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Book Review
The Dog Listener, by Jan Fennell
Review by: Kate Connick, July 2003

Jan Fennell's The Dog Listener is less a book about dog behavior and training than it is the author's self-indulgent attempt to validate herself as a dog owner and human being. The book should have been more accurately titled, "I'm okay. Monty Roberts likes me."

Fennell opens the book by sharing her experience with an adolescent border collie mix that she had adopted from a shelter. This was her first foray into dog ownership as an adult. Unsupervised outdoors, the dog harassed local livestock. Unsupervised indoors, the dog jumped on her toddler-aged son, pushing him through a glass pane and leaving the child permanently scarred. The dog later bit her year-old daughter's face, and the author summarily euthanized the animal.

Needless to say, an experience like this might leave any owner with self-doubt and guilt. Fennell quickly bounces back and begins breeding and showing spaniels. Success in the breed ring offers her validation that she is, in fact, a competent dog owner:

"I was... over the moon when Chrissy won the prize for Best English Springer On The Day. I vividly remember the moment the judge handed me the winner's rosette. 'Welcome to the elite,' he told me. After that I truly felt I had arrived in the dog world."

This almost assuages her guilt, but Fennell has a need to blame the prevailing training methods that she had employed as being the root cause of her failure with the border collie mix. I guess if she won't blame the dog or herself (or a mismatch between the two), training methods make a convenient target.

She attempts to tweak vocabulary and technique in order to convince herself and others that she is a kinder, gentler sort of dog person. For example, she objected to the term "choke chain" and preferred to call it a "check chain." She declares, "As far as I was concerned the name was a misnomer. Used correctly the chain should never choke a dog, it should merely check it." This grand observation came to her in the late 1980's.

Maybe I'm cynical, but this seems like old news to me. The name "choke collar" merely describes the noose-like shape of the collar. Nobody advocates using chain collars to routinely choke dogs as part of training. A "buckle collar" similarly describes a collar that closes with a buckle, not a collar that causes a dog to buckle. If I called them "guidance necklaces," it wouldn't reflect any leap in training methodology. It would merely be a goofy stab at political correctness. Not surprisingly, Fennell finds the term and concept of "obedience" training offensive.

As her husband and children - presumably her primary social supports - left her through divorce and maturation respectively, so too did her primary source of affirmation dissolve. She could no longer afford to participate in dog shows. "Just as people were beginning to respect me and I was beginning to knock on the door, it was all kicked away," she recalls.

Shortly thereafter she finds herself enamored of a charismatic speaker in the form of Monty Roberts, "the horse whisperer." Her admiration of Roberts comes across like the shameless, sycophantic swooning of a silly teenager. "It is not an understatement to say that my attitude to dogs - and my life - changed," after hearing Roberts speak in 1990.

It is thus pivotal that the author eventually wins Roberts's approval. He, in fact, writes the foreword to the book. It is no accident that the book ends with Fennell's palpable glee that she has succeeded in winning her hero's affirmation.

First she reports being "lost for words" when given the opportunity to interview "worldwide celebrity," Roberts. Then, when addressing an audience, "I explained how seeing Monty had changed my life... Now here he was accepting - and very publicly endorsing - my work." And this, in truth, is what this book is all about - Fennell's journey towards validation.

When it comes to the author's actual method, it's not really that clever or original. "After watching Monty in action, I knew that I had to follow his example and observe very closely what my dogs were doing." That, along with a few documentaries about wolves, led her to embrace basic wolf-pack theory, i.e., that dogs will not misbehave if they recognize their owner as pack leader.

The amusing part is that she seems to think that she's the first person to stumble on this notion. "Suddenly I saw that dogs were the same (as wolves). It was a huge step forward for me... What if (the dog) believes it is leader of a pack in which we too are subordinates?" This is what numerous training books that pre-date the author have asserted; yet she seems awestruck by her discovery.

