Hollywood Pet First Aid Instructor & Author Extraordinaire

A Special Interview with Hollywood First Aid Instructor Denise Fleck

A Special Interview with Hollywood First Aid Instructor Denise Fleck

Denise Fleck is an award-winning author and widely recognized first aid instructor.  She’s trained with eight national organizations including FEMA in animal life-saving skills as well as being a long-time rescue volunteer and animal response team member.  She has assisted Homeland Security with their K9 Border patrol First-Aid program, has developed her own line of First-Aid kits and is the author of Quickfind Books Pet Care series.  But before that, a lifetime ago it seems, she mingled with Hollywood movie stars – both people and pets as a Paramount publicist.  Goodnewsforpets.com publisher Lea-Ann Germinder caught up with Denise at the recent Women in the Pet Industry Network Conference & Awards Show and attended a fabulous seminar, “Tired of Being An Island?” taught by Denise.  Thinking there was much more to the story, she decided to interview Denise for this column. National Preparedness Month (#NatlPrep) seemed a perfect fit for Denise who is passionate about her work on behalf of pets. 

You work in the pet industry and now you are a star in the pet industry, in fact you were a finalist in the Women in the Pet Industry Network, but before that, you had an interesting career in Hollywood. Can you tell us about that? Did you meet any glamorous pets then?

I did.  I was lucky enough to work with some amazing animals and humans during my time as a feature film publicist.  My fondest memories with the two-legged actors would be on “Forrest Gump” — everyone was a dream and we had fun coming up with new ideas to keep the publicity going.  The same thing happened on “Ghost.”  I became the talk of the office when I got the shot of Patrick Swayze & Demi Moore at the pottery wheel on the cover of a Pottery magazine.  It pushed me onto a specialty track where I worked to get movie images and news into unusual places…not just the Entertainment pages, but where people not looking for that type of news then got it somehow creatively in their face.

For a movie called “Indian in the Cupboard,” I designed a log cabin cake that appeared in a children’s magazine as a craft project. Another great memory was Martin Landau — what a class act!  When he received an Academy nomination for “Tucker:  The Man & His Dream,” Mr. Landau came down to the studio early that morning and shook the hand of everyone in Publicity — assistants, receptionists, everyone, thanking them for their hard work, but now…back to the animals!

I had the pleasure of working with Lassie and he (yes, “he”) was a joy. He was so well-behaved that he’d use his training to his own benefit.  One time I was covering interviews with the trainer in a posh Beverly Hills Hotel room with a full lunch spread before us while Lassie was in the other room.  Low and behold, Lassie opened the doorknob with his mouth and joined in the fun.  Another great thing was that Lassie always travelled with a canine companion so when not working, he could just be a dog.  A Jack Russell Terrier accompanied us to all the TV shows and publicity functions.  Although I had eight paws to keep an eye on, it was the best!

How did you get involved with dogs and emergency preparedness and turn that into a business that you are so passionate about?

One morning when my Yellow Labrador, affectionately known as “The Sunny-dog,” got up she let out a blood-curdling scream that seemed to echo around the canyons of our home. This was a dog who never complained, so my husband and I knew it was serious. Although we didn’t know it then, she had ruptured 3 discs in her spine.  At that time we lived in a cabin in the Hollywood Hills 110 railroad tie steps from the car to the house, so carrying a 90 lbs. dog with an injury was a daunting task. I had developed a good relationship with my veterinarian, and although he didn’t make house calls, he sent a veterinary technician to our house, got Sunny on a stretcher and after surgery, she bounced back to her fun-loving self, but that was the moment I realized I never wanted to be caught unaware when my furry child needed my help. Fate sent an email my way about pet First-Aid trainings, so I jumped on the bandwagon, kept taking classes & seminars, doing volunteer work (where I had to put my skills to use) and haven’t stopped since.  My own kids (11 dogs and one cat over the years) have tested and helped me improve techniques that I have now shared with thousands of other pet lovers.

After Sunny crossed the Rainbow Bridge, a photo of us in the paper attracted the attention of someone needing to find a home for a senior Akita. Sushi then become my second soul mate dog (yes, you can have more than one of them) and brought me more unconditional love than should be allowed. When she passed, I wrote a story about her that appeared in Dog Fancy magazine and that led me to embark on becoming a free-lance writer.

Soon after, my “Dream Team,” of Rico (black Lab) and Rex (Akita/Border Collie) independently found their way to me from broken homes — they got along famously and were a total joy. Rico was so particularly adept at putting smiles on faces of kids and adults alike that I knew he would someday become the star of a children’s book I’d write.

