The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell

Book Review by Dr. Denice Moffat

I’m always looking for books that will help my clients. Dog problems can be a big hassle, and by not knowing how to communicate with your pet, the pet can often end up being euthanized. This just tugs at your soul, and isn’t right.

Animals are not disposable objects. If we take on the responsibility of having one, we need to do what we can to make their life and ours an enjoyable experience. Jan Fennell, in her book, The Dog Listener, discusses problems such as separation anxiety, biting, chasing cars/bicycles, soiling in inappropriate areas, pulling on the leash, and dog to dog aggression.

Here are a few tips I picked up by reading the book. I think you can safely use these suggestions even before you read it.

To communicate successfully with our dogs, it is up to us to learn THEIR language. Dogs share a universal language—the language of the pack. A dog believes it is a functioning member of a community that operates according to principles directly descended from the wolf pack.

Dogs like routines they can count on. Placing lots of toys out for the pet is not effective. By doing this, you are establishing that the dog is the top dog of the pack (humans are included in the pack in the dog’s mind.) Because the Alpha dog (pack leader) would distribute and play with the toys only when they wanted to.

Dogs believe they are part of a social grouping and a pecking order that must be adhered to at all times. If we don’t utilize their language and establish the correct hierarchy, things can go wrong, because the dog immediately assumes it has been elected leader of the pack.

At the head of every pack is the Alpha pair. They are the strongest, healthiest, most intelligent and most experienced members of the pack. It is the Alpha pair’s job to ensure the pack’s survival. As a result, they dominate and dictate everything that the pack does and maintain that status through consistent displays of authority. The rest of the pack accepts this rule unfailingly and is content to know its place and function within this pecking order. Each member of the pack has a vital role and place within the pack. Maintaining this order establishes a happy and serene environment that the dog loves.

Establishing yourself as the leader of the pack must be practiced on four occasions: When the pack reunites for any reason; when it eats; when the pack is under attack; and when the pack goes on a hunt.

Jan had an interesting interpretation of separation anxiety. If the dog thinks it is the Alpha of the pack, it feels uncomfortable when you leave the pack (to go to the store, work, outside or even to the bathroom!) If your dog follows you around the house, it thinks it is the Alpha. If the dog destroys the molding of the door or rips out the carpets when you are gone, it’s an Alpha. As an example:

Bruce had severe separation anxiety. His anxiety was heightened by his owner’s mood. When she returned home from work and saw the mess that Bruce had made she yelled at him. Now, Bruce’s interpretation of his owner yelling and getting upset was that going out into the world was very upsetting to the owner. Wasn’t that obvious by the way she left in the morning acting happy and they way she came home at night all upset? As a result, Bruce became anxious whenever he saw his mother go out.

The situation was also exacerbated because the owner kept a basket of biscuits at the door. Food is provided by the leader. If there is food around all the time, then the dog must be the leader, because only the Alpha of the pack has that food available whenever it wants. Bruce never ate the biscuits because he was out of his mind with worry that his pack had been separated. He was falling down on the job.

The first thing Jan recommended for this case was to re-establish the pack structure. The first step was to adhere to the 5-minute rule. The next was to do some Amichien Bonding by doing what she calls “food gesturing.”

The five-minute rule: Whether the owner leaves the house or leaves the room to go to the garden or bathroom, the dog sees it as its child leaving the protective custody of the pack. Jan’s interpretation is that the dog does not know how long you will be gone, so when you come back into the room, you must reestablish leadership by ignoring the dog for five minutes. Do not acknowledge barking, licking or throw the toy that it brings you. Even by turning around and saying “stop it,” an owner is allowing the dog to achieve its aim. So, no eye contact, no conversation and no touching initially unless it is to gently push the dog away. This process takes about two weeks, but each dog is different and may need more or less of the bonding process to reestablish pack order.

In dog language leaders do not announce themselves coming OR going to subordinates of the pack. Leaders come and go as they please. An Alpha has its own personal space. No other dog is allowed to encroach into this space unless invited to do so. By rejecting or accepting the attention of other members who wish to enter their space, the Alpha pair reestablishes their primacy in the pack without ever resorting to cruelty or violence.

Jan explained the process of Amichien Bonding for Bruce’s situation. When the owner leaves the house, she was not to address the dog as she left. If there was usually lots of noise in the house like the radio, TV, or people talking on the phone before the owner left, then it was suggested to keep those things on in the absence of the owner. The client was also instructed to pick up all food and feed twice daily meals only, plus treats when the dog did anything acceptable. She also instructed the owner to reestablish the hierarchy by practicing “gesture eating” for two weeks.

Gesture eating is done as follows: When you prepare the dog’s food up on a counter while the dog is watching, you also prepare a small cookie or cracker for each human being in the house and place it on a small dish right next to the dog’s bowl (where they can’t see it.) You want the dog to think that you are eating out of its dish because that is what the Alpha of the pack does. Now, before you offer the dog its meal, each person of the house takes a cracker out of the dish and thoroughly chews it in front of the dog. The dog’s meal is offered for 20 minutes only before taking up the excess.

Subordinates in the pack warn the pack of unidentified threat. Dogs barking or jumping up at the sound of someone at the door should be thanked, then removed from the decision-making process and given a favorite tidbit for cooperating. After that, it should be lead into another room or put on a leash unless you know who is at the door and they know not to acknowledge the dog for five minutes after they enter.

Helpful Books/Links/References:

https://www.janfennellthedoglistener.com/