May 15, 2000 12:00 PM

When Hollywood’s A-list stars get more attitude than gratitude from their furbearing companions, they don’t get tough—they call Shelby Mario. Call her the Dog Whisperer. Mario’s gently persuasive methods have transformed thousands of canine divas into exemplars of perfect petiquette, winning her such devoted clients as Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, Al Pacino and Jennifer Aniston. “When Shelby is present, dogs are different,” says Bridget Fonda, who turned to Mario in 1993 to give her German shepherd some polish. “Somehow they are instantly well-behaved.”

Mario, 34, who considers herself an “animal behaviorist,” says her secret is a firm tone, snacks (“When you train with food, you reward good behavior”)—and plenty of exercise. She assigns unruly ruffians to a team of doggie-fitness trainers. “It’s not just exercise, it’s being outdoors, being with other dogs,” says Mario, who encourages such “socialization” sessions on a daily basis. “Something like 80 percent of behavior problems—barking, chewing, separation anxiety, aggression—can be solved by proper exercise.”

Her techniques don’t come cheap: Mario charges $150 for hour-long private sessions and up to $90 for one-on-one runs with a trainer. But for Mario’s results—such as the star pupil that learned to wipe its paws on a doormat—harried dog owners don’t seem to mind. In fact many of the owners crave training too. “Minnie Driver called one night—’Bubba [her black Labrador] is biting me! What do I do?’ ” Mario recalls. “Greg Kinnear called on a trip in a panic, saying he’d forgotten his dog’s food, wondering what to feed him.”

Her people skills extend to matching pooches with humans. Last January she helped Steven Spielberg and family choose from a litter of Border terriers, the breed she recommended for the director’s brood of seven kids. She also helps clients through tough times. When actress Laura Dern’s rottweiler Corey died last year, “Shelby walked me through it in such a warm way,” Dern says.

Marlo traces her animal instincts to a solitary upbringing. An only child raised in Los Angeles by divorced mother Marian, 62, a former showgirl, and paternal grandmother Virginia, Mario tended stray cats and dogs until age 11, when she received Pearl, a collie mix, as a gift. Ten years later, after graduating from Santa Monica College and toying with the idea of becoming a vet, she investigated obedience classes for her collie Lotte. “All I found was, ‘Tell the dog to sit, jerk it on the choke chain, push its butt down,’ ” Mario says. “I instinctively knew that was not how I wanted to go.”

She soon joined the West Los Angeles Obedience Training Club, where she learned how to motivate Lotte with food and toys. When the collie began winning competitions in 1991, other dog owners asked her to train their pets. While some dog experts frown on Mario’s practice of rewarding canines with food (“It’s a bribery method,” says dog trainer Matthew Margolis), others are firmly in her corner. Says Mario fan Jacque Schultz, a director at the ASPCA: “Shelby can pick and choose various methods to get the job done.”

Disciplining pooches leaves little time for the unmarried Mario to relax in her West Hollywood bungalow with dogs Lotte, Ruby and Fannie, cats Hedda and Bella and four pet chickens—or for many human companions. “I am looking for the guy,” she says, “who can handle dogs and me.” Meanwhile, she looks for new ways to spread her muttivational gospel, including her recent book Shelby Mario’s New Art of Dog Training. “I feel like I am trying to change the world, like the Avon Lady—going door-to-door, one dog at a time.”

Shirley Brady

Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles

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