The Dog Whisperer
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.
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.
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."
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 Rats videos, 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.
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.
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.
During her next therapy session, Blatz scored no points with Esther when she pulled out a 30-foot leash from her bag and suggested that the best way for Moe to grow attached to the family was for Esther to attach herself to Moe--all day. Blatz, however, was making sense: Since Moe felt out of control, he needed to be controlled all the damn time. When he began looking around the den for a superhero to sink his teeth into, Esther could yank him into awareness, redirecting him to his own toy box, where all manner of bones, bears and balls lay waiting for him to jaw. If he acted out or made bad choices, he needed to go into time-out, a space where he would separate from the family, settle down and sulk about his bad-dog self. Esther recognized the logic of time-out: It worked for Max; maybe it could work for Moe. Though she already felt tied down by the kids, she reluctantly agreed to give the long lead a try.
Later that evening, Lily innocently picked up the leash, and Moe walked her right into the wall. Lily was wailing, a nasty bump rising on her forehead. Moe's punishment was swift, certain: a 30-minute time-out. Esther had to stop me from gently kicking his ass.
It stunned me when Blatz told me my family had risen to the top of her "most difficult list," particularly since her specialty was training aggressive animals--biters and barkers mostly--some of them downright vicious. She took me to the home of 5-month-old Sam, a pernicious pup whose high-pitched yelp could cause the side of your face to tic involuntarily. Owner Dana Johnson seemed a big-hearted woman, a massage therapist whose arms Sam had once mistaken for a chew toy. "When we first got him I looked like a heroin addict," she said, holding out her right forearm. "He bit me in the eye, and I had scratches all over. He is getting better, but he still doesn't know when to stop."
Moe's behavior suddenly seemed more benign, less Jeffrey Dahmer.
"If he wants people food," Johnson added, "he comes up to where we are sitting and latches onto our arms. We don't give him people food."
I folded my arms across my chest, wondering what she meant by people food.
Blatz certainly showed no fear of Sam, a rottweiler mix who responded admirably to her commands by sitting, staying and taking a time-out in the large iron-wired cage parked in what had formerly been Johnson's den. Blatz recommended frequent time-outs for Sam. "He's like a spoiled kid who is saying, 'You're not the boss of me.' We have to teach him to calm himself down before he gets to the point of being bossy."
In this clash of alphas, Johnson seemed outflanked. Sam wasn't just pushing the envelope; he was ripping it to shreds. She could never let him win--not a game, not a sit, not a stay. When it became Johnson's turn to command, her shoulders were stooped, her head leaning forward. "Don't bend over like that," Blatz instructed her. "You lose your upright advantage. You need to speak from a position of authority. If Sam bit or barked or humped, Johnson should not engage him or fight back. She should just go limp and not give Sam the negative attention (or the body part) he was craving.
At the end of a two-hour lesson, Johnson had Sam sitting on command "100 percent of the time, which is huge," Blatz said enthusiastically. "Sam is smart and is going to make a fantastic dog as soon as he learns he can't win through intimidation."
Later that day, Blatz brought me to the quaint but cramped Lakewood home of Newman (as in Seinfeld's annoying neighbor), an obsessive-compulsive wolfhound mix. Newman would sniff irrationally for hours at a clip after her owners built a deck in their small back yard and she had less territory to dominate. Newman could be a real bitch; not only would she badger her owners, Lisa Evans and Jeff Lovell, she would also savagely attack the family's second dog. The owners had unwittingly sentenced this second dog to a subordinate pack position by naming him N.D., which stood for Newman's Dog.
"Newman is the alpha dog over all of us," admitted Evans, who referred to herself as Newman's mommy. Lovell got no respect from Newman, partly because he didn't use a command voice and insisted on explaining everything to his dogs.
"We are trying to switch roles now and put the owners in charge," Blatz said. "That way, Newman will be more controllable and N.D. will feel protected."
N.D., a beagle mix, looked severely depressed, playing the role of battered spouse as if the part were written for him. Both dogs had been sleeping on their owners' bed, which Blatz quickly remedied. "Getting the best spot in the pack means getting the highest spot," she said. "It's fine for dogs to sleep beside your bed, but if you elevate them to higher ground, that elevates their status."
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."
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter