LEARNING TO SPEAK DOG
“Even the tiniest poodle or Chihuahua is still a wolf at heart.”
Although I had a dog growing up, they did not truly become my life until I met a troubled five-month-old pit bull/border collie mix from the Bronx named Princess. She had been tossed over a fence into the small concrete yard of a house-cum-shelter that belonged to my friend Robyn. I had met Robyn some weeks earlier, when I wandered to Union Square and literally stepped on a patchwork blanket that read “Adoptable Pets.” Like most New Yorkers, I was walking with my head down and looked up to find a dozen or so dogs lying on blankets in a long, happy row. Robyn immediately introduced herself and began to tell the story of each animal while fellow volunteers chimed in. Robyn is one of those people who is so genuine that you don’t ask yourself, “Can she really be this upbeat?” An amiable redhead with faded freckles and a spirit that can shine on a cloudy day in Union Square, she told me, “This one was found tied to a telephone pole; this one belonged to a family who couldn’t care for her anymore; this one’s previous owner passed away; these puppies were found in a box on a church doorstep.” Despite the fact that these dogs were in varying states of disrepair and all were homeless, Robyn shared their gut-churning stories as if they were already tales of hope and redemption.
The dogs were all super lovable, but I immediately gravitated to the pit bulls. There was nothing intimidating about these pits, as they all wore the scars and lesions of abuse and neglect. To my eyes, the stigma surrounding pit bulls made them all the more vulnerable, and who doesn’t want to see an underdog triumph? I asked Robyn how to get involved. In short order I became a volunteer, and before long I was fostering dogs.
I was raised in Queens, New York, by my phenomenal single mother, and as a child I could often be found playing with our shih tzu, Zack. My mother is fond of reminding me that I would balk at going to anyone’s home unless they had a dog. Dogs were always my favorite company, and that remains unchanged to this day.
Looking back, I’d say I was a normal kid. I was not particularly good in school, and, to be candid, I didn’t care for it much, outside of art class. Typically, I was bored, and to deal with the boredom, I often took center stage as class clown. This behavior landed me in hot water now and again, but it also helped score me the lead in school plays. At home, my favorite activities were playing with Zack, drawing, and watching animal programs (on the one channel that aired them) with my grandfather.
My teen years were pretty normal but definitely not the “glory days” that Bruce Springsteen sang about. After high school, I attended art school in New York City, and, to this day, I feel fortunate to have studied something I still care about. After college, I stayed in Manhattan and began to find my way.
Living in New York City in my early twenties felt like a big mirage. It seemed full of opportunity, but I felt powerless to take advantage of it. With the limited resources and connections of a twentysomething from Queens, everything seemed to be just over the horizon. I wanted to get in the mix but felt stunted by the need to support myself.
I worked as a busboy in a restaurant and would hike back and forth to my mom’s place at all hours. Pretty quickly, my odd hours got old for both of us, and I really needed to catch a break. That break would come when my friend Dave moved to Miami and agreed to let me sublet his place at a reduced rent. An affordable Manhattan apartment is like winning the lottery. Dave’s place came with a number of amenities; it was furnished, and I knew he wouldn’t care when I paid the rent. As I went through my share of low-paying jobs in the food service industry, I admittedly abused this privilege.
Within a year, the restaurant business and I parted ways, and I became a personal trainer. I loved that it was an independent, social job. This choice came as a surprise to many people who knew me growing up because I’d never been in particularly good shape. In fact, I carried some extra weight into my late teens when the bug to get fit bit with a vengeance. I became obsessive about diet and exercise. Over the course of six months, I shed some unwanted poundage and found my way into sound eating habits and a regimen of regular exercise. All of a sudden being healthy and fit made sense, so when I started personal training, I thought it was going to be an easy job. I’ll readily admit it’s not the most difficult job in the world, but I found it exasperating in the beginning. After I got into shape myself, I had a hard time understanding why people would not do what was necessary to get and stay healthy. My closed mentality was something I would have to move past in order to become a good trainer. Until then I just wondered why my clients—who were not only paying for a trainer but also working out at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, one of the country’s premier fitness centers—still weren’t motivated. As a trainer, I tried wearing different hats: I was the drill sergeant, the motivational speaker, the robotic rep counter, the peaceful warrior, you name it. They all produced similarly inconsistent results. Some people made progress, while others didn’t. Although my clients were generally happy with my work, I was tearing my hair out in frustration. Hiring a trainer only to maintain status quo was unfathomable to me. To compound my frustrations, a few clients were regularly canceling or not showing up for appointments. As fate would have it, the client who would change my approach to personal training and ultimately help shape my philosophy on dog training was my most consistent no-show: an unassuming woman named Miranda.
Miranda was getting married and wanted to lose weight for her wedding. It was and still is the dream scenario for any trainer: a purposeful goal with a clear deadline. She wanted to lose twenty pounds by the big day and had ninety days to do it. Miranda was a lawyer (yes, that was her name) and the type of person who considered exercising a necessary evil at best. She never complained about it but let her feelings be known by regularly skipping our scheduled sessions. Now that her wedding date had been set, she meant business, and I went to work with renewed enthusiasm.
I designed a diet that was anything but restrictive and tailored a workout that would have me sweating as much as her. We went straight to work: tossing medicine balls back and forth, running between cones, performing plyometrics, and a world of activity-based training. Miranda bristled at anything that seemed static and boring. There would be no treadmills or traditional resistance movements, so she had no excuses. I may have been more excited than she was and made all kinds of promises to her and her fiancé.
