“There was something I had never told him, that no one ever had. I wanted him to hear it before he went. ‘Marley,’ I said, ‘You are a great dog.’”
- John Grogan, Marley and Me
How do you know that your dog is unstable? If you are like the majority of my clients, you just know. Your dog gets aggressive with other dogs on walks and at the dog parks. Or howls for hours when you leave the house. Or compulsively runs away. All this is puzzling to you, because the family dog from your childhood was perfect — or that is the way that you remember him. In the amber glow of your memory, your beloved Blackie was mellow, obedient, and content to stay in the background. He was naturally social, and always got along with strange people and dogs. He fetched and returned the tennis ball, walked beside you to school, and never peed in the house. So why does your current dog dig up your garden? Why does he hide under the table when the garbage truck drives by? What in the world is up with him when he manically spins in circles when he gets excited? Of course, like most of my clients with unstable dogs, you simply accept that your dog was born with something missing — or has some sort of mental disorder. Or, if your dog was adopted from a rescue organization, you create a story — that he had such a traumatic experience in his past placements that he will never be able to forget the terrible abuse he suffered during those dark, lonely years before he met you. So of course, he will never be stable, and you should not complain, but instead, remain tolerant and feel really sorry for him when he pees all over your sofa whenever you turn the television on. How could you criticize him when he bites anyone who comes near his food dish, knowing what he’s been through in his short but traumatic life? You decide you have to pay the price to live with an unstable dog, because of everything that happened to him before. You owe it to him.
They’re All Great Dogs
The truth about dogs is, they don’t feel bad about the past. They don’t dwell on their bad memories. We are the only species that does that. Dogs live in the moment. If they feel safe and secure in the moment, then any past conditioned behavior can be reconditioned, provided we give our time, our patience — and our consistency. Dogs move on — often, very quickly. They — like everything else of Mother Nature — naturally want to return to balance. Too often, it is we, the humans, who are unknowingly preventing that balance from occurring.
We are human beings and one of the most beautiful things about our species is that we have empathy. When someone — including an animal —who we care about is in distress, we feel bad for them. We hurt when they hurt. But in the animal world, hurt is a weak energy. Feeling sorry is a weak energy. The kindest thing we can do for our animals who have suffered in the past is to help them move forward into the present. In short, that uncontrollable, neurotic monster you are living with is just waiting for you to help guide him on the way to becoming one of the world’s greatest dogs!
Marley & Me
John Grogan’s book Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog hit the best-seller list in November of 2005 and, as of this writing, is still in the top ten. It’s easy to see why — this fun-to-read, touching tale of a lovable but out-of-control family Labrador, Marley, could easily be the life story of many of my clients dogs. Marley is usually destructive, rarely obedient, sometimes obsessive, and always unpredictable.
He’s even described on the book jacket as wondrously neurotic. To me, joining the words wondrous and neurotic is part of the reason that there are so many unstable dogs in America. Many people who love their dogs think that their pets’ unhealthy issues are just “personality quirks.” When author Grogan first published his tribute to the recently deceased Marley in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he initially thought that his former companion was one-of-a-kind - “the world’s worst dog.” He was soon flooded with letters and e-mails informing him that he was actually just one member of a giant “Bad Dog Club.”
“My in-box resembled a television talk show,” Grogan writes, ‘Bad Dogs and the People Who Love Them,’ with the willing victims lining up to proudly brag not about how wonderful their dogs were but about just how awful.” Like many of my clients, however, all these well-meaning dog lovers may not understand that their dog isn’t happy being “awful.”
