The Dog Whisperer

Susan Blatz uses a kinder, gentler method to train dogs and the people who own them. Or is that the other way around?

It's not as though we didn't already have the two most challenging kids in the world. Max is 5, a Harry Potter clone; he's an exhausting, whirling dervish of a child, a cultural sponge who soaks up the latest media images--Spider-Man, Anakin Skywalker, Otto Rocket--assuming they can be reduced to plastic and product-placed in a Happy Meal. Lily is 19 months of mischief, daring you to love her or leave her as she wanders off to test the limits of her freedom and your patience. Both children would rather climb than walk, wrestle than rest, bounce on my aching back than listen.

So why would I want to add 70 pounds of dog to the mix?

My wife certainly knew better. She liked the idea of getting a dog, but then again, both children have been yelping since they were pups, and Lily isn't even housebroken yet. We've all seen those well-groomed kids who sit quietly in restaurants, drawing with crayons or playing Gameboy while their parents chat. Those aren't our kids.

Dog trainer and attitude adjuster Susan Blatz shares some lighthearted moments with 1-year-old Moe, a neurotic golden retriever whose abandonment issues cause him to steal children's toys for attention.
Mark Graham
Dog trainer and attitude adjuster Susan Blatz shares some lighthearted moments with 1-year-old Moe, a neurotic golden retriever whose abandonment issues cause him to steal children's toys for attention.
Blatz's gentle training methods employ repetition and praise to positively motivate dogs like Moe. Her techniques may also have a residual benefit of motivating Lily Donald, bottom picture, left, and Max Donald, right, to sit and stay on command.
Mark Graham
Blatz's gentle training methods employ repetition and praise to positively motivate dogs like Moe. Her techniques may also have a residual benefit of motivating Lily Donald, bottom picture, left, and Max Donald, right, to sit and stay on command.

Truth is, the whole dog thing was my idea. Before Lily was born, there was Spike (a 12-year-old husky) and Lawther (a 10-year-old mutt), both of whom died of natural causes within a year of each other. I missed my dogs, sitting at my feet when I was working in my study, getting underfoot when I wanted them to move the hell out of the way. I wanted my kids to know the joys of canine companionship, the unconditional love that flows from a pair of soulful doggy eyes. If 60 million American households have pets, many of which are considered family by owners who tell them "I love you" on a daily basis (63 percent of dog owners, according to one study), certainly I could find a place for one in my home.

I wanted a golden retriever, a people-pleasing, family-friendly breed that would put up with all the abuse small children might unwittingly heap upon it. My father had adopted a golden from a rescue organization, and his dog would suffer Max and Lily gladly, allowing them to pinch and pull and pummel him with affection.

A Web site maintained by Golden Retriever Rescue of North Texas contained an extensive application, demanding that applicants swear they have abused neither man nor beast. I asked the organization to match my young family with a young dog, preferably a 1-year-old female, smallish, great with kids, easygoing, housebroken. After three months of waiting, an e-mail arrived instructing me that a dog was now in one of the rescue group's foster homes, a safe place where a volunteer family would assess our wants and the dog's needs. I never imagined that getting a dog that obviously needed getting would be so difficult, but these folks took their roles seriously. The dog had survived one mistake; they didn't want to subject him to another.

Turns out this golden was male, a big hunk of dog, tall, long and lean, with a strong jaw, fetching brown eyes and a curly reddish coat. After a foster home visit, which saw Lily drinking water from the dog's bowl while he likewise quenched his thirst, we decided to adopt. I thought if I rescued the dog, it would be forever grateful for the new life I had to offer. I was wrong.

Sometimes the rescuer becomes the victim, and that seemed the case with Moe (we named him Moe because we liked the plosive power of the name: Moe, sit. Moe, stay. Moe, come--none of which he had any intention of doing). Moe was a sweet dog, really, relatively unruffled, not an excessive barker, scratcher or licker. Although he had a regal bearing and confident prance, he seemed a bit neurotic around the edges. Like many preschoolers, Max has trouble sharing, but Moe was an outright thief, snatching the kids' toys right out of their hands--flagrantly, compulsively, constantly--and knocking the kids flat as he made his getaway. It wasn't enough that we inundated him with squeaky chew toys; suddenly, Lego pieces were unaccounted for, action figures sadly missing in action. To walk Moe outside was to be walked outside, a tug of war and wills. If given the slightest opening, Moe would fly out the front door, only returning after being hunted down like a dog.

Yes, he was still a puppy at heart; and yes, chewing was his way of flossing his teeth, but he was also mouthing at Lily, snapping at Max, as if to warn them off but frightening them just the same. It was obvious we needed professional help. Moe would have to straighten up or go.

Golden Retriever Rescue suggested we contact Susan Blatz, a dedicated dog whisperer, who used the kindler, gentler training methods now in vogue among dog disciplinarians. Without force or food, chokes or chains, shaking or rolling, she would work with us in our home, preferring to visit the actual crime scene. In our everyday environs, she could better train us to train Moe to actualize his highest dog self. Hopefully her "attitude adjustment" methods would work before he ate his way through every pair of shoes in the house.

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