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Listening to Dogs

How Jan Fennell pioneered a positive approach to training

by Jeff Fleischer

For more than 15 years, dog listener Jan Fennell has practiced “amichien bonding,” a nonviolent, positive-reinforcement training method she developed for guardians to use with their dogs. Through her method, humans establish themselves as pack leaders for their dogs and benevolently command the animals’ respect.

“It really started because of total dissatisfaction with what was already out there—the methods of jerking dogs around, pushing and pulling, that sort of thing,” says the U.K.-based trainer. “That sat wrong with me. [Your dog] is supposed to be your best friend, and you don’t treat your best friend like that.” She says her inspiration came in 1989, when horse whisperer Monty Roberts visited the United Kingdom and Fennell had a chance to watch him work with animals in person. Just as Roberts had learned to communicate with horses using their own language, Fennell decided she wanted to do the same with dogs. She began by studying the behaviors of wild dogs—such as wolves, dingoes, and African wild dogs—to pick up on the signals and cues they use to communicate. “I look at it this way,” she says. “The gray wolf has been surviving, in its present form, for more than a million years. So what these guys have got is something that works.”

Based on her research, Fennell says dogs are essentially concerned with four basics—food, the hunt for food, status, and dealing with danger. In a pack of wild dogs, the alphas or pack leaders (usually a male and a female)make the decisions for the entire pack on these fronts. Therefore, the key to the doglistening technique is getting humans to take the alpha role for the dogs in their life and assume control of those four fundamentals.

“We’re not just dog trainers, we’re people trainers,” explains Sasha Mangrum, founder of 4Sense Canine Communication in Chicago, and one of about 120 professional “dog listeners” who have studied with Fennell. “So bottom line, we teach people what the alpha character is. The alpha is calm at all times—calm, cool, and collected. They don’t panic when it isn’t necessary.”

That calm approach, Fennell says, is essential for correcting a number of canine behavior problems. “Every non-medical behavioral problem is caused by the dog believing he’s leader,” Fennell says. “That includes jumping up, pulling on the lead, barking, biting, chasing. Once we trade places with the dog and show we’re leader, the job is done.”

For example, Fennell says a barking dog is responding to a perceived danger. When a person yells at the dog or tells him to stop, “what the dog actually hears is us joining in,” she says. “What you should do instead is calmly thank the dog like you would a child. The fact that you’re not bothered makes them relaxed.” Similarly, she says thebest way to calm a dog who jumps up is to walk in like a leader and ignore the dog until he calms down. “When the dog chills out and relaxes, then I will call him to me,” she says. “Until they calm down, the dog can jump, or bring over a ball to try to get me to pay attention to them, and it will not work.”

As for encouraging positive behavior, Fennell believes in using rewards and repetition. “If I want to teach a dog to sit, I can do that in three steps,” she says. “I hold a food reward just over the head and tip it up. As they go back, as soon as their bottom touches the ground, I say, ‘Sit. Good dog,’ and give them the reward, then repeat the process.”

Dog listener consultations take place in the home, and Fennell says the listener serves as the guardian’s “backup for life.” She says the techniques work for dogs of any breed or age, and can be adjusted to work with an individual dog’s personality. “The [guardians] see results quickly and that gives them the inspiration to go on,” Fennell says. “We’re there to help the person understand what isn’t working and how to put it right for themselves. That’s the joy of it, because people love to succeed and, if they have the right information, they’re going to get it right.”

Fennell will hold a workshop in Chicago in May. For details about the event and amichien bonding, visit www.JanFennellTheDogListener.com.

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