I was thrilled last year when the wonderful Grogan family actually became my clients. Through my National Geographic channel series, Dog Whisperer, they contacted me and invited me to their home in Pennsylvania to help them with Gracie, their current dog. Also a gorgeous yellow lab, Gracie had a very different issue than Marley (which I’ll get to chapter 4). But as different as the two dogs were, Gracie and Marley’s problems were both caused by the same human issues — lack of leadership. When I finally met John Grogan and his wife, Jenny, Marley’s story made more sense to me. They are highly intelligent, compassionate people who see the world through the eyes of talented journalists. They observe, analyze, and describe, but they don’t interfere or try to change. They assumed they were stuck with Marley the way he was — that, in the words of John’s father, Marley just “had a screw loose.” Indeed, as the Grogans laughingly said to me, if it hadn’t been for Marley’s quirks, there wouldn’t have been a wonderful book for so many people to identify with, and to bring tears to so many people’s eyes. That’s the catch, isn’t it? We don’t want to change our dogs because they make us laugh, or feel unconditionally loved, or needed. But very often we don’t put ourselves into the position of how the dog feels. When a dog has a fear, or an obsession, or any of the many other problems I am called in to solve, most of the time we’re not talking about a “personality quirk.” We’re talking about an unfulfilled and sometimes an unhappy dog.
After I finished wiping the tears in my eyes and put down Grogan’s book, the first thing that came to my mind was that Marley was perfectly capable of being that “great dog,” all the time! In the book, John’s wife Jenny goes through postpartum depression after the birth of their second son and, overwhelmed with the frustration of caring for two babies and a dog that destroys furniture on a daily basis, she finally breaks down and orders the uncontrollable lab out of the house for good. Previously, Marley had been kicked out of obedience class, but John knows that if he can’t get the dog to follow some basic commands and learn not to jump up on people who come to the house this time around, he’s going to lose his best friend. So John actually did it. With grim determination, John buckled down, worked really hard to become a serious “pack leader,” and finally helped Marley to graduate from obedience class at last — even though he was seventh in an obedience class with eight dogs in it. With the help of a friend, John breaks Marley of his habit of tackling people who come to their front door. The point is, John was a pack leader when he absolutely needed to be — and Marley was perfectly capable of being an obedient dog. Together the two of them rallied to the challenge and did what needed to be done in order to keep the pack together. In my reading of the book, however, once Jenny recovered from her depression and things mellowed out at home, John stopped following through in his leadership. So Marley only went so far in learning how to obey household rules, boundaries, and limitations.
John and Jenny also had an advantage that many people who adopt older dogs or shelter dogs don’t have— the opportunity to condition Marley to be a well-behaved dog from puppyhood. Again, seeing their dog as journalists — in a detached way — they failed to interfere with what they assumed was Marley’s natural development. They observed all his antics with wonder and good humor. Plus, he was so darn cute! The endearing photograph on the cover of the book says it all — the curiously cocked head, the pleading brown eyes, how could anyone with a heart ever want to correct or give discipline to that adorable, floppy-eared pup John and Jenny made the well-meaning but common mistake of believing that Marley’s destructive antics as a puppy were evidence of his developing personality, his “spirit.” When you study dogs in nature — from wolves to wild dogs to domestic dogs that raise each other, like some farm dogs do — you will witness discipline and order instilled in their lives from their very first days as puppies. You’ll also see the elder canids putting up with an awful lot from the pups — instead will allow the little ones to crawl on them, tug on them, even nip. They won’t deny their innate playfulness, however they set definite limits on it. When playtime is over, the elder dog lets the pups know it right away — by nosing them to the ground with a gentle bite or lifting them up by their scruffs, if necessary. Sometimes, only a growl will get their point across. The older dog always follows through and the pups always back off. If danger is imminent, the elders manage to get the pups immediately herded together and inside the safety of the den in the blink of an eye — to the envy of any kindergarten teacher out there who daily tries to get a pack of five-year-old kids to come back into class from the playground! The point is, the pups get the message very, very quickly that they must follow the rules of the pack. At no point in time is their playful “spirit” ever diminished, but they do come to understand early on in life that there is a time and a place for everything. Mother Nature has no trouble setting limits in a firm but loving way. But when it comes to cute puppies (and often, our own cute kids), most people just can’t bear to set them on the road to good behavior — especially when their antics provide such memorably humorous moments. But when those pups reach 100 pounds, the fun and games that used to seem cute suddenly become destructive and sometimes dangerous.
