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Book Review: The Dog Listener

By: Ranny Green

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Five-minute rule. Amichien Bonding. Reprogramming. Call it what you want, Jan Fennell serves up all of them in The Dog Listener (HarperCollins, $24), a refreshing resource that might have you muttering "huh!" a few times before you're finished.

A Monty Roberts (The Horse Whisperer) disciple, Fennell dramatizes the need for us to learn dog language in order to control the household. "Dogs are never going to learn our language," she says. "The bad news is that to communicate successfully with our dogs, it is up to us to learn their language. It is a task that requires an open mind and a respect for the dog. No one who regards a dog as their inferior will achieve anything. It must be respected at all times for what it is."

While we speak a wide range of dialects, our canine friends communicate in a single universal language fostered by their historical link to the wolf. To get a grasp of canine talk, she contends, you must understand the society within which our dogs believe they are living – the model of which is the wolf pack.

In the book's final chapter, "The Yo-Yo Effect: Overcoming the Problems of Rescue Dogs," she says that in 99.9 percent of cases she sees, the dog's behavior is a direct result of human mistakes, mainly laziness, stupidity, or, unfortunately, cruelty.

Fennell, who lives in North Lincolnshire, England, has become a media celebrity in her country, but is virtually unknown in the United States. That may be about to change, as she makes her rounds of TV, radio and print-media interviews promoting her fresh view on the subject of man-dog communication.

The misconception that dogs are leaders of the pack rather than their owners is the heart and soul of the communication technique she has developed after having one of her early pets, a 6-month-old border collie-whippet cross, euthanized because of a biting incident.

It was that failing, she says, and a seminar conducted by Roberts in 1990, that were the trigger mechanisms for her to make amends to Purdey, the border collie-whippet. That animal's legacy is reflected in Fennell's many successes and ability to undoubtedly save the lives of many clients' canines.

Roberts' seminar and his quick success with a horse owned by a friend of Fennell, completely altered her thinking on man-dog relationship. Her perspective of canine behavioral problems took a 180-degree turn. "From the dog's point of view, what if the dog thinks we're dependent on them rather than the opposite? What if it believes it is the leader of the pack in which we too are subordinate? What if it believes it is its job to safeguard our welfare rather than the other way around?

"I had made the mistake we humans make all too often in our dealings with animals. I had assumed that they understood they were living with me in a domestic situation. It had not occurred to me to think the rules they were playing by had been dictated to them in the wild. In short, I had imposed human constraints on them; I had allowed familiarity to breed contempt."

Fennell emphasizes that while we may consider them to be pets, our dogs still believe they are functioning members of a community whose rulebook was directly descended from the wolf pack.

In each case, she adheres totally to what she labels Amichien Bonding, which is built from these four elements (the more simplistic explanations are in parentheses):

  • When the pack reunites after a separation, who is the boss now. (Reuniting with your dog after a day at work or a trip to the store.)

  • When the pack is under attack or there is a fear of danger, who is going to protect it? (Keep the dog under control when a visitor knocks on your door or rings the doorbell; establish you are the boss and you will decide if the visitor is a friend or threat.)

  • When the pack goes on a hunt, who is going to lead it? (Refining the come, sit and heel commands initially, which provide the foundation for going on a walk.)

  • When the pack eats food, what order do members eat in? (Establishing owner power at feeding time.)

    While this may seem like a foreign language at first, Fennell places it in sharp perspective with a kaleidoscope of case histories, dealing with subjects such as separation anxiety, nervous aggression, jumping on visitors, biting, problem puppies, problem eaters and chewers, among others.

    In the initial element above, Fennell applies a five-minute rule, i.e. ignoring the jumping, exuberant animal for five minutes (sometimes longer), with no eye contact, conversation or touching (unless you need to push the dog gently away). "No matter how agitated or aggressive the dog, it will at some point decide to bring this ritual to an end and walk away," she adds.

    By continually repeating this recipe of reform, Fennell says the greeting of visitors to your home or even to you, will become more orderly and respectful. Comparing Amichien Bonding to learning to drive a car, the author says that in time fundamental routines will become second nature. "For the most part, the knowledge will be stored away in the subconscious, a useful new skill that will add enormously to the enjoyment of the dog lover's life."

    Throughout, Fennell's endearing spunkiness surfaces in coping with one problem after another, as problem pooches play mind games with their significant others who have no clue how to read their animals' body language. The Dog Listener isn't a quick-fix manual, but it's a probing tool that will enable you to understand why some dogs turn their owners' words into vapor.

    It's a sharp-eyed, refreshing analysis that oozes potential for saving many troubled canines' lives. But like most self-help manuals, its value lies in the ability of the reader to follow the course of action rigidly and regularly.

    In cited cases, Fennell was there to apply her techniques. Whether a reader is capable without hands-on professional help is questionable, although this narrative is written in a basic, business-like fashion you should find helpful.

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