The first week was picture-perfect. She lost six pounds and her body was coming to life. Then the second week came—she lost no weight, and her efforts in the gym were abysmal. Miranda was listless and took water breaks every two minutes, when she wasn’t going to the bathroom to hide. On week three, she started showing up late and having to leave early. In week four, she didn’t show up for two of her four scheduled appointments. When she weighed in after four weeks, she had gained back the six pounds she’d lost, posting a net loss of zero. I didn’t know what to do and contemplated passing her along to another trainer. I decided to give it one more workout, only this time instead of participating I was going to watch her.
When she showed up, I had her do some freehand squats followed by light running in place to warm up. She pretended to squat by turning her knees inward to give the appearance of bending, which was nothing short of bizarre. I’ve seen people shortchange the squat to make it easier, but to this day, she is the only person I’ve ever seen attempt to reinvent it. It was difficult to watch, so I had her run in place. This was also tough to look at. Miranda had a strong body type and was actually in fairly good shape, but her feet did not leave the ground as she ran in place. Normally, I would have barked a little and encouraged her, but this time I did nothing and let her keep on. After a minute, she closed her eyes and kept them shut. What made that day all the more strange was, for the first time, Miranda had shown up in a genuinely good mood and said she felt great.
I let her keep running in place for a full ten minutes, which is a long time to do a little warming up. Her eyes did not open. I’m sure Miranda hoped I’d let the clock run out just like this. I told her to stop, and she told me she needed to use the restroom. When she came back, she walked with resignation toward the cones I had set up. I stopped her with a simple question: “Do you even want to get married?”
It was out of bounds, but something had to puncture her veil of denial. She wasn’t getting in shape like she’d promised herself, and it was the elephant in the room. Miranda looked at me, smiled, and said, “Justin, I really don’t know.” I replied, “You work out like you don’t,” and she started to cry. Then she walked away with her face in her hands, and the reality of what I’d said started to sink in.
I’ve since apologized to her a thousand times for saying that, although she still thanks me for being so straight with her. For me, the comment was the culmination of many months of watching my clients (and me) fail themselves. I thought Miranda was not going to show up again, and I faced the possibility that I might be fired for making inappropriate comments. It was a dark day all the way around until . . .
Miranda came back raring to go. She explained that she didn’t feel she had permission to experience the normal doubts about getting married, and it had been weighing on her. Her body language had clearly told me everything I needed to know, and as obvious as it might have been, my eyes were the ones that had been shut. From that point on, I watched people work out and always found that their efforts were commensurate with the obstacles they faced in their personal life. I became much more apt to halt a workout and ask, “What’s wrong?” rather than exhort someone to push it. I practiced the art of listening with my eyes and offered my clients a bartender’s ear when needed. I also watched their results improve dramatically. It was rewarding, and my client base more than tripled in the following six months.
After a few years of helping people change both their bodies and their outlook on life, it was my turn to ask, “What’s wrong?” Training was fruitful, but I felt dissatisfied. It was time to do something about my life. I sensed that I needed to put myself out there and I’d been a huge fan of stand-up comedy for years. In the past I’d frequented places like the Comedy Cellar to check out the live acts of the very best. As I watched, I often wondered if I could do it myself. It was a challenge that I could not wriggle away from. Terrifying though it may be, I would have to try my hand at stand-up comedy and rather unexpectedly, it would be the decision that took me into the world of dogs.
Stand-up comedy is not an easy thing. I’d always thought I had a good sense of humor but being funny in front of an audience is far different than getting laughs when you’re out with friends. To become any good at stand-up, it must be a near-daily practice. I paid my dues by passing out flyers in front of the clubs, come rain or shine. This work earns you the privilege of being onstage for five minutes, three in the very beginning. I kept a few training clients and pushed my sessions to as late in the day as possible. This way I had time to write jokes and be awake enough to go bomb at the clubs.
With time and commitment, I gained competency and built up to twenty-minute sets that I would perform nightly, often at more than one club. I was able to work at Caroline’s and The Comedy Cellar alongside some of my idols. It is a high like no other; when the crowd is with you, it’s like mainlining validation serum into your soul. I would leave the stage buzzing, vibrating with good feelings, and then I’d head back home at around three in the morning. Once home, I could not fall asleep.
I tried watching television, but the moment I get wrapped up in a program or a movie, I can forget about sleeping. Then I discovered infomercials can be a great snooze aid. I know far more about useless products that sell for $19.95 (if I call right now) than anyone should know. This worked for a couple of weeks, until I bumped into a segment of paid programming on animal rescue. There were all breeds of dogs in varying states of decay—mangy, shaking, sickly, malnourished, and begging for some unconditional love. Try as I might, I could not turn away. Watching animals that had been so horribly abused and then abandoned made me cry like a baby. Though it was gut-wrenching, I kept watching.
I didn’t realize it at first, but this was what I’d been looking for, and I’m not talking about crying myself to sleep. I really enjoyed helping people as a personal trainer, but dogs had a much stronger pull on my heart. They don’t have a voice, they can’t help themselves, and, God knows, they don’t hurt a soul. Like Mark Twain said, “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” Dogs are good down to the marrow and loyal to a fault, and the images of those rescues haunted me day and night. It was a couple of weeks later when fate intervened and I met Robyn in Union Square.
The first dog Robyn asked me to foster was a young pit bull named Champ. He was white, with a beige patch around his left eye, a red nose, and about seventy pounds of taut, vibrating muscle. Robyn thought we’d be a good match, and I was so excited that I spent some of my limited resources on a giant crate, toys, dog food, treats, and an assortment of bowls.