John and Jenny had a wonderful companion in Marley. They accomplished trust, love, and loyalty with him. What they didn’t accomplish was respect, however, and respect is an essential ingredient in the structure of any healthy pack. When the students don’t respect the teacher, a school class doesn’t learn. A military unit cannot function at its best when the soldiers do not respect their commander. Parents cannot properly guide their children if the kids do not respect them. In the same way, your dog will not feel safe and calm and stable if she does not respect you as pack leader.
Part of the reason John and Jenny did not gain Marley’s full respect was that they always addressed themselves to Marley - the name and personality, first. Marley to them was just plain old, goofy, not-exactly-a-rocket-scientist, loyal Marley. They were not addressing themselves to the animal in Marley, the dog in Marley, or even the breed of Marley, a Labrador retriever.
Remember this key concept:
When you interact with your dog — especially, when you’re trying to correct out-of-control behavior — you must train your mind to relate to him in this order:
Species: dog (canis familiaris)
Breed (Labrador Retriever)
First, it’s important to address yourself to the “animal” in your dog because that is what you have in common with him — you are both animals. We’ll talk later about how to project the kind of energy that any animal will recognize. Second, your dog is a dog — not a baby or a small furry person with a tail. All dogs have certain traits in common and certain ingrained ways of behaving. Learning to recognize what is “dog” and what is “Marley” is the key in distinguishing unstable behavior from normal behavior. Then there’s breed. Recognizing breed is especially important if, like the Grogans, you have a purebred animal. The genes that make him “pure” also give him special needs that you must know how to fulfill in order to ensure his happiness and balance. We’ll talk more about fulfilling the breed in your dog in Chapter 4.
After animal and dog, finally, there’s Marley — the name, the irrepressible “personality.” Most of the time, what we think of as a dog’s personality is in our own heads, the story we made up about the dog. Often it’s based on how the dog looks or acts, and I’m sorry to say that, far too often, what we think of as personality is actually based on the dog’s own issues of instability.
So, how do you tell your dogs’ “personality” from your dogs’ “issues”? What are “issues,” anyway?
Aggression: Directed toward other dogs and/or people. Includes fear-biting, growling over food, lunging at strangers or strange dogs, aggressive possessiveness.
Hyperactive Energy: Includes jumping on people upon meeting them or when they enter the house; compulsively spinning or twitching, destructive activity such as chewing and digging; overexcited panting, etc. Don’t confuse over-excitement with happiness!
Anxiety/Separation Anxiety: Includes barking, whining, scratching, etc. — whether you are there or after you leave the house; pacing; destroying things when you’re away.
Obsessions/Fixations: Includes an “addiction” or unusual preoccupation with anything from a cat to a tennis ball; expressed by tense body language, obliviousness to owner’s commands, food rewards, even physical pain.
Phobias: A fear or traumatic incident that the dog has not been able to move beyond — anything from shiny floors to thunder to the UPS truck.
Low Self-esteem/Timidity: Weak energy, irrational fear of anything; total freezing up. An extreme degree of fear.
Any kind of behavior that falls into these categories is not “just your dog’s personality.” It is a problem.
It’s important to remember that each of the issues described above can have a medical component. A disease or parasite can cause your dog to act unstable, as can an inborn neurological disorder. In my experiences with hundreds of dogs, neurological disorders account for a very small percentage — maybe one percent - of all dogs with behavior problems. It’s important however to always have your dog checked out on a regular basis by a vet, especially if there is a sudden behavior change. Chances are, using the leadership methods I describe in my teachings will help rehabilitate your dog — but make sure you get a medical opinion first, just in case there is a health issue. I have several wonderful vets with whom I work, and I like to think medicine and behavioral therapy can go hand in hand in creating a world full of healthy, happy dogs.
Personality versus Issues
What characteristics actually comprise your dog’s natural “spirit,” or “personality”? First of all, you must understand that “personality” has a different meaning to a dog than it does to you. If you are a human who would like to date a person who complements your personality, you will place a personal ad and say things like, “I like to work out in the gym, go hiking, enjoy romantic sunset jogs on the beach; I like action movies” — indicating that you are an active-type, high-energy person and you are looking for someone to match your energy. If you place an ad that says, “I like drinking hot chocolate by a fire, staying in and renting videos, and doing crossword puzzles,” you are indicating that you are a lower-energy person who wants to meet someone with a similar energy. You would describe yourself or another person as laid back, or high-strung, or shy or outgoing. As a human, you regard all these things as personality.
