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?

My pack leadership, Blatz said, would need to be enforced without electronic or choke collars, without alpha rolls, which place the dog on his back in a submissive position, without pushing or shaking or intimidating him. I would assert my authority with patience, consistency and understanding. To make him eager to please, I shouldn't even use the word "no." "You can't train in anger, and 'no' is usually an angry word," Blatz said. "I use words like 'enough' or 'settle.' They seem softer somehow, more directional." The more nervous and out of control Moe gets, the quieter I needed to be. "That way he won't be responding to negative energy, and he will settle quicker," she said.

I agreed to three additional "attitude adjustment" lessons, though I wasn't certain whether she meant my attitude or the dog's. As I began writing the check ($250), Max jumped in my lap, asking if I would play T-ball with him. "Please, please, please," he repeated. "You said you would earlier. You said. You saa-id." He was in my face now, and I was losing my patience as I struggled with my pen and his interference. But instead of raising my voice, I turned to him and whispered, "Max, settle," which, amazingly, he did.


Before Susan Blatz became a dog whisperer six years ago, she was a bartender and a bookseller--and before that, a wannabe nun. She grew up in New York, running with a pack of five kids--her younger brothers and sisters--whom she dominated, particularly since her "easygoing parents," she says, "gave us no structure." She craved order nonetheless and thought she could find it in the Catholic Church, working as a candy striper in "an old nun's home." But she grew disillusioned with the idea of becoming a nun ("They weren't as godly as I thought," she says) and instead moved to Dallas after high school to be close to her grandmother and aunt.
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.

She worked in a series of now defunct bookstores--Brentano's, B. Dalton's, House of Books--until a friend suggested she might make more money as a bartender. A people as well as a dog person, she loved the banter and frenzied pace of bartending, the mobility it afforded her to shift between jobs and cities. During her 23 years in the business, she tended bars in Dallas, Houston, Seattle and St. Louis. In the mid-'90s she worked in the Lakewood Bar and Grill, a neighborhood bar where the regulars were her friends as well as her customers.

"Most of them were single and desperate to find someone they trusted to care for their pets when they left town," Blatz recalls. "They knew I loved animals. I always had dog biscuits in my purse and was constantly talking about my own dogs."

She had rescued two dogs herself: a chow mix named Roscoe with a decidedly dominant streak and Lili (named after her great aunt Lillian), a nervous Doberman who was starved for affection and food when a customer brought her into the bar after she stole his golf ball on the fairway. "I told him I would only take her for the weekend," Blatz says. "But I fell in love with her because she was so needy and pathetic."

By 1996, Blatz had tired of the bar business and decided to take the summer off. Her bar customers, however, had other ideas. She became their pet nanny, providing their dogs with dinner, a short walk, a few hours of face time. Before long she had the keys to more than 50 homes in Dallas, and a going concern, Lakewood Creature Comforts. She had a knack with animals, seeing each one as an individual, an instinct for knowing what they needed. If a dog were too lonely to be left alone, she would take it into her own home. "I had different dogs with different privileges in their own homes," she says. "To keep order in my house, I had to run this pack. And that's how I started training."

Blatz worked like a dog to educate herself, employing techniques she learned from developmental psychology and bartending (dogs and drunks need someone to be in charge). "There are basically three ways to train dogs, and they all work," she explains. "Making them [force], convincing them [food] and teaching them [repetition]." Through trial and error with her own pets, she finally hit upon the gentle training method, which primarily employs repetition and praise to positively motivate pets.

"Dogs love structure and routine; they actually like being bossed around," Blatz says. "But you have to be consistent with your commands, and patient. That way, you are teaching them what to expect, building a bond and establishing your leadership role."

Patience and consistency, however, were in short supply in my house. It's hard staring down a dog when you have a screaming baby in your arms. It's difficult playing fetch with a dog that doesn't recognize your existence, much less your alpha status. It's hard to refrain from busting the chops of a dog that races wildly out the front door, avoiding your every attempt to collar him.

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