When Champ and I first got to my apartment, things were fun. I served him some treats, and he followed me around as I gave him a little tour of my place. After that, I petted him some and sat down. Champ kept looking at me, and I thought, “Now what?” I had no idea. My mom’s shih tzu didn’t take up so much space and occupied himself if you left him alone. Didn’t Champ have some business to attend to? I sat on my couch, and Champ sat a few feet away, just looking at me. It made me a little nervous. This went on for about twenty minutes, and I realized how different it was to be alone with a pit bull in a confined space versus being surrounded by experienced volunteers in an open, public place. Suddenly, he started barking, and I got more nervous. I had no idea what he was trying to communicate. Was he freaked out? Was he angry at me? Was he going to have a flashback and attack? He grabbed a rope toy and started growling and whipping it around in his mouth. I was beginning to really worry as he violently swung the rope toy. Was this a display of aggression? I wanted to put him in his crate and regroup, but I was scared to approach. I went into my bedroom and quickly shut the door behind me. Champ waited on the other side, barking. Eventually, he quieted down and I ventured out into my living room to find Champ very civilly sitting on my couch, chewing the rope toy. He appeared in good spirits and came toward me with the rope in his mouth. I mumbled, “Hey, buddy,” and he started growling and shaking the toy again as if he wanted it dead. Scared, I bolted into the kitchen, grabbed some treats, and threw them into his crate. Champ dropped the rope toy, ran into the crate, and I shut the door behind him and exhaled. What was wrong with this dog and how did people deal with it? I didn’t have time to contemplate the answer, because the moment he finished eating he started barking again. Deep, powerful barks. I figured he wanted out of the crate, and while I liked that idea in theory, in reality, he was staying put. I called Robyn, who cheerfully suggested he needed a walk. She was so matter-of-fact about it. I said, “Maybe he wants to kill me and then go for a walk,” and she just laughed. I didn’t have the courage to tell her that I was sincerely afraid. She did suggest that I wait until he calmed down before taking him out, and I enthusiastically agreed. I hung up to see Champ clawing at the door of his crate and scratching up the thick plastic floor. He continued to bark for almost an hour, or an eternity, if you have neighbors. After the barking marathon, he started whimpering and my fear turned to sympathy. I wanted to take him out and saw an opportunity when he fell asleep. I grabbed his leash and tiptoed toward the crate when Champ heard me. He popped out of his slumber with a vengeance and commenced with that throaty bark again. I thought, “If he doesn’t kill me, my neighbors are going to.” I took a deep breath, opened the crate, and quickly hooked the leash to his collar. Off we went, and Champ’s strength was astounding. He pulled me down the block, sniffing and peeing on everything in sight. Maybe five minutes into the walk, Champ grabbed the leash in his mouth and started thrashing and growling. I vainly tried to wrest it from him and feebly said, “Champ, stop!” Guess who didn’t listen? Good guess. I threw his leash around an iron fence post and stepped back. Within seconds, Champ dropped the leash from his mouth and commenced with that barking again. Defeated, I sat on a stoop and called Robyn. “I’m sorry, I think this guy is too much for me to handle.”
“What’s all that barking?” was her funny response. Thankfully, Robyn was in the area and offered to come by. I accepted her offer and thanked God.
I felt utterly helpless as Champ just barked and barked. Robyn showed up just in time to break my chops: “What’s the matter, tough guy, this one got too much bark for ya?”
She took the leash, and Champ grabbed it and started thrashing once more. Robyn tugged back at it playfully and growled at Champ. The two of them played tug-of-war for a minute. Robyn stopped playing, and Champ let go of the leash about ten seconds later without making a sound. “Good boy,” she said, and petted him. I felt like a total failure.
In order for Champ to return to the shelter, another dog needed to leave. This meant I would get my shot at redemption that very night. Up next was a jet-black Lab/pit bull mix named Momma. I knew her from the park, where she was an easy, super-friendly dog. She wasn’t as boisterous as Champ but had some confidence issues that I learned about in a hurry. She was not easy to approach. Moving too quickly or reaching over her head to pet her caused her to duck down and growl in displeasure. I tried to entice her with the rope toy, to no avail. Frustrated, I whipped a toy across the room, and when it squeaked, Momma was all over it. It was a panacea: Whenever she seemed nervous or down, I would grab the squeaky toy to get her back in good spirits. We became fast friends thanks to that squeaky toy and she was a dream dog, save for her issues around food.
Around her food bowl, Momma would hover but not eat. When I got too close she would give me a sideways look or lower her head and let out a wicked growl. She never did this when I fed her treats or peanut butter from a spoon. Clearly, she was territorial around her food bowl and I was stumped.
At the time, I knew one trainer; a Russian guy named Igor who had trained police dogs in the former Soviet Union, which is nothing short of badass. I called him and, sure enough, he gave me some great tips. Since I was able to feed Momma treats without a problem, Igor suggested that I sit sideways, alongside her empty bowl, and place one piece of turkey in it at a time. He didn’t want me facing the bowl because she may have felt threatened. When Momma would finish one piece of turkey, there would only be an empty bowl to guard. I immediately tried this out and right away she looked to me for the next piece of turkey. (It was so satisfying to see this work that I fed her about a pound of turkey.) The next day I would place two pieces in the bowl, and she tolerated my presence just as well. By the end of the week, I was able to put down a full bowl of dry food and turkey and sit right next to her. It had become a nonissue. Food aggression is the kind of difficulty that gets dogs sent back to the shelter, so I felt great about being able to help her. About a month later Momma got adopted, and it was an extremely happy moment in my life.
I continued to foster dogs and learned a little more from each one. Feeling competent I decided to head to the Bronx to see Robyn and meet all her foster dogs. Before I even got to her gate, I saw at least three pit bulls roaming the roof and barking to signal my arrival. Somewhat nervously I entered into a very modest two-bedroom home that had become a makeshift shelter. In Robyn’s words, her home had “gone to the dogs.” When I was there, there were no fewer than ten dogs and an equal number of cats. Robyn’s heart was clearly bigger than her home.
