of that part of Uganda. I’ve already got two trainers there that I’m working with, having them do some of the training.” 

Zimmerman knew receiving instruction from a white woman also wasn’t something the Ugandans were used to.

“I said you know I understand that normally it would be a man in my position, but there’s no man here from the U.S. that can teach you what I can teach you. And I want you to forgive me right now if I offend you in any way culturally.”

One man told her he’d nearly skipped the program when he found out Zimmerman was white. 

“His only interaction in his whole life [with white people], he was sent to Kampala to work for two white men and they abused him badly,” she said. 

Despite the obstacles, the farmers put their trust in Zimmerman and their dogs. “I was mind blown by how quickly they progressed, because they took it so seriously,” she said.

Shortly after completing the first school, a farmer from another village approached Zimmerman about a second school. Zimmerman repeated the training process in the second village, meanwhile returning to the first school to advance their training. 

“We did tracking training, so teaching the dogs to find someone that’s hiding in the fields, and if somebody’s been there and ran out they can now track them, so we’re going to keep building on those,” Zimmerman said. 

This summer she heard from both schools after taking a few months off for harvest. “They sent me pictures of a mound of vanilla...I did hear from the chief of the first school say that they had a much increased harvest, and they give credit to the dogs.”

She’s already planning another trip to launch a third school in the area, and has even had requests from other countries in and outside of Africa. But for now, Zimmerman says she wants to focus on refining her process in Uganda. 

She also hopes the organization can find partners or sponsors for future growth, as Zimmerman personally funds the program. 

“Our prayer is that ...we can share our goals and our passion and that it just catches like fire, because we’re literally saving people’s lives by keeping them in their homes and helping them grow a crop that provides for their family,” she said. “So, yes, dog training is a passion of mine and it’s what I love, but it’s the big picture that we’re saving lives of people that, they don’t have anyone else helping them.

Zimmerman said the program is in the process of obtaining 501(c)(3) designation, and Harvest Hands International is accepting donations on behalf of Manestream Harvest Guards International.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.