Man’s Best Friend: Three Baltimore-Area Residents Care for Canines

Mark Levinson with his dog Onyx. Photo by David Stuck.

In Genesis 1:26, the Torah reads, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth.’” And while all of us are given this responsibility, some take a much more active role in it, devoting their time, their sweat, and their hearts into caring for man’s best friend.

This is particularly true of Owings Mills resident Mark Levinson, a retired Johns Hopkins psychological assessor who has been volunteering with dog rescue shelters since 2002, and who understands the “unconditional love” that comes from working with dogs in need.

“Often it’s just a quiet thing, just the way they just want to sit or lay beside you,” he said, adding that it can be particularly rewarding for a person who does not have children, like himself. “You’re caring and you’re getting this love in return, and they’re so appreciative of pretty much anything you do.”

Levinson grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where his family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, and later moved to the Baltimore area for work. He grew up an animal lover and had a pair of cats as a boy, but didn’t begin volunteering at shelters until after the 9/11 attacks.

“When 9/11 happened, it really made me think,” Levinson said. “I thought about, ‘What if I had died in a plane or a building?’ You know, what difference has my life meant? I don’t have children, I’m not married or have children, but I’m a nurturer. And I always worked with people, but I also loved animals, too.”

The realization led Levinson to the Baltimore Humane Society in Reisterstown. At first he would just help out on the weekends, but gradually he became more and more involved to the point where he was altering his work schedule in order to spend more time with dogs who needed him. Over the years, he would also volunteer at The Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) and Adopt A Homeless Animal (AAHA) Rescue.

One animal he grew particularly close to was a dog named Louis, who he met at BARCS. “When I saw him there he was covered in ticks,” Levinson said. “We shaved him down and bathed him, and he just stared into my eyes. And after that day, when I’d come there, he would just look for me, and not let me out of his sight. He wouldn’t even walk with anyone else. So I came to the realization I had to take him home.” Louis has since passed away, but his memory lives on with Levinson.

Born in Baltimore, retired businessman and former travel consultant Marty Sitnick has been working with and training dogs since boyhood. “I have been training dogs since I was 12 years old,” Sitnick said. “I just had a knack for interacting with animals of all kinds.”

Marty Sitnick. Photo by Karen Sitnick.

Encouraged by his mother, Sitnick had many opportunities to interact with neighborhood dogs when walking to and from school. “I discovered, walking back and forth to school, that dogs would respond to me if I offered them food, which my mother would pack for me for lunch,” he said. “So I would save some food, and get dogs to sit or walk by my side in exchange for a bit of salami or bologna. And often these dogs would come home with me, and then my mom or dad would have to figure out whose dog it was and bring them back.”

While not realizing it at the time, Sitnick had discovered what he now calls “reward-based” training, which is distinct from training that involves using physical force or punishment to train a dog.

“We lure them into a sit by holding the food just slightly over their nose,” Sitnick said. “And when their head goes up, their butt goes down, and they sit. That motion, of holding the food over their nose, ends up turning into a hand signal.” Through repetition, the dog eventually learns that when it sits down at the sight of the specified signal, it will be rewarded for the task.

Offering his knowledge and experience pro bono, Sitnick trains dogs at rescues, shelters, and for individual foster cases, with the goal to either get these dogs placed into loving homes or keep them in their homes.

One case Sitnick remembers particularly well involved a group of six Staffordshire terriers, commonly known as pit bulls, who had been confiscated from a dog fighting ring. At first, they were being kept alive in a Baltimore County animal shelter, as they were viewed as evidence in a criminal case. After the trial, though, they were released to the AAHA kennel. Despite the notorious reputation the dogs had gained because of their past, Sitnick resolved to put together a training program for them, and all six survived to be placed into homes.

Mark Levinson in the grass with Onyx. Photo by David Stuck.

Sitnick finds this type of work deeply rewarding, particularly considering what can be at stake. “Many if not most of the animals I work with have not been given an easy life,” he said. “They generally are in shelters or rescues having lost their home, and if they are in a municipal shelter that may run out of space, and if they are not adopted, they end up being euthanized.

“So, being able to pull those dogs out of municipal shelters or out of bad circumstances, and to work with shelters or fosters or rescues and get them into forever homes and keeping them there, is very rewarding in and of itself,” Sitnick continued. “And that’s why I do it.”

Baltimore resident Debbie Winkler is a certified professional dog trainer – knowledge assessed, a certified animal behavior counselor, and has served for five years as the vice president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

Growing up an animal lover, Winkler sees her goal as working “to help educate people about how to train their dog, and how to enrich their dog, so that they are really good family members,” she said. She recalled one dog she trained as a “sound response dog” for a deaf couple, where the dog would react to the sound of a smoke alarm, a cell phone, an alarm clock, and a doorbell, so that the couple would be alerted to these noises.

While no longer an active member of a synagogue, Winkler saw a clear connection between her Judaism and her passion in caring for animals. “Judaism is one of the religions that emphasizes compassion towards animals,” she said. “Compassion towards all life, actually.”

It was a view Levinson largely concurred with. “God is supposed to be understanding of us, loving of us. We’re supposed to, in turn, be able to do that, care for other living things and the earth as well, that God created.”

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