A ring of Alex Aretz's doorbell used to be met instantly with the sound of little feet scampering across her wooden floor and incessant, high-pitched barking.
Once a visitor was inside her Whittier home, conversation was nearly impossible until Aretz's Jack Russel Terrier, Diesel, and Chihuahua, Hurley, settled down. The dogs would leap over furniture and run around the house, snapping their jaws. Their behavior might have been frightening if not for their size.
To Aretz, it was annoying and stressful. Having company was a challenge and the dogs' bad manners continued outside her home. Their constant barking and poor interaction with other canines makes them unwelcome at dark parks and other public places. Diesel's aggressive conduct even got him kicked out of dog training.
That was before Aretz called dog behavioral therapist and trainer John Warner of the global dog training company Bark Busters. The company teaches dog owners how to communicate in their pet's language and establish leadership. Bark Busters staffers are often able to change a dog's behavior in hours using techniques similar to those used on the National Geographic TV show, “The Dog Whisperer.”
Warner is one of four Bark Busters trainers who work in the Twin Cities area. The behavioralists said the large dog population around the Chain of Lakes keeps them busy in Southwest.
Most of Warner's time with Aretz was spent teaching her about dog communication and “pack law.” Dogs are pack animals whose hierarchy is based on which animals are submissive and which are dominant, he said.
“The golden rule in all of this is that the leader always leads,” Warner said.
In Aretz's home, Diesel viewed himself as number one in the pack, Aretz was second and Hurley ranked third, Warner said. The hierarchy developed that way because of Aretz's tendency to leave food out for her dogs all day, allow them to sleep in her bed and perform forms of other coddling. She was continually responding to her pets, when they should have been responding to her, Warner said.
The dogs didn't respect their owner, he said. Even Hurley, who ranked lowest on the totem pole, followed Diesel's lead instead of Aretz's.
To turn the tide, Warner taught Aretz how to gain leadership through canine mentality, body language and verbal communication.
It's the pack leader's job to provide food, safety, shelter and entertainment, Warner said. It wasn't clear to Diesel and Hurley that Aretz was in control of those needs because they were always fulfilled, except for safety. Diesel thought he was doing a good job protecting the pack by barking and leaping when visitors showed up at the door, Warner said. Hurley followed suit.
“Diesel truly does believe it's his job to go into protection mode,” Warner said.
Warner taught Aretz to control the food and show dominance in other ways including keeping them off the bed at night, not allowing the dogs to go out the door before her and correcting bad behavior in dog language.
If the dogs were about to do something bad or were in the process of behaving badly, Warner taught Aretz to use a “bah” sound that emulates a dog bark. If the dogs kept acting up, she was told to throw a small bag filled with chains near their feet. The bag imitates a dog's jaw snap, Warner said.
To keep the dogs from running toward the door when the doorbell rings, Warner created invisible boundaries with the chain bags, which are called training aids. When the dogs started to run toward the door, he would say “bah” and drop the bag at a location in front of them. The dogs stayed back and stopped barking almost immediately.
Diesel was so startled he ran upstairs to hide for a while and Hurley began looking to Aretz for guidance, recognizing she was the new leader.
“I can't believe he's being such a sissy,” Aretz said of Diesel. “I did not expect this. He usually is so tough.”
Eventually Aretz will be able to use the “bah” command without the chain bags, Warner said. Diesel would soon get over his fear and start following Aretz, he said, but Aretz has to remain consistent in her leadership role.
“As soon as Alex starts taking control, the behavior will change,” Warner said.
Warner said Bark Busters will work with any breed of dog at any age with almost any problem. He's dealt with big aggressive dogs and small ones such as Diesel and Hurley.
Connie Pikala of East Harriet said Warner helped get her lab mix, Joe, to stop barking and lunging at the door and pulling on the leash during walks.
“Joe was very responsive and we noticed a change almost immediately,” Pikala said. “Right now if he starts barking, I stand up and look at him and he'll stop.”
Though several area veterinary clinics, such as the Lyndale Animal Hospital, will refer clients who seek dog training to Bark Busters, not all canine professionals support the company, which does not require its employees to receive veterinary certification. Bark Busters behaviorists go through a company training process.
Dr. Petra Mertens, a certified veterinary behaviorist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, said Bark Busters uses techniques that are popular with the public but incorrect from a scientific standpoint. Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years and the “pack” mentality Bark Busters uses is a dangerous oversimplification of canine mentality, she said.
The corrections Bark Busters teaches are unnecessary punishment and could cause more harm than good, she said. An aggressive dog that is “barked” or “snapped” at could become more aggressive, she said.
“You don't need to growl to get good behavior,” she said.
Mertens said each dog has its own needs and most training practices cannot be applied universally. A website she recommends to dog owners looking for a trainer is www.apdt.com, the site of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.
Jake Weyer can be reached at 436-4367 and [email protected].