Personality is similar in a dog’s world, but it is not expressed in words, or in likes and dislikes, but rather by scent and energy. When two dogs in my pack make friends with each other, they will first use their noses to sniff each other’s genitals, which will give them all kinds of information about the sex, energy level, rank, food the other dog ate, places the dog has been, and so on. The energy level is important because the dog will get along best with another dog whose energy is compatible. Have you ever seen two dogs playing, where the energy level is not a good fit? This happens often with an older dog who is with puppies. The older dog has naturally less energy, even if he was a higher-energy dog in his youth. The puppy almost always has a higher energy. The puppy will be driving the older dog crazy wanting to play, when the older dog just wants to chill out. This happens to a different degree with the dogs in my pack: the dogs naturally seek out as “friends” the dogs who can match their level of play. Even though all the dogs in the pack get along, certain dogs will gravitate to certain other dogs based on their energy levels and how they like to play. A great example of this kind of attraction happened when I was working with Punkin, a Rhodesian Ridgeback who had developed a dangerous obsession over rocks. My goal was to bring him to the center to learn from the pack’s role models — balanced dogs who couldn’t care less about rocks, but who have learned to play with tennis balls in a disciplined way (meaning play always has a beginning and an end, as determined by me, the pack leader). Punkin was an anxious, high-energy-type dog, and when we got to the dog park, he immediately was drawn to LaFitte, a very large, very high-energy standard poodle. It was like the stereotype of the “two eyes meeting across a crowded room.” They instantly recognized in each other’s scent and energy that they would match each other’s level of play and have a great time romping together. Recently, I had a high-energy Jack Russell named Jack staying at my center, whose favorite play-friend was a huge but medium energy pit bull named Spike. Even though Jack was half Spike’s size, the two just meshed together perfectly. Scent and energy combined to make up a dog’s individual “personality.”
As humans, we naturally strive to create symbols and put names on things, and we tend to associate personality with names. As far as current science knows, we are the only species that started describing our world with symbols, artwork, and most of all, with labels and names. Today, we Homo sapiens have millions of different languages and symbols that we use to communicate with each other. Just look around you — we have the little man and woman on restroom signs; the no smoking logo; even the American flag, to tell us where we are and how we should be relating to our environment at that moment. We have millions of different words and phrase combinations to describe things. As people, we tend to organize and personalize pretty much everything that happens around us. It’s how we understand things, how we see the world through our human eyes. For example, we give hurricanes names. We classify flowers and trees.
In the dog world, however, trees don’t have names. They have a scent, and they have a specific use for the dog in its environment. Is this tree poison or will eating the bark of this tree make my stomach feel better? Is this tree at a crossroads so I can mark it with my scent? they think. This how a dog views the tree - from the point of view of her survival,. Dogs don’t need names to understand and identify each other, either. They look at the big picture — their own survival and the survival of the group. Your personality — your “name” to your dog — is how you fit in his life; your energy, your scent, your role in the pack is what is important.
Dogs don’t have a name within the pack; they have a position within the pack. Some people who study dogs would name the ranks, “alpha, beta, omega,” and so forth. Other labels that we create would define them as number one, number two, number three, and number four. Many people misunderstand me and say that I’m looking at dogs simplistically, as if it’s all about dominance. What they fail to realize is I believe that all the dogs are important within the pack. Dominance doesn’t mean the alpha dog is better than the others. In charge, yes; better, no. Every dog serves a purpose within the pack. The one in the back is the most sensitive of all; he’s often the one that keeps everybody aware of possible intruders. The one in the front — the pack leader - makes sure everybody gets fed, finds food and water, and is defended from rivals or other predators. It’s not a democracy, but it’s definitely all about the whole being better than the sum of all the parts. It’s all about the “we.”
