The Mirror Method

One of the trainers behind Hungary’s viral dog videos, explains how they did it
By Lisa Wogan, October 2010

In the video, “A Doggy Christmas Surprise,” half-a-dozen dogs left alone in a Budapest flat trim a tree with great skill and holiday spirit. They roll up carpets, hang ornaments and lights, climb ladders, stack packages and swirl in garland. In a sequel, titled “A Doggy Summer,” many of the same talented canines crash a beach, where they set up an umbrella and sunning mats, float on boogie boards, play tug of war with towels, dig holes, catch Frisbees, play catch and generally redefine Beach Blanket Bingo. With nearly 9 million views, the videos are certifiable YouTube hits.

But the talents of the canine stars have been a bit of a mystery. Because the videos have Hungarian titles and captions and link to Hungarian websites, the question “how’d they do it?” has been hard to answer. We tracked down the lead trainer for the videos, Nora Vamosi-Nagy, who explained in her more-than-passable English (since we were woefully unprepared to conduct the interview in Hungarian) the story behind these fantasztikus videos.

The dogs in the videos were trained using the “Mirror Method”—what’s that?
The main idea is that everything is up to the owner. So, if you have a dog who’s not behaving or if you have a problem, then we usually say that you should look at what you are doing wrong and not put it on the dog. A dog is a mirror in this whole process, mirroring what you are doing wrong or good.

The Mirror Method has three parts. The first part is being the leader in the group or the pack. We don’t like to use the term ‘pack leader’ anymore because ethologists say that dogs are more like children; they look to us more as parents than leaders. But still if you are a parent to your child, you have to have some sort of leadership. You have to have respect in order for the dog to do what you say.

The second part is teaching, and we believe the best way today is clicker training. In the school, we teach in groups of 12 and the dogs are off-leash. By clicker training, I mean shaping. We teach every owner to shape something with the dog. They don’t have to use shaping in every teaching but they have to learn to shape. Because once you can shape something to the dog you start to look at the dog a different way, you start to see things that you didn’t see before, and start to use your hand and your movements consciously.

The third part of the method is lifestyle, which is very, very important. It’s not just taking the dog for a walk or physical activity but also you have to make the dog’s brain work and, most important, is to let the instincts work. If the dog is not mentally engaged, it can get sick and ill.

How did you learn the Mirror Method?
I was looking for a dog school where they let the dogs off-leash. It was really hard to find one. [This was seven years ago, when Vamosi-Nagy’s Dogo Argentino, Pako, was one year old. He’s in both videos.] Then I found Dogschool of Népsziget, and very, very soon I became the business partner of Gabor Korom, the leader of the school.

We work together but the Mirror Method is coming from Gabor. He has this idea that when you have a dog and you work with a dog it’s not only because you like the dog and it’s not all about the dog, it’s something about yourself. You can learn a lot about yourself if you have a dog.

Gabor was a Schutzhund competitor before, and he had good results. He was in the world championships. But he wanted to compete so bad that actually he made his dog sick, and no one could say why. So he quit the competition world, he started to examine the human-canine relationship. He started to listen, look at things and then to work on these ideas.

When I got in the picture, I was a really typical beginner-owner. But I had so many questions, he started to work on how to explain it so everyone could understand it. Today we work together with the leaders of the other dog schools. There are many, many people who put effort into making the method, always with new ideas.

We try to make owners conscious of what they are doing. For example, when I say, come here and I start to walk toward the dog, the information I’m giving is, you can go because I’m coming to you. It’s not what I want to communicate. And then I’m angry that the dog is not coming. Why should he come he understands that I’m coming up to him? There are these communication mistakes, so people have to learn some things mean different things in dog language.

Why did you make “A Doggy Christmas Surprise”?
We had this idea to make this Christmas video, two or three years ago, just for fun. We never thought it would have such a success. We just made it for family and friends and the dog school members.

The eight dogs are members of the promotion group [which included 15 human/dog pairs. A second group started this summer with 12 teams. They meet two or three times a week to choreograph Mirror Method presentations for public events.] The hardest part was to find a flat where someone would let in a bunch of dogs.

We didn’t practice at all for the video shooting. But the dogs knew everything. They understood all the words; they understood to go forward, to bring this, to put that there. It wasn’t difficult at all. In six hours, we shot all the material.

We don’t want to make the dogs look like children, like in American movies. I really hate that. They do human stuff but still we try to find a balance where it’s still OK, it’s funny but it’s still dogs doing the whole thing.

Right now we are planning a third video. It will tell more about the method and show more of Hungary/Budapest as home of the method. It will come out next spring.

I noticed none of them are wearing collars. Is that normally the case when you’re training?
No, usually they have collars on, but we don’t use leashes. We just wanted to make it seem on the video like they are alone, they are having fun, and they are free.

Were you surprised by the huge response?
Yes, we were surprised. This is funny: In Hungary—we have something like YouTube but in Hungarian—we got a lot more criticism, a lot more “why are they doing this? This is not good for the dogs.” On YouTube, it was almost only positive reinforcement. In the first couple weeks, we were checking every day. Now, I only check once a month.

Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of, most recently, Dog Park Wisdom.