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National Post
by  Linda Frum

Step 1:  Accept it’s a dog
My poodle Mimi and I are in need of couple’s therapy.  We disappoint each other terribly.  If I could speak for Mimi, I’m sure she would outline her resentments this way: When she was adopted by our family six years ago, no one warned her that her position as the pampered “baby to the family” would be short-lived.  Two years into her idyllic dog-centered existence, our daughter, Ellie, was born.  Mimi has yet to recover from the hurt and injustice.
On my side of the ledger, I would say that as cute as Mimi may be - she is a rare black-and-white miniature poodle - no amount of fluffiness can compensate for the quantity of soiled carpets, shredded toys or ear-piercing barking sprees to which we have regularly been treated.
It’s not that I didn’t try to train Mimi.  It’s that I failed.  Recently, when a copy of the new book by Vancouver-based dog trainer Dale Stavroff crossed my desk, I was drawn into a fresh wave of optimism that I might yet find a balm for our troubles.  I decided not to let the title turn me off.  Let The Dog Decide?  When my dog “decides” it tends to involve Stain-Away.
Fact is, as I learned from reading his book, Mr. Stavroff, a former juvenile delinquent case worker, possesses tremendous insight and intuition about the human-canine relationship.  The secret to reforming difficult behaviors - human or canine - is this: “You have to fall in love with everyone you work with.”
Frum:  Mr. Stavroff, my dog is six years old.  Is there any hope?
Stavroff:  Absolutely.  I would suggest to you that your dog is disgruntled because the relationship hasn’t worked out in quite the way that she would hope.
Frum:  That’s so true!
Stavroff: And it sounds to me like it hasn’t worked out the way you had hoped either.
Frum: Exactly!  I read with interest your advice about how to introduce a baby into a family that already has a dog.  You were extremely deferential to the dog’s feelings.  You suggest that dog and baby have their first meeting outside of the house, and that there should be “huge rewards” for the dog every time baby comes into view.  But honestly, who has the patience to care about how the dog feels at a time like that?
Stavroff: All you need to do is get the phone calls that I get, complete with screaming in the background: “The dog has the baby’s head in his mouth!”  Or “The dog just bit our child in the face.  He has never done anything bad in his life and we just don’t understand!”  I would prefer to spend that little bit of time changing my philosophy rather than risk what dogs are willing to do to children.  And unfortunately, they do it all the time.
Last year there were five million reported bites in the United States.  That means there were at least 15 million actual bites.  Two billion was paid out in damages; $2.5 million was paid in fees at the hospital to repair the immediate damage.  Seventy-seven per cent of the victims were children.  So what we have here is this plague of attacks by dogs, mostly on children.  If it was anything else, we would be responding with outrage and busily seeking good answers, but because it’s the dog, interestingly enough, all we hear is rationalizations and excuses.
Frum: What is the most common training mistake?
Stavroff: Using techniques from 50 years ago.  Choke chains, jerking the dogs around.  It’s primitive.  Force is the last refuge of the fool.  The problem is that people have grown up believing certain things about the dog and the way its mind works.  Walt Disney reinforced that with Lady and the Tramp and The Incredible Journey.  Those are wonderful, entertaining movies, but they are not true to the dog.  When you understand the dog’s true nature, when you accept that the dog is a dog, then it’s very easy to manipulate him into a state of mind where he believes what you want him to believe.
Frum: They don’t love us, do they?  When they give us those adoring looks, the thought bubble over the head reads: “Feed me,” right?  Our love is not what motivates them?
Stavroff: No.
Frum: That’s so sad!
Stavroff: No, it’s beautiful.  I have dogs that would die for me because I created a relationship with them that met their needs as well as mine.  I could suggest that in human relations it is equally true that love is often the most destructive aspect of people’s relationships to each other.  I love my daughter, but if I love her too much to discipline her properly, to show her a proper way to live and to act, then how am I serving my daughter’s best interests?  I’m not.  All I care about are good outcomes.
Frum: So why do so many dog owners get a bad outcome?
Stavroff: If I go and watch a typical training class with dogs, I see puppies come in with their tails wagging, their heads up, their tongues lolling out of their mouths.  After 10 minutes walking around in a circle with leashes and choke collars, I see ears flattened to the head, eyes narrowed to slits, tails tucked under the butt - all signs that the dog is in distress.  And when I watch these instructors, they say “Oh, your dog didn’t sit. Pull up harder, push down harder. You’re not being firm enough with your voice.”  They never say: ”Gees, how’s the dog taking all of this?”
The dog, being the good-natured creature that he is, accepted and accepted and accepted, and eventually became, like all creatures, resentful and the association towards being taught and being trained became hateful.
Frum: So it was a big mistake to get into a power competition with my dog?
Stavroff: That’s right.
Frum: Because my dog won.  Miniature poodles are so stubborn.
Stavroff: They’re clever.  I trained a miniature poodle for someone I consider to be one of the toughest owners in the world, Dr. Laura Schlessinger.  That dog works like a Swiss watch.  But I never dominated the dog, ever.  See, the problem with dominance is that it invites challenge, and also, psychologically, you make yourself a member of the dog’s pack, which means you’re making yourself into a dog in the dog’s eyes.  That makes you a target.  It’s an illusion that alpha stays alpha for any long period of time.  Alpha stays alpha only for as long as you can maintain that position.
Frum: I tried an experiment out of your book.  I put a cracker in my mouth, got down on the floor and offered it to my dog.  She wouldn’t take it.  Why not?
Stavroff:  Because when your dog makes eye contact with you, one of two things is happening.  It’s threatening you, or you’re threatening it.  For dogs, the most important behavior in their whole existence, short of actual engagement in a fight, is eye contact.  Eye contact is how they tell everything that’s going on.  So, it is very, very threatening to the dog to take food and look you right in the face.  However, the dog who doesn’t have to look at you, doesn’t have to obey you either. 
Frum:  So once I have established what you call “benevolent eye contact” with my dog, what have I accomplished?
Stavroff:  You’ve neutralized the most threatening behavior in all of dogdom.  You are now free to pressure the dog without producing any kind of avoidance behavior.
Frum: Lots of people in Hollywood and New York ship their dogs to you to be trained.  Is that a cop out?  Shouldn’t people be able to train their own dogs?
Stavroff: Are we talking about you?
Frum:  We might be.
Stavroff: I think this is an illusion - like the illusion that we’re all born with the knowledge of how to parent.  Even though they don’t know how to fix their car or repair their computer, people are somehow obliged to know how to train a dog.  Let me tell you, if I was in a position to, I would send the dog to me.

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