Most people will have heard the term dog whisperer or dog whispering before, thanks largely to the success of Cesar Milan and his wildly popular television series, but what exactly does it mean? From the comical perspective, images of someone gently leaning towards a dog and literally whispering something into their ear springs to mind. But the truly funny thing is that in the world of natural horsemanship, where horse whispering is the standard not the exception, this hasn't been considered a comical or revolutionary idea in more than 50 years.
Tom Dorrance along with his brother Bill, were among the first to promote the idea of natural horsemanship, focusing on natural gentle methods with an emphasis of 'feeling' of the horse with adjustments made by the handler based on observations made during interactions. There methods had a profound effect on another natural horseman, Ray Hunt and later Buck Brannaman, both of whom have achieved great success with their approach which stands in stark contrast to the previously favoured methods summed up Hunts remark, " I was working in the minds of people who didn't want to believe the horse had a mind".
When it comes to dogs, it seems the general public have been quick to accept the idea that the dog is a sentient being, capable of feelings and emotions. The result of this change in perception has meant that dogs are now an intricate part of our lives, true family members, which has also resulted in far more access to our homes, personal space, etc.
So what does this change of perspective mean for the types of interactions we have with our dogs and what role does it play in behavioural outcomes? After personally working with thousands of dogs with behaviour problems from every conceivable breed, mix breed, gender, age, background etc. two thing appear to be the clear result of these changes. Firstly, the number of dogs both in volume and percentage displaying behaviour problems has dramatically increased over the last 30 years. Secondly, the number of dogs being treated with behaviour altering medications has increased at such an incredible rate, that the rate of prescriptions filled by this now multi billion dollar industry rivals that of humans in terms of percentage.
So what does any of this have to do with dog whispering you ask? Well, just as we humans were rather slow on the uptake when it came to realising that natural horsemanship, or horse whispering, was the most humane and effective method for communicating with horses, so too are people slowly beginning to realise that dog whispering, isn't about one individual and their perspective or television series. It represents an approach that delivers a way of communicating with dogs far superior and successful in creating the behaviours and understanding we want and those that the dogs desperately need. While humans have come a long way in terms of the treatment of dogs and enhancing the role they play in our lives from a companion perspective, the focus on traditional training methods that promote obedience through treat, toy and praise reward systems unfortunately still assumes the dog to be an unthinking auto responding robot of sorts. To put it another way, obedience training tends to promote the idea that a dog will respond in the desired way under any circumstance due to the conditioned response of action and reward. Some of the blame for this type of thinking lays with the type of scientific studies which seek to answer various questions such as 'do dogs have emotions' or 'which breed of dog is most intelligent'. The problem with these type of studies is the fact that they are generally conducted under laboratory conditions or at least those that don't truly represent normality. Further, the sample sizes along with breed selection prejudices do not allow the scope which would potentially produce significant enough findings. Lastly, follow up studies are rarely conducted and those that are again generally fail to reproduce the same results.
Dog whispering, on the other hand, in its truest form, much like horse whispering has the unmatched ability of delivering communication through the most normal, natural way in which dogs, indeed, all animals have been designed by nature to receive communication and that is in the form of body language. One only needs to quietly observe dogs interacting or any animal for that matter, to learn that true understanding comes from the overt and subtle cues given by stance, movement, positioning eye contact and intent. Anyone who has ever seen a mother duck protect her young ducklings from other members who don't necessarily pose a threat, but have wandered within an inappropriate proximity to the young, will know that it is her positioning, her movement and her all important intent that clearly says, we need some space. Though there may be a quack or two to promote the effect, the body language really demonstrates the point being made. Apply this to just about any animal and it begins to become more clear the all important role body language plays in communication.