“Me versus You”/ “I-I” versus “We”
Humans — at least in Western culture — tend to see the world in a very “me versus you” context. Especially in America, where rugged individualism is typical, the almighty I is the center of the universe. To my mind, that’s what makes our interpersonal difficulties so common. Divorce rates are higher than 50 percent; kids rebel against their parents, people fight with their bosses and quit their jobs in anger — because at the heart of our relationships, it’s almost always me against you. Quite differently, if a dog could have an inner voice expressed in words, he would be thinking of his world in terms of “we,” all the time. Pack first, individuals later. Even the pack leader thinks this way. Perhaps that’s partly why so many of us insecure humans gravitate to dogs when we have difficulties with people. When a dog comes into your home, you instantly get a “we” — and that never changes. It’s just in the nature of the dog, and it is really comforting when our relationships with people seem to be always fraught with tension.
This is not to say that every dog isn’t an individual — of course he is! But how do you distinguish what is your dog’s true uniqueness from what may or may not be his “issues”? There are certain characteristics that vary from one dog to another, which become how we humans usually gauge our dogs’ “personalities.” Every dog is curious to a degree - that’s a part of a dog’s spirit. Every dog is joyful to a degree — dogs live in the moment and every day for them is a kind of Christmas morning, even if they are a lower-energy or older dog. Every dog is playful to a degree. How he likes to play is partly determined by the breed, and partly by the energy. Every dog is loyal to a degree - because in nature, the pack needs loyalty in order to stay together and survive. Every dog knows how to learn — that’s part of survival, too — and he always likes to be challenged. Every dog knows how to follow a leader’s directions and rules and understands the importance of such rules. Every dog is affectionate to some degree. Every dog likes and needs to walk with a pack leader in migration mode — how much, again, depends partly on breed and partly on energy. Every dog needs to be useful, to work for food and water — to be a helpful, productive member of your pack. Dogs are not solitary like many species of cats — they are social carnivores and their deep social needs are hardwired into their brains. Being social means they need the pack to be happy and fulfilled. Because we have domesticated dogs, we have become their default pack members throughout our long history together. If we were not around, they would still form packs. During the Katrina crisis, some of the dogs left behind did exactly that temporarily, in order to survive. But we’ve been “pack leaders” to them and/or their ancestors for at least tens of thousands - and perhaps as long as hundreds of thousands - of years, so although they absolutely realize that we are not dogs but humans, they will naturally follow us if we provide them with the correct direction.
Below you’ll find two columns with single adjectives. One describes a normal dog’s characteristics or traits that you might define as a dog’s true “personality”; the other describes traits that are more likely to be issues of instability. It is a very general list, of course, as many of these traits vary depending on the breed, but I think it’s a good overview for assessment. Read the list and note the adjectives that you would apply to your dog at least 75 percent of the time. Then make an honest assessment of what you and your dog need to work on.
Normal Dog Traits or Personality
Responsive to general commands and signals
Eager to join in “pack” (family) activities
Barks to announce newcomers
Sociable with dogs and people
Patient — practices waiting
Responsive to food
Dog Issues or Instability
Jumps on people
Disobedient — doesn’t come when called
Overly fearful — fear of biting, barking or peeing; shies away from people, animals, or objects.
Antisocial — “doesn’t like” dogs or humans
Aggressive or predatory
Possessive of toys, food, furniture
Obsessive over object or activity (compulsive retrieving; chewing; tail chasing)
Shrinks from touch
Once again, the news is good — in 99 percent of the cases I’ve dealt with, all of the above issues can be resolved with my three-part fulfillment formula for any dog:
Exercise (the walk)
Discipline (rules, boundaries and limitations)
in that order!
When you provide these things for your dog, you are taking a positive step toward becoming an effective pack leader. Strong pack leadership depends on understanding the importance of remaining calm and assertive and remembering not to “punch out” on your responsibilities for your dog any more than you would punch out on your children. I’ve heard children described as “little cameras that never turn off” — and dogs are exactly the same way. Living in the universe of the “we,” they are always observing you and processing your signals for clues to how to behave. When we send dogs inconsistent signals, we create instability in them.
