One of Bellingham’s biggest celebrities in this age of social media and influencers isn’t a highly paid pro athlete or star of screen or stage. In fact, it’s actually two individuals—a dog and her human—known simply as Mary & Secret.
Mary Peters has owned Secret, an Australian shepherd, since December 2014 and their Instagram account, @my_aussie_gal, now has 438,000 followers. Videos show Mary and Secret performing impressive tricks and interacting sweetly. Many of their videos have been picked up and shared on Twitter and Facebook, as well as the popular website The Dodo. “My videos have been shown on different TV programs here and in other countries,” Mary says, “such as Japan, Taiwan, and Australia.”
Followers don’t always realize that Secret is also a working service dog. “I trained her myself to help me negotiate situations that are difficult for me because of autism,” says Mary.
Mary, looking for a smart dog with less energy than a border collie, picked an Australian shepherd. “I think I just lucked out with Secret,” she says. “She’s smart and focused but not crazily high energy like other Aussies.”
Secret came home with Mary when she was just a puppy. “There were no puppies available locally at the time I was looking,” Mary says. “I found Secret at Hisaw Aussies in Oregon.”
Early Instagram pictures from 2015 show a young teen getting her first dog. You can then scroll through a gaggle of cute and typical puppy pictures. Mary reached out in her posts to ask others how to train her new pup and soon Secret developed new skills, such as sitting and painting pictures. In recent years, those talents have grown exponentially and truly set her apart, making her memorable to folks far beyond the shores of Washington State.
Secret snowboards. She dances. She goes on Easter egg hunts. She builds snowmen. She plays piano, the drums, and guitar—although she may not be joining any bands in the near future. She’s especially good at yoga. Secret seems to really enjoy simply being with Mary…and Mary with her.
Followers and dog lovers around the world wait expectantly to see what the two of them will do next.
“My sister and I did Irish Dancing with a homeschooling group organized at Northwest Ballet,” she says. “I don’t do it anymore, but we had a lot of fun. That’s obviously where I got the idea to try Irish dancing with Secret.”
Mary has lived in Bellingham most of her life, her family having moved here from Seattle when she was three years old. Homeschooled, Mary has been part of Whatcom Community College’s Running Start program for the last couple of years—and she and Secret also do this together.
Aside from training Secret, Mary enjoys studying languages, especially Japanese and recently Chinese and Korean. She plans to major in Japanese/Asian studies in college and hopes to double major in biology.
What misconceptions do people have about Mary and Secret?
“The misconceptions I’ve noticed are the beliefs that I must punish Secret to get her to do certain things,” Mary says. “It seems like most people believe that you can’t reliably train a dog without using some kind of punishment.”
Mary uses a method called progressive reinforcement, a term created by San Diego-based dog trainer Emily Larlham. Visit her YouTube channel, “Kikopup,” to peruse more than 350 free in-depth dog training tutorials.
“Progressive reinforcement is positive-oriented training without the use of physical or psychological intimidation,” Mary explains. “For example, I reward Secret’s desirable behavior and prevent unwanted behavior.”
She says it would take too long to explain how she trains Secret for complicated tricks such as playing piano or sledding, but Mary generally trains in very small, incremental steps over time to teach Secret a new skill.
There’s no doubt the connection between Mary and Secret runs very deep, and fans are lucky to be able to witness it via their videos. Says Mary: “I think that my autism gives me a better understanding of how animals see the world.”