Fast forward to volunteering at the local Animal Shelter and taking on the task of Volunteer President, the Shelter Superintendant (knowing I already taught classes in Pet First-Aid & Senior Pet Care) asked if I’d like to take on the role of teaching High School Animal Care as a joint project with the local school district. I got my California teaching credential, developed the program and have been at that for four years now, but…when I taught the students to read pet food labels, I learned they went home, told their parents, and the parents started purchasing better food for the family dog and cat.

When I taught them about puppy mills, some students went into local stores, asked where their animals came from, and showed employees videos on their phone if they didn’t realize what a puppy mill was. I learned that although teens may not always listen to their parents, parents listen to their kids! That compelled me to start writing children’s books because I felt that way I’m reaching two generations at once.

“Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover” (about adopting senior and harder-to-adopt breeds) won a Maxwell from the Dog Writer’s Association of America and the sequel will be out around Valentine’s Day 2015  with at least one more in the works.  I also released earlier in 2014 “Pet First Aid for Kids” hoping their parents will learn along with them how to rescue Rover or help Fluffy feel better.

Can you describe what you do now and are there areas of particular interest that you love?

I guess I’ve created my own niche but I like to think that my heart beats dog! I am an Animal Care Instructor, Author & Product Developer.  I teach 20 week semesters in Animal Care to High School Juniors & Seniors and also train them to be kennel assistants so that they’re getting on-the-job experience.  I teach a five hour Pet First-Aid & CPCR (yes, there’s now a second “C” for Cerebral) classes weekly as well as seminars on Pet Disaster Preparedness and Senior Pet Care.  I do take pride in tailoring my classes to the group.  If I’m speaking at a breed club meeting, I get my facts together so that I can share injuries & illnesses (and how to prevent or care for them) that pertain to the particular breed.

But my greatest joy has become writing books for children.  When I was in middle school, the U.S. was euthanizing 20 million homeless pets each year.  Although still too high, the numbers have dwindled greatly due to education and spay/neuter.  If I can continue to teach the younger humans to care and respect animals, even greater things will come for our four-legged friends in decades ahead.

Although I hope that one of my high school students will one day find the cure to canine cancer, or solve the problem of pet homelessness, my most amazing story has to be of one student who joined my class with his group of buddies who all quickly dropped it when they realized it was more than playing with dogs and that there were essays to write and knowledge to gain. This young man struggled in my class but hung in there and wrote me a note on the last day that he hoped he will have the chance to save an animal and he knows he will never fight dogs after learning to care for them in my class.  I still get teary eyed saying this as effecting that kind of change in one person means the world to me.

What is the most common question you get in your training classes?

People always want to know when they should go to their veterinarian or when they can take care of something at home. Generally, if you aren’t sure, erring on the side of caution and getting professional medical help is the best thing, but I teach my students to REALLY get to know their pets by doing a weekly Head-to-Tail Check-up of them.  Totally and completely get acquainted with your pet’s body and habits so that you more quickly notice when something is “not quite right” with them.  Although having seizures is not normal for most cats, if you have a pet with epilepsy who generally has two three-minute seizures a week, if she’s suddenly having four or they are five-minutes long, that is not normal for her, and a veterinary visit is in order.  Of course there are the biggies that should never be avoided but the better you know your animal and gain confidence by learning first aid skills, the more adept you will be at when it is a true emergency.  The following though ALWAYS requires an examination by your Veterinarian:

  • Trauma to any part of the body, including broken bones or internal bleeding
  • Poisoning or Snake Bite
  • Breathing Difficulty or Cardiac Arrest
  • Arterial or Venous Bleeding (lots of blood) including puncture wounds from an animal bite
  • Bloat (a life-threatening condition)
  • Unconscious
  • Can’t walk
  • First-time or unusually long seizure (know your pet)
  • Shock (paleness, the body isn’t getting the blood & oxygen it needs)

Important note to remember is that Pet First-Aid is the first thing you do. Your pet still may require veterinary help even in situations not mentioned above but by doing something first, you are able to limit injury and keep the animal more comfortable.  If you know how to lower a pet’s body temperature, you can prevent his brain from swelling; if you stop bleeding and bandage a wound, you can prevent that kitty from bleeding out on the way to the veterinarian and prevent infection from getting in; if you know how to properly induce vomiting, you can get poison the heck out of your pet’s system; by alleviating choking, your pet won’t go unconscious.  In the worse case scenario…if your dog or cat is breathing and doesn’t have a pulse, if you know how to be the pump that heart can’t be, you can keep life-giving blood an oxygen flowing.  If once you reach your veterinarian’s office, your pet is deceased, there is nothing he or she can do, so knowing what to do BEFORE you get to the veterinarian can mean a world of difference for your pet!

What is the most common pet emergency that dog owners are least prepared to handle but can be most easilty remedied?