Princess, the spunky pit bull/border collie mix, had been tossed over the fence into Robyn’s yard a few weeks earlier. She had become a house favorite with her dark brindle/white coat and adorable spotted ears. Although only five months old, Princess spent her time running from room to room, nipping at the heels of the other dogs in an effort to herd them. She was often successful in corralling dogs three times her size before she’d abandon the project to jump in your lap and lick your face. It was as if she were saying, “See what I did?” because she would then run off and do it again. I was in love and told Robyn, “That’s my dog.”
I took her home and renamed her Chiquita. If there is a single dog that is responsible for my becoming a trainer, it’s Chiquita. In the early going, the qualities that made her so fun were overshadowed by related qualities that made her difficult. Chiquita’s rough start in life had turned her confidence into pushiness, exacerbated by a big dose of neediness. Her neediness caused her loyalty to turn into an aggressive form of protectiveness. Her great alertness often translated into feeling threatened and subsequently aggressive. Even on leash with me, she displayed aggressiveness towards people, particularly men. I knew it was fear-driven, so I was perfectly at ease with her, but my family was concerned for me. The day they came to meet her, she happily took toys and treats from them but also snapped at their fingers when they pulled away. When they got near her, she showed her teeth before running and hiding.
Once she got through a first meeting with someone, she’d generally be good, but unpredictability would reign for a while. I wanted my dog to live as stress-free as possible and became determined to see this through.
Some of the people I met through Robyn’s rescue really knew dogs, and I spent more and more time with them. Igor was also very generous with his knowledge, and I greatly valued our daily phone calls. As I soaked up information from myriad sources I found conflict not consensus among experts. This was disheartening, until I realized that no one could know my own dog better than I. I would have to figure out for myself what was going to work for her. Chiquita was both sensitive and pushy. Training her like a gun-shy, sensitive dog was not going to work, nor would treating her like a strong-willed, pushy dog. I had to find a way to be nurturing while firmly setting limits. It was a finesse game and as I gained confidence in my abilities, her trust in me grew as well. The first thing to show improvement was her fear aggression.
I continually introduced her to new people, and was careful not to admonish her when she acted out. By not getting emotionally invested in her behaviors, I began to see her reactions as if they were happening in slow motion. She would back up in fear but being on leash forced her to hold her ground. The next move would be to lunge forward and snap but not bite. A confident dog wants to bite and hold, but a fearful dog will snap and pull back. Unfortunately, her lunging was in response to a friendly person stepping forward to say hello. To deal with this, I would have people stay where they were, and with a clear “ehh-ehh,” I interrupted Chiquita’s normal path to aggression. My poor baby was just scared, and I couldn’t have this anymore than I could tolerate her snapping at people. As time passed, I could see the earliest signs of her discomfort, and I would interrupt her pattern. When strangers were a hundred feet away, I would get her attention on me. The moment she started fixating or “pinning” on a pedestrian I would disrupt the process. Pinning is when a dog’s eyes lock on something with laser focus and I was now able to identify the earliest signs. It was essential that I was not the least bit fazed by her behavior. This made Chiquita, and the strangers I introduced her to, far more comfortable. Eventually, instead of reacting, she would look to me for instruction and I knew we were on our way.
I began to work at a dog care and training center a few blocks from my apartment because it had an indoor dog swimming pool. I love to swim, and so do most dogs. I brought Chiquita to work with me and learned from the instructors the finer points of “swimming” dogs. Swimming with Chiquita seemed to remove any lingering insecurity and, within a few weeks, I enrolled her in obedience classes that the school offered. I’m proud to say she took to them like a dog to water.
When Chiquita was eleven months, my girlfriend, Erin, and I went to an adoption event Robyn was throwing in Central Park. Chiquita was having a great time playing with the other dogs, but she was especially drawn to a young male pit bull. The two of them got along swimmingly and this male pit may have been the most laid-back dog I’d ever met. If he could speak, I’d imagine he’d say “Sounds good” to most anything. Regrettably, he was covered in sores and suffered from a bad case of mange. Erin and I looked at each other and knew he needed to come with us.
I was now the beaming Dog Dad of a nine-month-old brindle pit bull I named Pacino. It took a good three months for him to return to full health, and once he was healthy, I began working commands with him and taking him to the pool.
I would swim Chiquita and Pacino before taking them and a couple of their friends from day care out by the Chelsea Piers to train. There was Buster, an aloof but lovable chow mix (proudly featured on the cover), as well as Sadie and Shadow, both black Labs that I had met in the pool. My dogs were in their adolescence and were very mischievous, but their temperaments evened out around their friends.
Chiquita and Pacino resembled teenage siblings who actually got along. They played hard together, challenged each other, and were best friends. Part of my style of parenting them was to let them work things out for themselves, which is important. When they both wanted the same toy, a little struggle would ensue, and I would not intervene. I find that dogs can solve most of their own problems without human intervention.
Outside of basic training and exercise, I would also exercise their minds. I’d have them play games that required problem solving, like placing a ball inside a box and letting them figure out how to open it. If a toy ended up under the couch, I wouldn’t automatically retrieve it for them and I learned that dogs are pretty adept at moving furniture when inspired. My aim was to have confident, self-assured dogs, despite the fact that they started out abused and abandoned.
They also gave me my share of trouble. I learned the hard way that my cable company has a limit on remote control replacements. For whatever reason, the dogs targeted the remote for the cable box and started pooping out buttons. They could also be tough on other dogs. Both Pacino and Chiquita are high-energy, driven dogs, so having a few older dogs to help socialize them was essential.
