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?

Blatz had placed both dogs on long leads so the owners could gain control over them. Each owner worked on the come/sit/stay commands, attaining only a modicum of success with each dog. Newman seemed too jealous, his bellicose barks demanding attention from Evans, who was Newman's owner before she moved in with Lovell. N.D. was purchased to placate Newman, who treated his passive companion as plaything and whipping boy. N.D. still bore the scars of the vicious Easter weekend attack that sent him to the dog hospital and brought Blatz into the picture.

"Newman had everything the way she liked it before the deck was built," Blatz said. "Her obsessive sniffing comes from a loss of control, which is when she strikes out against N.D."

Although this family dysfunction might take several sessions to fix, Blatz grew surprised when Newman allowed Blatz to hover over her. "Even though I am not touching her, I am totally dominating her now," she said. "Look how she is lying motionless under my knees. This is huge. Huge! I pronounce you better, but not cured."

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.

We visited one final home, but the dogs and their owners wish to remain anonymous. The owners were recently married, and the new wife inherited two dogs, both of which had lived in the husband's home without routine or structure. "It was just one big frat party," Blatz said. "The dogs just hung out, slept on the furniture and did as they pleased."

Enter "the wicked stepmother," as the wife called herself, who was trying to bring some discipline into the home, and Fido (not his real name) grew anxious, his top-dog status challenged by this she-person who believed in rules and accountability. Feeling trapped in the marriage, Fido became a digger, looking for a way out. It didn't help that the couple moved houses, bought new furniture and traveled frequently. Change heightened Fido's anxiety. To relieve stress, he would intimidate the more laid-back Fluffy (not his real name), blocking his access to the bedroom, growling and biting him for no good reason. Fido looked innocent enough (a Benji dog) but was a bully at heart. "His reaction is to lash out and cower," Blatz said. "It's a kind of fear-based aggression."

The wife had grown distraught, uncertain of her role. She seemed as much in need of guidance as her pets did. "My husband is fine with the way things are," she said. "But I am scared to death of Fido."

"The dogs want someone who tells them what to do," Blatz assured her. "There is something calming about being told to sit and stay." Blatz had several other suggestions: a water gun or a thick blanket to break up dog fights, early intervention before events trigger Fido's anxiety disorder, structure and routine to compose and settle the dogs. "You should always exit the room before Fido," Blatz said. "It may not seem like a big thing, but in a dog's world that puts you in the dominant position."

After a full day of dominant dogs, Moe's aloofness paled by comparison. His fetish for footwear had not subsided, though he did appear more interested in retrieving shoes than turning them into mulch. Many of Blatz's methods were working. Because of time-out, he was settling quicker, more conscious of where his body ended and the kids' began. Because of the long lead, Moe's indoor behavior became more tolerable, less neurotic. Because of our repeated commands, he was making better choices, nabbing his blue bear rather than the entire cast of Attack of the Clones in miniature. He had grown more playful in our care, more loving, but there was still something missing, a level of attachment that had to exist if I was going to trust him around my children. Blatz said Moe might be telling me that I wasn't leader enough for him; that he was so stubborn, he needed someone extremely strong to be in charge.

No longer was I thinking about boot camp for Moe. I was thinking about giving him up.


My nephew got married over Memorial Day weekend, and I confess to getting slightly intoxicated at the rehearsal dinner. Esther and I returned home around 1 a.m., making several trips to the car as we unpacked extra clothes, a cassette player and flowers. We miscued on the front door, however, leaving it wide-open. Moe took the opportunity to bolt. He raced out the door with me in hot pursuit, although three vodkas slowed me considerably. Heading down our street, I could only make out his outline backlit by our neighbors' porch lights. I called him to come, but he mocked me by running faster, egging me on to give chase. I raised my voice louder, shouting at him now: Moe, come! Moe, come! But he refused. I worried I might lose him altogether; I worried he might be hit by a car. Again. I chased him for two blocks, but he kept his distance, circling back for an instant and then darting into the night.

I remembered what the dog whisperer had told me: He is reacting to your negative energy. If he runs out of the house, don't run after him--run away from him. The more neurotic he gets, the quieter you get. So I ran toward my house and felt as though he was following me, but I couldn't tell for certain. It was too dark, and I was too drunk. I hurried into my front yard, sat down on my porch and waited. Suddenly he scampered past me, but I kept silent. Then I whispered for him to come, which, amazingly, he did.

In that moment, I felt as though we had both made the same choice: I decided to keep him, and he decided to stay.

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