Choking! All animals do it and some people freeze up afraid to react.  Others may wrongly just push their hand into the pet’s mouth and get bitten or by doing so, push the object farther down the animal’s throat causing him to go unconscious.  Although I would imagine Dr. Heimlich never intended it for pet’s, a simple modification (the position of the pet) to his heimlich maneuver is most effective and is the skill I teach that is used most often since choking is a pretty frequent occurrence with pets.  Sometimes a dog will cough up the rawhide chew and get it back in his mouth before you can grab it, but with dogs and cats…you have furry toddlers for life and must always supervise them making sure toys and food items aren’t too small.  Do not believe there is such a thing as an indestructible toy — there is some dog out there that will prove you wrong.

What is the most common emergency with cats?

Again choking can be an issue but on different items than dogs — string and dental floss can be extremely problematic and then fur balls for which I tell students, “Brush the kitty, brush the kitty,” to get rid of the bulk of excess hair before they ingest it. A great tip is to feed cats 1/2 teaspoon of pumpkin puree daily.  It is smooth, most enjoy it and it pushes the fur through the system.

The biggest problem I encounter with cats though is urinary issues as felines are notorious for not drinking enough water. I consider my Pet First Aid Classes more like “Pet Parenting 101” and provide students with a lot of information about nutrition, titer testing and parenting tips. Although it’s neat and easy, cats really should not just eat kibble unless they are really drinking water.  Provide them with wet food, running streams of water (not outside, but indoor bowls/fountains with clean fresh water), anything that will encourage them to drink, hydrating them and flushing toxins away.  Like the planet Earth, our pets are about 3/4 water, so we need that constant supply to keep the body functioning.

 What are the steps that pet owners can take to be better prepared for an emergency that involves the entire family including their pet?

1) Make a plan and get everyone on board.  Practice including wrangling the animals.  You never know who will be home when an emergency happens, so everyone needs to know what to do, how to get to the designated meeting place and how to help the animals get there too, making sure you have selected an animal-friendly location and have several back-ups.  Do your best to take your pets with you!

2) Stash supplies for you and your pet. Read about the list of supplies I’ve detailed in my Goodnewsforpets special National Preparedness Month post here.

3) Have both human and pet first aid kits readily accessible and well-stocked for injuries will most likely occur and what you do BEFORE you get to professional medical help can make a huge difference for the patient.

4) Have a Pet Alert Sticker outside near your front door so that First Responders will know there are pets inside. If you evacuate your pets, cross out the sticker so that they won’t waste time looking for pets who aren’t there.

5) Know what hazards are most likely where you live and be prepared for those specific disasters which I’ve also detailed in my Goodnewsforpets special National Preparedness Month post here.

For complete information visit the comprehensive FEMA care for animals page or follow #NatlPrep during September.

Where does preparation of the emergency kit fit in and what makes your kits unique?

It’s wonderful to have the skills needed to help an animal in distress but you also need two more things…one is the confidence to react which I see people gain by actually participating in a Pet First-Aid Class. Anyone can read a book or watch a video, but by watching an instructor like me demonstrate over and over can increase knowledge.  Actually practicing in a class situation (and continuing at home) whether it is checking a pet’s vitals, bandaging, doggie Heimlich-like maneuver or rescue breathing and CPR, can give a person the confidence to react.  If you think you know it, but have never even practiced, you may panic when the time arises.  The other thing you need besides skills and confidence is your pet’s tool kit — a Dog or Cat First-Aid Kit!

There are the basics that no one should be without (bandaging materials, antacid, hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting, diphenhydramine for bee stings and allergic reactions, antacid for upset tummies, thermometer and a properly fitting muzzle because unlike human patients, a dog or cat just might bite his caregiver), but my kits go a step beyond in that rather than including 50 pieces of gauze, I try to give pet lovers a wide variety of items they may not have thought about. Depending on which of my four kits you purchase (dog or cat HOME kit, Dog Walkers Kit or Hiking/Travel Kit), you are likely to also get:

  • Paw Cream to protect precious paws on hot and cold surfaces
  • A selection of aromatherapy mists that can calm pets during thunderstorms or veterinary visits; keep pets more comfortable around insects; calm anxiety during travel
  • Dehydrated Pumpkin & Apple Fiber to help with digestive upsets
  • Electrolytes to rebalance after dehydration due to vomiting, diarrhea or hyponetremia (if pet has ingested too much during water sports)
  • Special tick remover
  • Stethoscope for harder to detect pulses, stomach gurgling or breathing distress
  • and a handy pocket guide (as well as a pull-out Quick Tips) to walk you through the steps you need to help your pet feel more comfortable.

