Editor’s note: Enjoy our interview with Paul Owens and then read on to find out how to win his complete works: three e-books and two DVDs (an $85 value).
Are you surprised to learn that there are, in fact, two dog whisperers? And that their messages are at opposite ends of the dog-training spectrum? Professional dog trainer Paul Owens first called himself the Dog Whisperer more than 17 years ago. He has helped more than 10,000 dog owners train dogs using a nonviolent and compassionate approach. Owens has been written about in a wide variety of national media and in numerous dog training industry periodicals. His calm energy emanates kindness, compassion, and a true understanding of how animals learn.
His popular book, The Dog Whisperer, doesn’t mince words on his belief that dog training should never be about jerking, hitting, shocking, or shaking a dog to get a desired behavior. He promotes reward-based training, which is the polar opposite espoused by another vocal person in the dog training world who just happens to also call himself by the same name.
Dog owners have a choice to make between these two competing philosophies. For my money, I choose the original Dog Whisperer every time.
Annie Phenix for Dogster: What appealed to you about training dogs when you first began training 40 years ago?
Paul Owens: I stumbled into it. We always had dogs when I was growing up, but back then training consisted of smacking the dog with a rolled-up newspaper and rubbing a dog’s nose in poop.
When I turned 21, I adopted my own dog, a Golden Retriever named Tara, and I enrolled in training classes. I was thrilled I could get her to listen to me and started doing obedience competitions. We got Dog World scores and then I started apprenticing in classes.
Do you consider yourself to be a crossover trainer? What caused you to make that change?
Absolutely. When Tara won her competitions back in the 1970s, she wasn’t being trained with treats. It was all leash corrections, pinning, chin-chucks, nose slaps, body jabs, and all the rest. I still cringe and silently apologize to her every time I think of it.
As for why I changed methods, I started practicing yoga and slowly my consciousness changed. It was back around 1988, I think, when someone said to me, “Isn’t your dog supposed to be your friend and a member of your family?” And something clicked. I would never hit, kick, jerk, or threaten my friends and family members, so how could I do that to my dog? Or, as I jokingly advise my clients: “Don’t do anything to your dog that you’d be arrested for if you did the same thing to a human!”
Is there one dog who sticks out as teaching you the most about dog training?
Two: Molly, my Portuguese Water Dog, and Grady, my 100-pound Golden. Molly and Grady were both very aggressive dogs. Molly was aggressive toward humans; Grady was aggressive toward dogs. Slowly, over the years, the training took hold and they went on to helping me in classes, schools, and my after-school children’s programs, and never once showed any aggression toward any dog or human being. They taught me that if they could change that much without ever being hit, jerked, pinned, or threatened, people can change without being threatened or treated harshly, too. And that included me.
When did you start calling yourself the Dog Whisperer?
Around 1997. One of my students blurted out in class one day, “Oh, you’re just like a horse whisperer, but with dogs!” and everybody laughed. Through word-of-mouth, the name started to spread.
In 1999, when we were thinking for a name for my first book, the publisher said we had to call it The Dog Whisperer or they weren’t going to publish it. Hah! So there you have it.
How do you feel about that other guy with the TV show calling himself by the name you chose for yourself?
Along with many other experts, I sent National Geographic emails detailing why I thought the methods being shown on their program were harmful and often dangerous to both dogs and humans and strongly suggested that, at the very least, they should offer another program that would demonstrate the effectiveness of nonviolent training methods. I received form letters in response.
As to why National Geographic was allowed to use the name, that was a complicated and a potentially very expensive and confrontational issue, so I didn’t pursue it. A strange thing happened, though: Tens of thousands of people learned about nonviolent training because viewers searched the Internet for the term “Dog Whisperer” and bought my products by mistake!
Out of all of those books and DVDs, only five people returned them, even when they realized I wasn’t the guy on the program.
What is your favorite thing about being a dog trainer? Least favorite?
Metaphorically speaking, and hokey as it may sound, I have learned that there is no greater thrill and nothing more rewarding in life than saying hello to Mother Nature and suddenly have her smile back and say hello to you.
For example, I’ll be in a home with a child who is deathly afraid of the family’s newly adopted, yapping, jumping puppy. So I’ll take the child across the room where she feels safe and say, “Now, just say ‘Find it’ and throw this piece of chicken to the puppy.” When the puppy takes the treat, all of a sudden a connection is made. And this simple act of a puppy taking a treat can mean all the world to a frightened little girl. He accepted her gift and the relationship was born. It’s awesome.
As for least favorite: Knowing dogs can be helped and people not helping them.
If you weren’t a dog trainer, what other profession interests you?
For me, being a dog trainer has included being a student, teacher, and animal trainer. I’ve been blessed to be able to pay it forward and teach others what I was taught about stress management and how we can improve both our dogs’ and our own quality of life using kindness and compassion through positive dog training. I’ve been able to write books and produce DVDs and travel around the world doing all these things. So, what other profession is there!
What’s the one thing you wish dog owners knew about dogs?
We basically learn the same way our dogs do. And that means the educational process takes time, skill, consistency, and patience. I constantly remind people to be as kind and compassionate with themselves as they are with their dogs. We’re all on the same path learning together.
Would you like the chance to win a gift package containing e-books The Original Dog Whisperer, The Puppy Whisperer, and Good Habits for Great Dogs, alongside the DVDs Beginning and Intermediate Training and Solving Common Behavior Problems? If so, please do the following:
1. Create a Disqus account, if you haven’t already, and include a valid email. It takes just a minute and allows you to better participate in Dogster’s community of people who are passionate about dogs. If you already have a Disqus account, check it to ensure the account includes a valid email.
2. Comment below using your Disqus account, telling us about your experience with reward-based training — or, if you’ve never tried it, what makes you want to use it. Our favorite comment wins. You must be a U.S. resident. We’ll close the contest on Thursday, July 24, at noon Pacific time.
3. Check your email for a “You’ve Won!” message from us. Good luck!
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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 and her husband get to take their four highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Phenix generally leaves her six donkeys at home on the ranch . . .but she is thinking about clicker training those little hairy hee-hawers as well.