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Please Don’t Call Me a “Dog Whisperer”

Each year, Jim, myself, and the dogs host a Christmas Eve Eve Party for our friends on December 23. Its a night when many of...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Oct 25th 2011


Each year, Jim, myself, and the dogs host a Christmas Eve Eve Party for our friends on December 23. Its a night when many of our out-of-town friends we see only once a year are in town for the holidays and not otherwise booked with family obligations. It is my favorite night of the year — a nice, mellow, fun evening with some of my favorite people (and dogs).

I try to keep the party fun for my dogs, too (and last year, a client dog joined the fun). I also know, that with a variety of tempting food dishes ALL OVER THE PLACE and wine-consuming partygoers leaving half-emptied plates on low-lying tables, that while I enjoy the fun, I cannot drop my guard. I have to watch my dogs at all times, in a state of constant readiness to manage a situation to prevent bad behavior (like jumping or countersurfing) and reinforce good behavior (like greeting politely, allowing for petting, etc.).

I prepare ahead of time. While I am busy prepping food and beverages for the party, I am also stuffing Kongs. When I buy groceries, I buy marrow bones. I know my dogs need things to keep them busy and therefore, out of trouble.

I also do occasional, very brief, and fun training sessions with them to teach them that paying attention to me when there are 40 people in the house is a VGT (Very Good Thing — for dogs).

Weve been hosting this party for more than a decade now, and many friends have not missed a year. Many attended the first year we brought home Monte, my Saint Bernard. Ten months after adoption, he was much healthier than he was when he came to us and also much better behaved, but still had reactivity issues to being touched by strangers. He spent a lot of his first Christmas Eve Eve party crated. A few years later, those same guests were at our house where he would happily allow for appropriate petting in exchange for a tasty treat and would practice impulse control lying down while pieces of steak rained down around him, bouncing off his big head, slobber smacking on the kitchen floor. He was not crated: He was part of the party, having a great time.

One of my friends said, Wow! Hes so much better behaved than he used to be. Youre like the Dog Whisperer. She was beaming with the joy of having found what she thought was the perfect compliment.

That wasnt the first or last time I heard the phrase. Im sure they mean Cesar Millan and not Paul Owens (who is the original Dog Whisperer, having written a book by that name many years before National Geographic created its popular reality television show, and who is actually a very talented, dog-friendly trainer), which means I cant possibly take the reference as a compliment.

Cesar and I both train dogs and their people. We both care deeply about helping dogs and people co-exist more peacefully. But thats pretty much where the similarities end.

See, Monte would easily have made a great dog for an episode of the Dog Whisperer — Cesar would call him a red zone dog. He would bark and lunge, slobber flying everywhere, sometimes to the point of vomiting, when hed see another dog on the leash. One time, my friend bent over him and smiled. In a time span measured in fractions of seconds, he had her skull in his mouth (and thankfully, showed unbelievable bite inhibition). He dragged me into city traffic after another dog one day, nearly putting me in the hospital. He was a strong, powerful dog with strong, powerful unwanted reactions to dogs and specific other situations with people.

At the time, I wasnt a trainer. I was a dedicated pet owner and huge Cesar fan. I tried the techniques I saw on his show and found Monte’s problems worsened. I had the opportunity to chat with Cesar once after a seminar, and he suggested that I wasnt calm and assertive enough. I felt discouraged and hopeless.

I was as skeptical as many dog owners are about the power of positive reinforcement to address reactivity and aggression. Seriously?! You think a toy noisemaker and some treats are going to help this dog? It didnt cure the problem overnight, but we did see progress from the start. It was hard work. It required that we change our lifestyle and our thoughts about how dogs learn about the world.

But it worked. It worked so well that Monte was eventually able to enjoy play dates with carefully selected other dogs and even Christmas Eve Eve parties. It worked so well that I couldnt stop learning more until I became a trainer myself.

On the surface, our results looked the same. Dogs that started out with extreme behavioral issues and their people were able to enjoy the types of lifestyles together that theyd hoped for. Under the surface, our results and process were extremely different. I achieved my goals without the use of fear, intimidation, choke chains, prong collars, leash pops, taps with the foot to the ribs, or pinning my dog to the ground. I did it with cooperation, not opposition.

As for results? To a trained eye, body language speaks volumes. Monte was not stressed. He was happy and relaxed, more worried about when he would receive his next treat or scratch as opposed to when hed hear the next verbal Tschhht! or get the touch in the shoulder.

There is a cultural assumption that only trainers who use coercion can be successful in rehabilitating and modifying the behavior of dogs with extreme behavior problems — whether the dog has killed a number of small animals, has an established bite history with people or other dogs, or has torn the doors and windows out of the house as a result of separation anxiety. The second part of the myth is that trainers who eschew the use of coercion in favor of manipulating reinforcement opportunities only teach tricks to well-behaved dogs and allow dogs with behavior problems to die.

This is an myth. Most of the countrys top behavior consultants, including actual behaviorists (who have advanced degrees in behavioral sciences), rehabilitate red zone dogs every day, working with real-life dog owners, a treat pouch, and dog- and people-friendly techniques grounded in modern science. To me and all behavior consultants who use positive reinforcement to rehabilitate dogs with behavior issues, please dont call us Dog Whisperers when youd like to give a compliment. (Unless it’s followed by the disclaimer, You know, the Paul Owen kind. Then its okay.)

For more on the pitfalls of Dog Whispering as shown on NatGeo, check out the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviors Position Statement on Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals and the Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in the Behavior Modification of Animals.

About the Author: Casey Lomonaco graduated with distinction from the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior, and is a member of the following professional organizations: APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers), CGC evaluator — AKC (American Kennel Club), TDF (Truly Dog Friendly), and the No-Shock Collar Coalition.