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?

I phoned Blatz one Sunday evening in mid-April and told her about my doggy dilemma. She seemed empathetic, engaging and attentive, which is a lot more than I could say for Moe.

"I can't get him to do anything," I told her. "I thought goldens were bred to please their owners."

"Well, they are," she assured me. "But it sounds like yours has issues."

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.


Turns out, Moe came from a broken home in East Texas: Mom took the kids and headed north; Dad took Moe and dropped him off at the retriever rescue. He requested that Moe be placed in a home with young children. He also left X-rays of a broken hind leg; Moe had been the casualty of a driveway car accident. Somebody might not have been paying attention.

"Somebody thought Moe was a lamp," insisted Blatz, who at 47 has no compassion for any family that would treat a dog like a dog. "Look at it from Moe's point of view. There is a divorce; there is fighting. Dogs can't reason things out; they just absorb all the negative energy and the horror. Moe lost everything he knew, even if it wasn't so great to begin with."

I was divorced once myself and grew defensive. "The foster mom told me the man hated giving him up."

"I am not saying he was abused," said Blatz, who looked like a golden herself--red hair, game eyes, soft mouth. "He might have been left out at night, and the dog is thinking, 'I am hungry. It's dark. Nobody is taking care of me.' That's when Moe starts to disconnect emotionally."

We are talking about a dog here, right?

"He becomes independent, detached from his family," she added. "He figures if he doesn't look after himself, no one else will."

"But his backyard behavior is just the opposite," I told her. He will only go back there to relieve himself if I'm standing close by.

"He may be still working through his fear of abandonment," she explained. "Goldens grow very attached to their families, and I think yours was just set adrift." She advised us to keep Moe inside whenever possible to rebuild his trust. Teaching him commands would get him focused on what we wanted him to do rather than what he wanted to do. He was just reacting to the unbounded energy of the place--that frenetic cacophony of Rug Ratsvideos, chicken nuggets, sour baby smells, soccer headers and night terrors that I called home.

Blatz was right. Moe was aloof and distant. To command his attention, Blatz instructed us to call his name first, which would be immediately followed by a hand signal and a verbal command. She told me to give it a try.

"Moe, sit. Moe, sit," I repeated, placing my open palm inches above his face. "Moe, sit."

Moe just stood there.

"Only say his name once," she told me. "He hears you. He's just ignoring you."

Another try. Instead of sitting, he began to anxiously wag his tail, bumping me with his body, cowering slightly as he grabbed one of Lily's toy teacups. Blatz grabbed Moe by the collar. "Moe, drop it." He did. "Moe, leave it." He did. She reached into her large purse, pulled out a fuzzy blue bear and tossed it on the floor. "Go get it." He did. "We have to get him making better choices. Right now, he's not choosing so good." His larceny, she contended, was just a grab for attention, a cheap thrill to draw focus away from the kids. "Nervous dog, aren't you, Moe?"

I half-expected him to answer, but he was too busy chewing the ears off the bear.

"What's he got to be nervous about?" I asked. I'm the one with the turbo-charged kids and the pissed-off wife. Esther was a hard case. She was willing to give Blatz a chance but unwilling to buy her psychological banter. She wanted our home back, our children safe, our things gnaw-free. If that wasn't possible, she wanted Moe shipped to a doggie boot camp where someone would train him employing whatever methods--harsh or otherwise--he or she felt appropriate.

"Moe is out of control," Blatz explained. "He needs to get the feeling that someone is in charge of him and is capable of dominating him. He actually wants that feeling. It will make him more secure."

Apparently dogs love structure, craving order instinctively from the day they are born. In the litter, pack puppies play fight with each other to establish a hierarchy, a dominance that bestows top-dog status on the winner. In the wild, the leader of the pack gets lots of perks: the best place to sleep, the best food, the best females. This scenario is played out in a domestic setting as well. Our family, Blatz said, is a surrogate pack, and Moe needed to learn that he was subordinate, even to Max and Lily. It would be my job as pack leader--as some kind of Al Gore alpha male--to dominate Moe, who was already challenging my authority by remaining so aloof.

To attain alpha stature, according to Blatz, I needed to maintain a command voice when addressing the dog. Upright posture and eye contact were critical. In the wild, the first dog to blink loses. If I lost to Moe--even during something as insignificant as a tug-of-war over a squeaky chew toy--he might interpret it as a sign of weakness. I wondered if they even had squeaky chew toys in the wild.

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