Maybe the farthest thing from a "dog whisperer" there is, the work I do every day with my clients - work I stand behind and attach my name to - is the antithesis of everything being a "dog whisperer" means. And I'm not just talking about Cesar Milan and his long-running, incredibly popular, deeply problematic reality television show.
To be a "dog whisperer" is to evoke the magical, maybe even the mystical. The power of presence; a look, touch, or even a simple thought in the direction of the beast transforms the animal in the span of just a few minutes. Suddenly, the dog is everything any family has always dreamed of and believed he or she a dog can be. It's marvelous, it's miraculous, it's potentially life saving, it defies rational explanation.
And it's deeply damaging. Let me explain why.
First and foremost, it immediately renders unnecessary any understanding of the scientific theories on which our best explanations for dog behavior are built. These foundations, developed over decades upon decades of research, are what provide dog owners with ever-better explanations about behavior and how it might be addressed when it's problematic. Without it, one bump in the road renders us lost with no idea what direction to go next. Even worse, more often than not, we risk make things worse when we don't understand the fundamental theories and principles on which our understanding of behavior is constructed.
The idea of a "dog" or "animal whisperer" renders the associated behavior and training protocols - our best, most robust applications of these theories and principles - as out of reach for the everyday dog owner. They become relegated to the magical, and the magical is out of reach by default. As we're unable to parse the multiple, simultaneously occurring skills at work when our dog is engaged with a professional dog trainer or behavior professional, we don't understand what's happening, or why. Not initially, anyway.
The implication that this work has an element of the magical robs the dog owner of the responsibility he or she has to internalize and execute the work that needs to be done with their dogs. It also deters those who otherwise might pursue this work as a career path. This divide happens without our even realizing it. It has the more insiduous consequence of relieving the everyday human of the burden (responsibility) of developing any understanding about the behavior around us. If we're working with a "dog whisperer" we're talking about magical processes, after all. Only a certain number of us are born with "it" - that mystical touch that can change everything for the better in an instant. That inexplicable quality that makes a human into a "dog whisperer". Except that no such magic exists.
The quality we are trying so hard to define is in fact the synthesis of behavior theory, the practical application of that theory via tried and tested protocols, continuing education, and the ongoing quantification of the work itself. In short, it is something that is earned. It cannot be bestowed via genetic lottery. Some aspects of it can be taught, but not all. Somewhere along the line, it is defined in the doing.
You can imagine who might suffer the most from this well-meaning, if poorly applied, moniker.
These explanations and applications are not out of reach for anyone wanting to understand and potentially change the behavior of their dog for the better. Dog training and behavior modification is equal parts academic study and hard skill acquisition, a brilliant fusion of the best the mind and body have to offer. It has the singular aim of improving the lives and relationships of people and their dogs by providing better, easier-to-access explanations and applications of behavior and training theory to dogs and their human partners.
Put simply, there are no "dog whisperers", because nothing in dog behavior and training is magical. No one "born with it", in much the same way your dog wasn't born knowing how to sit on cue. It's scientific, it's practical, and it's work. Nothing more, nothing less.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.