When I took them down to the Piers for training, Chiquita was quicker to learn than Pacino, but his mellow disposition made things go more smoothly. While one was training, the other would have to sit and stay. I believe that watching each other facilitated their learning and taught them patience.
When Pacino was learning to fetch, he couldn’t understand that I wanted the ball brought all the way back to me. When he fell short of his target, Chiquita would fetch his ball, drop it at my feet, and then paw at my hand for his reward. Pacino, for his part, had difficulty waiting out any type of tug-of-war game. When it involves biting or being petted, he wants in at all costs. Impulse control could have been a big problem for two pit bulls in the big city, but these exercises in patience afforded them some much-needed self-control. The carryover was obvious, as things like jumping on company, begging for food, or even fighting over a ball became much less of an issue.
Dogs were my life now—I became a regular at the dog park—and spent hours with professional dog walkers, learning about their respective packs. Dog walking is a skill unto itself and something of an art form. It requires one to have enough vision to read the road ahead while being able to make fine adjustments on the leash. Caring for dogs in the park requires similar abilities. Skilled walkers can read the energy of the park the moment they step into it: A quick scan and they can tell you who and what to look out for. Certain dogs are going to cause trouble, and you can see it in the way they play. Knowing who and what to keep your dog away from is everything. It’s an acquired skill that will come to most people who don’t text or live on their cell phones at a dog run. But dog walkers know the park better than anyone, down to the specific dynamics between individual dogs and people.
I loved learning about dogs. I loved the work of it, and I loved the relaxation of it just as much. There was nothing better than coming home from performing comedy, lying on my couch, and just watching my dogs. It was my version of staring at a fireplace. For a high-strung person like myself, the passive observation of dogs at play was meditative and therapeutic.
At the day care center I began to watch volunteers, dog trainers, and employees teaching commands. I had definitely gotten the hang of it with my dogs and their buddies, but not every dog I worked with responded so well. I watched people try all types of approaches and among them was a group I dubbed the “supers”: super-sweet, super-stern, super-loud, super-soft, super-happy, even super-neutral (think monotone). The supers were equally effective or ineffective, depending on your point of view. Some dogs seemed to get it, while others did not.
One woman, who was not a dog trainer, had far more luck working with dogs than most. I wondered what she might be doing differently and began to really watch her. I noticed she was far less vocal than most people and was much more rigid, though not stiff, in movement. She had excellent posture, which I soon learned meant something. Standing tall lends a certain authority, and a person with good posture has a great head start in teaching commands. I had noticed myself that bending down to repeat instructions never worked. When this woman spoke, it was in a happy but very even tone of voice. She made an effort to establish eye contact with the dogs. The eye contact got her the dog’s attention and by being economical in speech and movement, the dog remained focused. A few days after seeing her work wonders, I ran into Igor and explained my findings. He was amused to hear that I’d observed something that was so ingrained in him. He confirmed my findings and showed me a whole host of hand signals he used in training. His movements were military in their precision and always minimal.
To outside observers the woman at the day care appeared to have a little magic up her sleeve. The dogs clearly followed her movements and learned commands quickly under her tutelage. She was even-tempered and patient, low-key but upbeat, precise in her movement, stood tall, and had an intuitive ability to make and maintain eye contact with a dog. These qualities would have made her an ideal trainer. In short order, I incorporated better posture and a more even demeanor into my training. I also began to wait for a dog’s eyes to meet mine and the results were immediate.
At home, I educated myself as best I could and learned that dogs are incredibly adept at picking up cues from our eyes. Growing up I had been told that looking directly into a dog’s eyes could invite aggression. Not so. It is just wise to avoid engaging in a pre-fight stare-down when meeting a new dog. Some of the reading I did on dogs and dog training was enlightening while much of it seemed suspect. I became more invested in my own experience and observation to guide me. What I did find interesting was that many animal trainers seemed to know more in the early twentieth century than we do now. Back in the day, it was more common to be an animal trainer, not specifically a dog trainer. These people worked with animals of vastly different sizes and constitutions. Many of the animals they worked with also posed high levels of danger. Punishment-based training is not a great option with a lion, so trainers needed to persuade the animal to follow their suggestions or face a serious occupational hazard. They were master problem solvers whose jobs got specialized as they split into factions of dog trainers, elephant trainers, and the like. I believe that when this happened, those without the great education of working with different types of animals began to take shortcuts, which gave rise to rudimentary and too often inhumane training. The good animal trainers had finely honed instincts and an understanding born out of experience, and I wanted the same for myself. I can’t imagine a better apprenticeship than training animals in general, but, living in New York City, I would have to cut my teeth on dogs.
The one unimpeachable fact that I took away from my reading is that a dog trainer is a problem solver. My first conclusion as a problem solver was that every dog has a unique pathway to learning and inventiveness may be required. Some dogs respond well (and happily) to demanding personality types who try to exact perfection. Other dogs appear lost and even discouraged. It still shocks me that few concessions are made for the individual nature of each dog being trained.
At the day care, I began to notice a pattern. Every person had a particular way of working with dogs, and no matter how a dog reacted, no one really adjusted his or her approach. When frustration set in, they would then attempt the same thing twenty percent louder or quieter, twenty percent faster or slower, or some combination of both. Naturally, certain people claimed that some dogs were “better” than others. It would have been more accurate to think, “The one thing I do works better with some dogs than others.” No one took a look at how the dog was reacting. The only thing noted was the success or failure of a command. There was also too much debate surrounding how to treat the dogs. Many owners wanted their hardened shelter dogs treated like they were made of glass. For example, two poorly trained German shepherds (that listened to no one) spent their days biting and snarling at each other in play, but their owners only wanted them to hear hushed tones and happy sounds. Dogs would keep each other in line by using their powerful jaws on thickly padded necks while workers debated over collars and leash pressure. Overbreeding causes certain dogs to have weaker tracheas than others, and this needs to be respected, but if a dispassionate, uncaring person wants to choke a dog with a leash, he certainly can, regardless of the collar. Why the need for such standardization? Wasn’t it obvious that some dogs responded differently than others?