An important thing to remember about a Pet First-Aid Kit is that it is only as good at the human at the other end of the leash. If you use something up, replace it.  If something expires, get another.  A bottle of 3% Hydrogen Peroxide for instance is used to induce vomiting for certain types of poison.  If the peroxide has gotten too hot in your car, it won’t be effective.  Also make sure you know your pet’s correct body weight and dose medications properly, always conferring with your veterinarian. Pet First-Aid can be a life-save, but your veterinarian is the expert and has the ability to see your pet and know his medical history, so always take your Vet’s advice over anything you read in a book, online, etc.

Do you have a special story to tell about where an emergency kit helped save the day in a disaster?

Here are a few of my favorite stories in which students have put their skills to use, but since everyone won’t have to (and certainly hopes not to) perform CPR, I have had students notice heatstroke in a dog and quickly swab him down with rubbing alcohol and water from the paws up like I teach in class; I have had students use my impromptu Figure 8 Harness to securely restrain a pet so he doesn’t run into traffic.  Many have had to use the Doggie Heimlich and that doggie biscuit has gone sailing across the kitchen floor much to the delight of the now breathing pooch.

Amongst other stings, I am personally so glad I knew what to do when my Akita Bonsai got bitten in the face by a Rattlesnake in our own backyard. Staying calm and doing the appropriate three steps (wound below heart, limit dog’s movements, call ahead and get to antivenin) in addition to having prepared by getting her Rattlesnake Vaccine, allowed my girl to recover more quickly than expected.  Here’s a few more stories direct from pet owners:

” I was in your class last Thursday in Redondo Beach and I wanted to have the knowledge of what to do in case of an emergency, but I had no intention of actually having to use it — or at least I hoped I would not. Well, I was driving along the bluffs of Palos Verdes and admiring the houses wishing I could one day own, when I say a dog hanging from a balcony! I ran up to the house frantically banging on the door and ran with the owner through the house. We pulled the dog up over the railing with as much caution as we could, and I checked to see that she was not breathing and did not have a pulse. Thanks to your class, I knew what to do and started CPR. The owner left to call the veterinarian and after about five minutes, the dog’s heart started beating but still no breathing. Veterinary technicians arrived at the house and hooked up oxygen and they loaded her up to the veterinarian. After a couple days in intensive care, the dog is home and recovering nicely. Having gone without oxygen, she may be expected to have mild seizures, but she is alive and basically doing okay. I cannot thank you enough! ” — Kim Kohler, Ohaha Pet Sitting


“This morning after a run on the beach, my 9 year old Doberman made it home only to collapse in the front driveway. He had collapsed on the beach in May but “woke up” and walked home with me. The vet couldn’t find anything wrong and said he could continue to run on the beach but watch him. She suspected his heart (he has a murmur). So when Rocco acted not right and went down with his feet in front, I talked to him and got him on his side. I continued to pet him and talk to him and then all of a sudden he stopped breathing. I remembered where to check for a pulse and there wasn’t one. I started CPR and he started breathing right away only to stop again. I did CPR again and his heart started pumping and he started panting. He stayed like this for about 10 minutes until my little dog started barking at something going by. Rocco got up all interested, ate his breakfast and stole my sock on the way up the stairs. I truly never thought I would use my training on my own dog. Thank you for your great class. I can’t believe I actually saved my own dog’s life today. I would not have known what to do otherwise. I would be mourning his loss, not celebrating his life today. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I do feel like a million bucks thanks to you Denise and your class. Rocco is just fine — he’s his old self. I know at 9 years of age (he’s a big dog-100 pound Doberman) he probably doesn’t have too many more years with us but thanks to learning CPR he’s still around. I just can’t believe I actually saved my dog’s life.” Shirley DeFazio, Dog Mom

 Is there anything else you would like to add?

Pet Parents have always known this, but there is a newly coined word “zooyeia” which states that there is now scientific proof that animals can make humans healthier! They get us up and moving, make some people kick the habit as second-hand smoke is equally bad for our dogs and cats.  Living with pets often allows children to develop stronger immune systems and we all know pets lower stress, even our blood pressure.  For all that dogs and cats do for us, being prepared to help them and giving them an excellent quality of life is not too much to ask, so…learn life-saving skills and gather tools needed to help your four-legged best friend during an emergency.  Tune in to know what’s normal (head-to-tail check) so that you can more quickly determine when something is not right and get them professional help, and…share quality time together — don’t be on your cell phone while walking the dog or mindlessly moving the feather toy for your cat.  Be like your pet and live in the moment.  The reward for spending time together is priceless.

To contact Denise Fleck, email her at Denise@SunnyDogInk.com.



For more information on National Preparedness Month visit www.ready.gov/september or follow #NatlPrep



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