In her humorless manner, the author takes herself way too seriously and melodramatically. Every idea and observation seems to be some sort of milestone or turning point as she plods from one revelation to another. And none of it is anything that anybody hasn't heard or done before, except of course for her peculiar flights of reason. She believes, for example, that a dog that is punished by its returning owner for damage done while the owner was away will assume that the owner is upset about dangers she encountered in the outside world, a world that the dog feels the owner doesn't understand.

Give her credit for gimmicky terminology. Fennell calls her version of restructuring the pack hierarchy "Amichien Bonding." In a nutshell, it consists of controlling greetings, meals, walks, and threatening situations. This should be done in a calm and consistent way, with the intended effect being for the owner to assume the Alpha, pack leader role. She also advocates food-luring and rewarding sits, heel, and recalls. It is important for her to believe that her dogs are responding because they want to and not because she's making them, a distinction that one might find amusingly arguable.

One could certainly find plenty to assail in the reasoning behind her approach, but some of her suggestions are useful irrespective of her logic. Waiting until 5 minutes after a dog behaves calmly before greeting it isn't bad practice. Nor is it a bad idea to wait until a dog is calm to leash it or start a walk.

On the other hand, much of the book reads like the fanciful spam that litters our email boxes. I actually believe the mails that promise to increase my manly parts by several inches more than I believe most of this book.

The author doesn't seem aware that there are breed differences in behavior. A husky, for example, would very likely be unimpressed by her driving away in her car to teach it the consequences of its failure to recall promptly. Nor does she seem to realize that there are drives other than the desire to defer to an Alpha and mooch cookies. The greyhound runs off after the rabbit not out of hunger or disrespect, but because every fiber of his being has been selectively molded to make him chase quick little creatures.

The author tells story after story of supposedly hardcore problem dogs that magically transform into well-adjusted, polite animals in the blink of an eye. There's the compulsive paw-chewer who had inflicted open wounds on himself in spite of numerous attempts at intervention, ensuring that, "there was every prospect that his feet would become infected, perhaps even gangrenous and he would be destroyed." Within 2 hours, the author permanently cured him by petting him, giving him tidbits for assuming heel position, and "going through the normal bonding process." Yeah, right.

And there's the cocker that would growl, jump up, and bite its owner at meal times. The distressed owner "was shaking violently as she walked into the kitchen." Having the owner eat a cracker before feeding the dog each meal permanently cured its aggression within 2 weeks. Laughing yet?

Ironically, the color photo showing the author with her Jack Russell terrier shows an obese dog with grotesquely long toenails. I can't help but wonder if the dog objects to its "Alpha" handling its paws.

Amusingly, the author believes that food-related possessive aggression is perfectly normal and natural and that no dog should be bothered when eating. She also seems to believe that biting dogs are entitled to "defend themselves" and should be understood and held blameless, much as with human beings who attack others in self-defense. She takes great pride in saving ostensibly dangerous dogs from euthanasia and seems to have little regard for the human victims. Sadly, throughout the book she makes remarks that reflect her greater fondness for dogs than for people.

The author's histrionics are grating. She whines about how she was "hurt a lot" by those who remain unimpressed by her method. "But again I thought of Monty Roberts, whose father had beaten him up for his ideas as a boy and who for almost forty years had put up with the scorn and ridicule of the horse world. I thought if Monty could stick to it, then so could I." Groan.

With zero humility, she claims that, "the communication technique I have evolved has helped improve the behavior of all of (the dogs she's worked with). I have now reached the point where, if an owner does as I say, their dog will have to do what the owner wants."

I'm glad that the woman is making new friends and paying her bills. Really I am. She may very well be a nice person, and I hope she never reads this. At the same time, I'm dismayed that a major publisher embraced this insipid, self-congratulatory pap. The author really offers very little insight into dogs in this book and embarrassingly too much insight into herself. But Monty likes her. He really, really likes her.

The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell.
Published by Harper Collins, 2000. ISBN: 0060199539

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