Another inspiration for the puppy classes was Omaha, my Malamute puppy, whom I got in 1981. I was freaking out: “He’s going to be 100 pounds!” I wanted to get him into school, but I couldn’t find a class anywhere that would take him until he was six months to a year old. I thought, “This is absolutely crazy. He has to go to some kind of puppy class!” But they didn’t exist! So I started one.
I knew from my research that puppies begin their education when they are two days old. The development of hierarchies begins when the little blind neonates are suckling, competing for available teats. Then there was the Sirius experience, a wonderful experience and one that changed his entire personality. I thought, “Why are these dog training schools telling me I’ve got to wait until he’s a year old?” It’s like not sending your kid to school until he’s 20! It’s ridiculous. So I decided I would teach puppy classes.
To the amusement of your vet school chums?
Yes, a lot of the people I was at college with laughed about it, my veterinary degree and PhD, and me teaching puppy classes. But I really enjoyed it, meeting people, families, and helping them out with their little puppies.
Very quickly, my puppy classes became quite famous, largely because of the video I made in 1987—Sirius Dog Training was the first dog training video ever made, and it went ’round the world. On the strength of that video, I went all over the world, giving talks about puppy training and lure-reward training, with the emphasis on early socialization and preventing aggression as the way to go.
You once said that learning to be more positive with the dog helps you to be a more positive person overall.
Dog training is a great template for teaching human relationship skills. That’s what it’s all about. If you can’t work out a relationship with a dog, how the hell are you going to live with a person? If you can’t get your dog to come when called in a park, how are you going to get your husband to come home from the bar? Or your kids to come home from school on time? If you can’t housetrain your puppy, how are you going to potty-train your kid? It’s a very nonthreatening way to teach relationship skills, and what we learn we can apply to our human relationships … And for some reason, people can learn this better with dogs than with other people. Often, they then learn to apply it with other people.
Countless times I’ve been asked in puppy class, “Will this work on my kids?” And I always say, “Yep, and on your husband, too.” My students used to come back with hilarious things that they had done to solve problems: “My husband always moans when he comes home from work, and I got rid of that in one week!” “What did you do?” “Nothing! You just don’t respond to a moaning person. You only respond to a smiling person!”
Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated or angry with an owner who insists on using physical punishment and other outdated techniques?
No, I don’t get angry. If I get angry, they will become defensive and I will lose them. A dog growls at you; do you hit him? No! He’ll bite you! Same with people. If they disagree with you, don’t disagree with them back! It just gets worse! You just nod and smile, and get them talking, and they’ll come around!
I think of all the important skills to learn in the world, that’s the most important: learning to get past the anger and find a way to deliver information to that person that will help him.
Training dogs and educating people, especially children, are the same: It’s not teaching them what we want them to do, it’s teaching them to want to do what we want them to do.
What’s next on your professional agenda?