I spent all my spare time with Chiquita and Pacino. They would fight for toys and get riled up enough to scare visitors, but I now knew all their tells. When Chiquita would begin to turn her head away in apparent anger, things could escalate. On a one-to-ten scale, their intensity always had to stay below a seven. Chiquita can be short-tempered while Pacino has the alpha personality and, despite his laidback demeanor, is no pushover. A dog’s energy levels ebb and flow in a manageable fashion until the threshold gets crossed. I call seven the tipping point. When a dog gets to that point, there is no quickly turning back. Altercations can take place, or a dog will be unreachable and require a significant wind-down period. The good news is that the alpha personalities, contrary to what people think, know who they are and don’t need to assert themselves so readily. They are apt to let a toy go in a tug-of-war or even let a “lower-ranking” dog have the last bite of food. It’s the insecure dogs, vying for “street cred,” that cause all the ruckus.
Between my dogs, their friends, the fosters, and the day care, it was abundantly clear that dogs were now the central preoccupation in my life. As if this weren’t enough, they introduced me to a subculture that was right under my nose. Although I’ve never been shy or short on friends, being able to stop and say hello to so many people is a nice incentive for having dogs. Thanks to my dogs, I look like the mayor of my block.
I am also not opposed to offering help, and this got me a little notoriety as one of the good dog people in my neighborhood. When I saw people struggling to work with their dogs on the street, I could often spot the breakdown in communication and fix little issues in no time. As time passed, people started asking me for help, and I always obliged. It was a time of great learning and practice. My neighbors began to claim that I had the animal equivalent of a green thumb.
After I helped Barbara, my neighbor and friend from the day care, teach her chow, Buster, the “down” command, she asked me an intriguing question: Would I like to watch Buster for a holiday weekend? I quickly answered yes. I was honored that someone who didn’t know me all that well would trust me with her dog and when I went to pick up Buster, a funny thing happened—she paid me. It had never crossed my mind to accept payment for having a dog stay at my house. I had kept many rescues at my place without any thought of remuneration. It then occurred to me that I could make a living by working with dogs. I became a part-time walker for Buster. I taught him to sit while waiting for traffic lights, along with some general etiquette. Barb recommended me to her friend, and, in short order, a (really) small business formed. It was just in the nick of time. My personal training clients were dwindling, and I was not able to support myself solely from stand-up comedy. My days began to consist of walking dogs, training dogs, boarding dogs, spending time at the day care, and performing stand-up comedy. It was a great time in my life. Chiquita and Pacino became incredibly useful in helping to socialize and rehabilitate neighborhood dogs. They were my partners and perfect introduction partners, as well. It was common to see dogs with leash aggression or fear experiencing overall improvement when they learned a proper introduction. Being able to successfully meet another dog is the gateway into socialization, and no one teaches this better than my dogs. Their temperaments are perfect because they’re polite but quick to put a dog in its place. They require some monitoring, but I make little adjustments on the fly and don’t worry about belligerence. Dogs that got too up in their business quickly learned how to be more polite, while fearful dogs could sense Chiquita’s and Pacino’s self-possession and became more comfortable. After we would rehabilitate a new dog, that dog would join the “staff” to help me work with the next dog. Within a few months, I had a cache of about ten dogs that were well equipped to handle any dog-on-dog issues. Depending on the degree of difficulty, I could choose from the group, from easiest to hardest. My cavalier King Charles named Stella may be the most polite dog I’ve ever met, so fearful dogs would start with her and work their way up to the larger dogs.
Though my life was just about perfect, I had some unfinished business with shelter dogs. Every time I fostered a rescue and was fortunate enough to find a home for it, I gained new respect for the people who give their time to shelters and rescues. It is heartbreaking work, and I admit that I do not have the stomach to be in the trenches on a daily basis. Although I was extremely busy with my burgeoning dog care company and slowly gaining steam as a comedian, I was dying to help.
After performing a few sets of comedy around town, I took Pacino and Chiquita for a late-night walk and had an idea. I decided to combine my two passions—comedy and dogs—and my charity, Funny for Fido, was born. By leveraging my contacts in comedy, I was able to put on a charitable event at the legendary comedy club Caroline’s, all in an effort to save homeless animals. The comedy community is tight-knit, and comedians are a very down-to-earth group of people, always willing to lend a hand. The charity immediately got traction when the dog owners I knew offered to pitch in. With a few calls, I had a great lineup of comedians slated to perform. Buster’s mom, Barbara, is an event planner who really took the reins to make Funny for Fido a thriving charity. It was amazing to see this wave of support to help an organization that provides financial grants to animal rescues and shelters. Colin Quinn, Dave Attel, Jim Gaffigan, Amy Schumer, and the late, truly great Patrice O’Neal have all performed at this annual event, now in its sixth year. We have raised money to pay for veterinary care, food, training, and transport as well as temporary and permanent housing for animals that are essentially on death row. It is perhaps the accomplishment I am proudest of.
