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We Chat With Dog Trainer Leslie McDevitt, Author of the Groundbreaking “Control Unleashed”

McDevitt wrote one of my favorite training books. As a trainer myself, I was thrilled to talk with her about dog behavior.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Aug 18th 2015


As a dog trainer committed to my craft, I love learning from other qualified dog training professionals. I love it so much that I spent $5,000 on continuing education (seminars, travel, DVDs, webinars, books, and becoming a nose work instructor) in 2014 alone. Knowledge and study of our canine companions is expanding rapidly, and it’s an exciting time to be a dog owner and a dog trainer.

While I enjoy learning about the newest training protocols and staying current, one of my all-time favorite training books came out in 2007: the groundbreaking book Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog, by trainer Leslie McDevitt, MLA, CDBC, CPDT. She also has three DVDs: Control Unleashed: A Foundation Seminar, Pattern Games: Clicking for Confidence and Connection, and Control Unleashed: Game Demonstrations.

control unleashed

Leslie is an expert on sport dogs as well as dogs with behavior concerns. She served as president and training director of the Y2K Dog Sports Club in Pennsylvania, evaluates dogs for Glen Highland Farm’s Border Collie Rescue program, and she’s the training advisor for the Animal Welfare Project. She enjoys the widespread admiration and affection from animal trainers around the globe.

Leslie was one of the first to encourage both pet and sport dog owners to (gasp!) allow their dog to be a dog, even when it means setting aside our hopes and dreams for the dog’s purpose in our lives. She learned this lesson from one of her own dogs, an expensive Tervuren named Rumor she acquired specifically to be her personal sport dog. Rumor had an incurable spinal condition, which resulted in them only competing in sport that didn’t hurt his back (such as rally). She came to understand that Rumor was happier being a pet dog, so she retired him at a young age, even though at the time that puzzled many in the dog-sports world. She did what was right for the dog versus what she wanted from him — and doing so takes courage.

Leslie McDevitt's dog Rumor. (Photo courtesy controlunleashed.net)

Leslie McDevitt’s dog Rumor. (Photo courtesy controlunleashed.net)

Some of my favorite tidbits of wisdom from Leslie’s book include these jewels:

  • “If your instructor asks you do to something that you think is wrong for your dog, don’t be so impressed by performance titles that you blindly accept the suggestions.”
  • “Let us never forget that biology and behavior are bedfellows.”
  • “I believe that dogs have choices. I believe that achieving true awareness of these amazing beings is more important than achieving titles.”

Leslie took time out of her busy training schedule and as a mother of three-year-old twins to answer questions for Dogster readers.

Dogster: Is the first step in helping a troubled dog to teach it to learn to relax?

Leslie McDevitt: If you are having a behavior problem with your dog, the very first step is to find a truly positive reinforcement, professional trainer to help you. That pro can help you teach relaxation protocols for your dog and she can make sure you really do have a reactive dog or determine if your dog is anxious, aggressive, or fearful.

SnapAndLeslie

Leslie McDevitt and her dog Snap.

What are your favorite ways to get a dog to relax?

The best method has been brought to us by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall. She has a detailed relaxation protocol on her DVDs, and you can see owners working with their dogs on YouTube videos. We teach dogs how to take a breath. This is a self-calming skill that all dogs already know how to do. Guide a dog to do this by holding a treat up for a dog to sniff, and the dog will air scent to get a good whiff of it, and that pulls the scent through the nose while the mouth is closed. We pair this with eye contact, and soon enough, the dog is taking deeper and deeper breaths, and that leads to deeper self-calming. There is an element of focus in relaxation, and these dogs need help in becoming focused.

Why do you think trainers and behaviorists are seeing so many dogs these days displaying behavior issues such as dog-to-dog aggression?

We’re more reactive and sensitive than we used to be to our dog’s public behavior. Thankfully, we’re also more tuned in to our dogs and are more aware of canine behavior. Unethical breeding practices that do not focus on temperament or health have put a lot of bad genes into the breeding pool. People are uneducated and still purchase puppies from puppy mill-supported pet stores. It’s always a question of genetics and environment. There are also a lot environmental stressors on dogs these days, like being crated all day without getting to be dogs enough.

Please talk about the difference between arousal and “drive” in dogs

“Drive” is not an official or technical term. It is a description that dog people have of a dog who wants to work and who enjoys his work. People see intent behaviors that are arousal behaviors that are hyperactive behaviors, and they say, “That dog must be high drive.” They are mistaking the intensity of those behaviors for “drive.” Arousal behavior is a physiological response to excitement. The dog might be running in circles, jumping, or barking, and that has nothing to do with drive.

control-unleashed-puppy

Many dog owners think it is cute when their dog gets “the zoomies” — when they gallop around in circles out of control. Can you explain what is happening to a dog when he does that?

One way to know if a dog is enjoying himself versus running as a stress response is to look at context. It’s like roller coaster behavior in humans: If you think about riding on a roller coaster, you chose to do it and are having fun but while you do it. If you start screaming or sweating or becoming out of breath, your body’s having the same flight-or-fight response as it would if you were anxious. With zoomies in a dog park, the dog might have started out having fun but he tips over into a fight-or-flight mode.

What is a “default behavior”?

A default behavior is the first behavior a dog does when he is using his behavior as a tool to get something he wants. It’s step one in the art of a dog learning self-control. The dog learns to offer us a sit instead of us commanding it. He learns that this behavior is the one that works to get what he wants, and it is a natural behavior for the dog. The owner keeps rewarding the dog for offering this behavior. The three that I like the most are: sit, down, and eye contact.

Thanks, Leslie! Check out her website for more information.

Want to win the COMPLETE works by dog trainer Leslie McDevitt? Like Annie’s Facebook training page and leave a comment as to why you want to win this valuable collection valued at over $200 — and both books are personally signed by Leslie McDevitt! An independent third party will choose a winner on Wednesday, Aug. 26th.

Read more by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, on Dogster:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.