Once again, we’re back to the part of the fulfillment formula that many of us have a problem with - discipline. Discipline isn’t about showing a dog who’s boss; it’s about taking responsibility for a living creature you have brought into your world. Many of my clients think that if they set any boundaries for their dogs, they automatically become the bad guy. That’s certainly the problem John and Jenny Grogan had. Without discipline, they could not accomplish respect. They could not give Marley the rules, boundaries, and limitations he needed in order to live a more peaceful life. He ended up full of what they saw as “personality quirks” but what I would call instability. By giving a dog rules, boundaries, and limitations, you don’t kill his spirit. You just give him the structure he needs in his life in order to find peace — and allow his true dog self to emerge. Your dog can be that “great dog” you imagine — but you’ve got to be the one to lead him there!
Be The Pack Leader Success Story
Tina Madden and Nunu
If you’ve watched the first season of my show, you probably remember Nunu the Demon Chihuahua, whose pint-sized aggression was making the lives of his owner Tina and her roommate Barkely unmanageable. Three years later, Tina Madden’s life has changed dramatically since she became the Pack Leader. Now she not only works at my Dog Psychology Center, but she rehabilitates dogs herself. But what’s more important is how she feels about herself — empowered as a woman and a person. Here’s her story in her own words:
“Before Nunu, I was extremely insecure. I didn’t leave the house very much. I had issues with myself, my body image, what people thought of me, how they viewed me. I was always insecure and anxious. I cried all the time. Anyway, I decided I’d rather be around dogs than people, so I quit my bartending job and went to work as a vet tech.
I was okay at work because the animals needed me. But outside of the work environment, I was afraid of the world. Even going to the grocery store scared me. I was isolating myself, and it was just getting worse. This kept going in a downward spiral. I wasn’t rock bottom. But I was heading there.
I got Nunu in February. He comes in. I’m insecure. I’m nurturing bad behavior in myself and in him, and I think, there’s got to be something I can do. Everybody kept saying, “Put him down. He’s terrible. He’s too damaged to ever be a good dog. Just put him to sleep.” And then in April, in walks Cesar, and when he walked out of my house, my life changed that day. It was because he had such “can-do” energy. He wanted me to become more confident and show more leadership — something I would have found impossible to imagine before. But his words to me were, “No matter what, you can do this. You just have to do it.” And if I wasn’t going to do it for me, at least I could do it for my dog, who I loved.
First of all, I immediately had to get over my fear of going out. Cesar absolutely ordered me to walk Nunu every day, and so that’s what I started doing. Cesar said forty-five minutes. I said an hour. So at least two to two-and-a-half hours a day, before and after work, seven days a week, we’d be walking. And in my walking, because Nunu’s so cute, people wanted to approach him, so I began to meet people that way. I started making friends in my neighborhood. Suddenly I had a social life - people were inviting me to their houses. And I had a ritual. Before I would go out on my walk every day, I would visualize. “This is going to be a great walk. This is going to be a perfect walk! Any obstacle we come across, we can handle. I have the knowledge and the presence to handle it.” I used to walk by dogs behind fences and even face-to-face with dogs, and I would be terrified they were going to bite Nunu. I thought I didn’t know how to handle it. But little by little, I noticed I did know how to handle it. And the more I did it, the better it became and the more confident I became.
Nunu didn’t completely change the next day. He wasn’t all “fixed” the next week, or even the next month, but the more I changed my behavior around him, which meant being more confident, he started to really change. I’m proud of Nunu for changing — but the big energy change came from me. From empowering myself.
My self-confidence has increased so much. And not just around dogs. The way I connect with other people has changed completely. I think one of the hardest things for some people is to be able to read another person. Are they good? Are they bad? Can you trust them? But really, understanding other people begins with understanding yourself. Learning to be aware of my own energy has really made that easier for meÉand that’s something I learned from Cesar and Nunu. And I don’t feel like a victim anymore. I feel in control of myself, in just about every situation.
I did “transform my dog,” and then “transform my life.” I am very happy now. . And all because of one little dog. One little one-pound dog.
From the Hardcover edition.