I was also gaining more experience as a trainer. I secretly called myself a dog re-trainer, because nearly all the dogs I trained were obedience school dropouts that had also failed with other trainers. I found working with the dogs easy enough, but conveying the lesson to the client was challenging. The minute I left the session, I was rarely confident that the owners could implement the fix. Were the dogs I trained my own, there wouldn’t have been any of these issues, so I had trouble relating to my clients’ difficulties. This would be my Achilles’ heel until I coaxed my best friend, Dave, into helping me. Dave had come back to New York a year or so earlier and moved back into his apartment. As fate would have it, my new place was just a few blocks away.
Dave is the big brother I never had. I often say that he is to people what I am to dogs. He is one of the most observant, astute people one will ever encounter. I knew he would be a natural with the dogs, but I really needed him to act as a liaison between the clients and me. Figuring out what’s wrong with a dog is quick, but if I can’t get the client to realize what I’m saying or how he might be contributing to the problem, the dog will continue to suffer. I credit Dave with helping me understand that we truly train people as much as or more than dogs. He continually challenges me to put myself in the client’s shoes and is great at getting people to open up about their personal difficulties. He appeals to people’s love for their dogs, and pretty quickly, sticking points are overcome. He knows a fair amount about quite a few things, and when I first mentioned the warring schools of thought on positive versus negative reinforcement, he shrugged, and said, “B. F. Skinner,” before quoting him: “The consequences of behavior determine the probability that the behavior will occur again.” He explained a little about how rewards and punishment determine our courses of action. It was eye-opening for me to learn that most of the people engaged in the debate on positive versus negative reinforcement were both uninformed and misinformed. Although the material isn’t particularly exciting, Dave made sure I understood it. Skinner has definitely influenced me and lent some clarity to my dog training. In fact, B. F. Skinner’s work is responsible for what is probably the most boring part of this book (the second half of Chapter 4, in case you want to jump ahead), and we all have Dave to thank for that. All kidding aside, I often say that if I’m the go-to guy for dogs, then he’s the go-to guy for the go-to guy for dogs.
With this newfound knowledge I realized that the world of dog training is largely made up of opposing fragments, with each individual sect trying to gain notoriety as “the way.” It seems everyone has one particular approach that’s bulletproof. I truly believe that many training programs are simply too trainer-centric and don’t focus enough on the dog, let alone the dog’s owner. What I mean by “trainer centric” is that trainers often have a set way of doing things and apply their singular methodology regardless of how the dog reacts. Trainers need to adjust and adapt to the dog and client that is being trained, not the other way around. My ongoing experience as a re-trainer continues to prove this point. A dog will attempt to communicate via body language, energy level, and drive. The clues are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them. “Drive” is a term used to describe a dog’s intrinsic level of motivation to perform a behavior. Prey drive and food drive are the most commonly referenced, but when I look at a dog, I ask myself, “What’s driving the drive?”
In the case of Harry the bulldog, fear was creating a strong drive to not walk. He became the poster child for what Dave was saying about owners creating or contributing to a dog’s difficulties. Handsome Harry was a stubborn bulldog that would not walk on leash. He was not a “halter,” in the classic sense—a dog that walks and periodically stops without warning. Harry would consistently stop walking and appear near catatonic when he got roughly a hundred feet away from his building. No matter which direction he went, this would happen. When a dog checks out like this, the most effective technique is to keep his chin up to prevent him from going into shutdown mode. The “keep your chin up” approach did not work with Harry, which surprised me.
Every dog spends a fair amount of time looking at the ground and sniffing, and Harry was no different. His eyes and nose were doing the right thing when he walked, until his head would bow and presto—you had a bulldog with four flat tires. Even food would not budge him, and Harry had a strong food drive. The fact that he wasn’t taking the bait suggested that stress was shutting down his digestive system. I needed to get to him before that shutdown occurred.
I took a close look at the way Harry walked. When we kept his chin up and he didn’t have the option of dropping his head, he would close his eyes and halt a few seconds later. When we didn’t keep his chin up, a magnetic pull seemed to cause Harry’s head to drop about six inches, and he’d go kerplunk. The trick was not to stop his head from dropping but to keep his eyes open.
In this case, a surprisingly simple, consistent cue in the form of a leash tug and a happy “Hey, Harry!” kept his attention and got him past the danger zone. Harry’s neck rivaled Mike Tyson’s in girth, so I wasn’t worried about a bit of leash pressure. After this, he was good for the rest of the walk. It had been the bane of his owner’s existence and that of every trainer and walker who came before me. It may have looked like magic, but all it took was some careful observation.
Before I worked with Harry, I took the time to get his history to see if there were any inciting events that may have caused him to turtle up. There were no identifiable causes; Harry had a clean bill of health from the vet and no traumas to speak of. His owner was a nervous guy who did not look well suited for the rough neighborhood where he resided. Dave’s theory was that the owner would take him for his late-night walks and become fearful when he got more than a short distance from home. This caused Harry to inherit the fear response and freeze. I believed Dave was right, but we both agreed that fixing the stubborn bulldog was a better option than trying to cure this poor guy’s fears. The owner was extremely grateful but strangely unwilling to implement the fix on a regular basis. Invariably, I would get a call from him telling me Harry “did it again.” When I asked him if he was doing what I suggested, he basically complained that Harry shouldn’t be that way in the first place. It can be a tough gig sometimes.
It was a real shame, because Harry was a friendly, social dog that reveled in the company of people. Had he been skittish about making his way onto the bustling New York City streets, I don’t think my technique would have worked.
At this point in my career, my training morphed into an approach that put equal emphasis on the owners. With a thorough pre-screening followed by a session, I could find a fix, but it would be up to the owner to implement it. My “after-sales” service would be encouragement and fine-tuning, not additional sessions. The owner needed to be empowered because the dog’s responses were almost always predictable.
