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Book Review
The Dog Whisperer
by Paul Owens

Review by: Kate Connick, Feb. 2003

I don't use illicit drugs, but I imagine that if I did, Paul Owens The Dog Whisperer might be my favorite book. No, there's nothing in the book that implies drug use, but I couldn't help but think that one would have to be really, really stoned to enjoy the content. To be sure, this book is not for everyone. Although apparently enjoyed by many, I found it excruciatingly tedious to plow through. The author combines okay training advice with a lot of New Agey babble about love and enlightenment. If this is your cup of tea, great. If you simply want to read a dog training manual, you'll find this one terribly wearisome.

In the preface, Owens wonders how Jesus or Buddha might train his dog, and thinks perhaps that an "Enlightened One" would rely on telepathy. He then launches into a description of what sounds like a precocious wet dream where he suddenly "felt whole and connected to absolutely everything. And everything was love. Unbelievable, unconditional, infinite love." I hadn't gotten off the first page, and already I wanted to ditch the book.

The first part (more than a hundred pages) of this book is more of the same. Owens rejects the term dog "owner," and asserts that the training method is as important as the result, "not only because of what we are doing to our dogs, but also because of what we are doing to ourselves as human beings." He sets up a scenario where dog training is some sort of route to becoming an enlightened being. By opting for nonviolent training "we increase our capacity to love." Training is the "spiritual vehicle of nonviolence." Etc. Etc. If he laid it on any thicker, the reader would need an oxygen mask.

There are a few problems with his basic premise, not the least of which is that it is intellectually dishonest to suggest that dog training is black or white, all or nothing, violent or nonviolent. He falsely characterizes training methods contrary to his own as consisting of nothing but a dead-end of jerking, hitting, shocking, and shaking dogs whether or not they perform correctly. Certainly there are people who abuse dogs, but I doubt that many of us would consider them competent dog trainers. There are also people who judiciously apply varying degrees of coercion in their training programs but who do not wantonly torture dogs in the process. It shouldn't require a huge mental leap to grasp the difference.

Owens himself defines violence as "any behavior or thought that is harmful and stops growth - emotionally, physically, and mentally," while nonviolence is "any behavior or thought that promotes and fosters self-awareness, health, growth, and safety in these areas." I would argue that, according to his own definition, any training which is effective in producing a competently functioning dog is nonviolent, even if that style of training appears coercive on the surface. Similarly, if one wallows in an ineffective process because they think it's all nicey-nice but a dog is allowed to become an offensive brat, then the dog is a victim of "violence," at least in the way that Owens defines it.

This utterly humble man continually compares his perspective to that of St Francis or Gandhi, and like so many of his ilk, it is this putrid arrogance that turns his tome unpalatable. As with many like-minded propagandists, he attempts to convince the reader that all other forms of training are violent, aversive, and immoral. It just doesn't fly, especially when he comes out with stuff like, "May the Light of Love, Joy, and Peace surround and keep you and your animal friends." How can one take him seriously? Like I said, you either love this pap or you don't. I don't.

Again, I just can't stress how corny the author is. He quotes a botanist who developed a thornless cactus. The botanist exaplains that he was able to produce it by talking to the cactus "to create a vibration of love." The cactus then felt all safe and cozy and no longer needed to wear thorns. Geez, and I paid for this book.

The author presents and continually refers to his "9 ingredients for optimum health and growth." Although couched in holistic terms he basically states the obvious, that a dog's basic needs must be met in order for it to be best able to learn. That includes proper exercise, a healthy diet, play, rest, etc. Again, he meanders, especially when he discusses nutrition. The author firmly believes that dogs require raw foods, because they contain mystical "life energy." But even if one doesn't have foodstuffs with peak potency, "humans are unique in that they can actually infuse this positive life energy into food" by "thinking good, healthy thoughts and willing those healthy thoughts into the food you are preparing or eating." He actually claims that studies verify this.

Another cornerstone of his training methodology involves performing breathing exercises, as he knows "that breathing exercises can lead to a new level of peace, self-control, uncommon awareness, and power." He includes an entire, 15-page chapter devoted to breathing exercises, ideally performed as part of a "total relaxation exercise" which involves tensing and relaxing one's body. This chapter also includes a visualization exercise where you "put your hand over your heart and think of unconditionally loving the person or object you selected for fifteen seconds or more." He even includes a photo of a golden retriever puppy on which the reader can focus their unconditional love.

The author's training method itself - when he finally gets around to actually discussing dog training - is routine clicker training. He recommends having dogs work to earn life rewards, and his justification for training is to ensure the safety of the dog itself. Fair enough. I don't really need to discuss this in detail, because it's the same information about learning theory and clicker training that you'll find elsewhere. That content is okay for what it is, although I find his instructions to be unnecessarily detailed and repetitive.

I'm not convinced that some of his suggestions are terribly effective, but the author himself stresses that training isn't about results; it's about the process. This style of training relies on a highly food-motivated dog that doesn't have a lot of strong, competing drives. It also requires an owner who wants to make a veritable career out of playing training games with their dog. Owners are never permitted to enforce commands; they must rely on complete voluntary compliance and strong management. If a dog performs poorly, the owner must "go back to the point where she was successful and, with compassion and understanding, start over again."

The bottom line is that this is an otherwise pedestrian, clicker-training book which is all dressed up in flowery silliness about enlightenment, love, and such. If you're into that kind of hokum, it's a great book. If endless, chatty anecdotes about irrelevant psychic/spiritual phenomenon don't do it for you, or if you have an immediate need to actually train your dog, then you'll find this book to be a terrible loss. Pat Miller has written a far better clicker-training manual, and of course, there are loads of general training books on the market.

The Dog Whisperer, by Paul Owens.
Published by Adams Media Corporation, 1999. ISBN: 1580622038

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