To Teach Dogs, Follow the Science or Follow Your Heart; Not the Dog Whisperer


By Steve Dale

Author Jennifer Arnold couldn’t say it all in her first book, “Through a Dog’s Eyes,” so she wrote a second book, “In a Dog’s Heart” (Spiegel and Grau, New York, NY, 2011; $25). In the new book, she focuses a lot on the connection we can develop with our dogs, and how unwavering and absolute that bond can be — although scientists don’t completely understand how.

Arnold also expresses distress about the way some people are training their dogs. “I’ll come right out and tell you, because I do it in the book,” says Arnold by phone from Milton, GA. “Cesar Millan and those punitive methods; I’ve been criticized for calling him out but he represents a movement that has been tremendously damaging to dogs and relationships.”

Arnold points out that dogs are decidedly not wolves, as Millan suggests. They’re also not pack animals. Even in Third World countries where stray dogs travel together, they don’t hunt cooperatively, as some wolf species or lions do.

And dogs that travel together don’t seem to struggle to determine who’s “dominant” at every turn; the dominant dog often varies, depending on context.

“In any case, dogs know that we are not dogs,” adds Arnold. “There’s no point in acting dominant (toward) them.” She begins to laugh. “Do you really think that by holding a dog by the scruff of the neck or rolling a dog over, the dog then thinks, ‘Oh, now I’ll listen because that’s what my mother would do?’ It doesn’t make any sense, but people are buying into this,” Arnold says.

“All this demonstrates is that people are unpredictable, or at least you are unpredictable — and a reactive dog or a dog stuck in a fight or flight situation may bite. Dogs are then destroyed as a result.”

Some argue that there are different methods to train dogs, and depending on the individual dog and personal preferences of the owners, there’s really no right or wrong technique.

Arnold pauses for a moment — instead of uttering a word which may not be suitable for a family audience — and simply responds: “There is right from wrong. Just follow the science, if not your heart. If every veterinary behaviorist on the planet says a particular approach is dangerous, it probably is.

“Besides,” she adds, “why in the world would you want to set up an adversarial relationship with your dog?”

Arnold founded Canine Assistants in 1980. The non-profit Georgia-based facility trains dogs to help people with physical and emotional needs, including those with limited mobility, epilepsy and diabetes. The facility was spotlighted in a 2010 PBS documentary.

Arnold had noticed that dogs placed with people who either had diabetes or later developed the disease soon learned — on their own — to detect diabetic highs or lows in their handlers. Arnold is now graduating her first “class” of dogs specifically trained to scent on a partner’s breath for a diabetic high or low. “These dogs could save lives,” she says.

Indeed, many of the dogs graduating from Canine Assistants have already saved lives. Some are trained to help people with epilepsy remain safe if a seizure occurs. Most of these dogs learn — on their own — to actually predict such seizures and warn their handlers of an impending episode. Arnold suspects this has to do with something the dogs are smelling. She says a researcher friend in Hungary believes the dogs are able to pick up on physical cues, even subtle ones. “I don’t think so,” she comments, “because there are instances of dogs who are 100 yards away — and the person is out of sight — but still the dog runs into the room and signals that a seizure is about to happen.”

So, how can dogs do that?

“That’s it. I’m telling you, there’s so much we don’t know,” says Arnold. “Dogs are willing to share; we just don’t understand (them), at least not yet.”

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services