After the travails of Harry the bulldog, Dave insisted I do an owner “intake and assessment” before booking an appointment. Harry’s owner had a tone in his voice that was uptight and closed off. In conversation, he spoke quickly and did not want to hear anything about Harry’s difficulty. He made it sound like Harry was a computer that needed to be reprogrammed and that should be that. His attitude clearly suggested he might be the problem, but I didn’t ask enough questions before we met. Nowadays, my pre-training conversations typically last about thirty minutes. There are a few main types of owners:
1. The ultra-loving dog owner who has overanalyzed the dog’s behavior but never his own.
2. The person who has entirely unrealistic expectations and is perplexed—“Why does my dog sometimes, but not all the time and not always for long, bark at night?”
3. “Dog takeover”—a person whose life is run by his dog.
4. The person who is doing his best and needs a little help.
I began to train dogs from the suburbs to downright rural areas, including a dog that couldn’t get along with the horses on a ranch. The rural dogs and client difficulties weren’t that different from the city: There’s an initial miscommunication that grows as parties drift apart and negotiations break down.
One day I got a call from a client who had recommended me to a woman developing an idea for a show about dog walkers. I almost didn’t go, out of arrogance, as I now considered myself a trainer, not a walker. Dave set me straight, saying, “You’re a dog guy, period,” and he was right. When we first started working together, Dave insisted on walking dogs and I admired him for it. He had previously been the consummate self-employed professional, writing investment memorandum in highly technical trades. Although he would go on to streamline the business, he continued to walk dogs tirelessly and became an excellent handler himself. Despite Dave’s pep talk, I was still tepid about this meeting but went anyway. When I showed up with Pacino, my attitude was not the best, and to make matters worse, the woman asked, “Is he gonna bite me?” It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine that people feel such stigma toward pit bulls, so I dropped the leash and Pacino ran up to her and licked her face. She was instantly charmed, and when I showed her how Pacino jumps into my arms so we’re chest to chest, she was sold. This woman really drank the Pacino Kool-Aid, because the next step was meeting with a roomful of producers from CBS. The story producers were all dog lovers and owners, and an instant connection was made. Our pitch meeting turned into a dog question-and-answer session, and from idea to airing, the show—Dogs in the City— was put together in near record time. It was the result of being the right person in the right place at the right time. The experience was incredible, and I appreciated the care the network took in presenting a show that depicted the reality of what I do.
After the show aired, Dave and I were inundated with training requests. Our training radius expanded greatly but the issues remained the same. For owners, it is paramount to know your dog and to keep an open mind that sees past his limitations and focuses on his wondrous capabilities. When people do this they often discover their own snags and overcome them. While dogs can all benefit from a trainer’s instruction they do best when learning from an owner who attempts to understand them.
I also think we need to adjust our expectations and understand that they are dogs; they are going to engage in canine behaviors.
Since the show, I’ve had the fortune of training hundreds of dogs in a pretty short period of time and still log countless hours boarding them. They have provided me with a learning experience that has done far more for me than I could ever do for this great species. It is my hope to share this experience so you may partake in the loyalty, love, and compassion that dogs have so freely given me.
A NOTE ON READING
As my editor so succinctly said, “People will buy this book because their dog is peeing on the couch.” While that certainly makes sense, I try to avoid focusing on the immediate fix. It’s more important to address a dog’s behavior and the owner’s response to that behavior. It is a rare dog that has only one behavioral tic. It is my aim to teach dog owners “how to fish so they eat for a lifetime.” Once that base of knowledge is laid, much of what I do is predicated on touch, feel, and sense. I had to consider how to best communicate this via the written word.
Prescriptive nonfiction books written on dogs typically fall into two categories: 1) philosophical in nature and somewhat inaccessible; and 2) highly instructive and hands-on. Instruction manuals don’t work well because they do not consider the dog being taught or the person teaching the dog, while the more philosophical books usually contain better information but it can be very difficult to apply. For this reason, I wanted to try and do both.
I believe the very best thing a dog owner can do is look at their dog with new eyes. When we consider what incredible animals we have the fortune of being paired with, it is not unreasonable to think that we, not they, have to adjust our mind-set. The instructive chapters are important for practical advice, but if you go straight to them, the real learning will be missed.
It is essential to understand the basics of training, but it is more important to connect to your dog. To do so, you must listen with your eyes and be less reactive. When you slow down and see what’s going on, the fix may be right in front of you. “Why is my dog pulling me on the leash?” is a question I’ve been asked a thousand times. How do dog owners typically react to a pulling dog? They give in and let the dog walk them or they pull back so both parties are doing the same thing—pulling. Although the owner may win this tug-of-war, the dog thinks it’s a game or a test of wills so chalk up a small victory for the pooch. When the dog pulls and the owner follows, the practice of pulling is effective for the dog and he earns yet another victory. At this point, owner frustration sets in and in an effort to reach a state of détente, the dog owner negotiates and buys a collar or harness that makes pulling less painful for the dog. This is far different from getting a collar that helps train the dog not to pull. A less reactive and more observant walker may stop and not move. What happens then? Even the most stubborn dog will eventually stop pulling, look back, and say with his eyes, “What do you want me to do?” This is the window of learning for the dog and owner.
To open that window and keep it open requires more than a fix of the individual issue; it requires an overhaul of perspective. This book is written with that perspective in mind. The list of commands and the answers to common problems are actually the smaller pieces to the puzzle.
Finally, regarding gender, I use both “he” and “she” on occasion, as well as the neuter pronoun of “it” when not referring to a specific dog. I realize that dogs are never an “it,” but I opted to do this for the sake of simplicity. I truly do not wish to offend anyone. I also don’t consider myself an “owner” of a dog—my dogs own themselves—but again, for the sake of simplicity, I refer to dog moms and dads as owners.