New Breed Works at Modifying Dogs’ Behavior

Times Staff Writer

Dennis Fetko “learned how to walk hanging on to the side of a dog.”

So it was not surprising that he grew up to become a dog trainer. And he trained dogs, big dogs, the way that trainers did at that time, with a lot of what he calls “chain jerking.”

Then he broke his back and was told that he could not work the way he had with 200-pound Newfoundlands anymore. So he went back to school and got a doctorate in human behavior and behavioral psychology and he learned that chain jerking “can be a very valid way to stop a dog’s actions, but when it’s the only way, you should be working with lawnmowers.”

Fetko, also known as Dr. Dog in San Diego where he has a monthly call-in radio show on KSDO 1130 AM, is a canine behaviorist. Canine behaviorists use the principles of psychology and behavior modification to correct undesired behavior in the common pooch.

“Half the people in obedience training don’t want training, they want a problem solved,” Fetko said. An owner who takes his dog to a trainer because he digs, barks and chews will get a dog that “digs, barks and chews, but sits and heels,” he said.


The difference between a dog trainer and a dog behaviorist, Fetko said, is “a trainer teaches a skill, a behaviorist teaches good behavior.” If a dog owner has a Great Dane that pulls on the leash, “a trainer would teach it to heel; a behaviorist would teach it not to pull,” he said.

The profession is a new one, Fetko said. “It’s not in its infancy. It’s embryonic.”

To further their embryonic profession, 14 canine behaviorists met at the Sheraton Newport last weekend to exchange views on paper-training, booby traps and food treats as well as systematic desensitization, separation anxiety and aggression. They shared professional secrets, such as liverwurst (as a motivator), and talked about the ethics of euthanization for dogs that bite humans. The first Conference for Canine Behaviorists was organized by Sue Myles, owner of Companion Dogs by Sue Myles, a dog behavior therapy and obedience instruction operation in Newport Beach. Most of the behaviorists attending make their living by making house calls for dogs with behavior problems, Myles said.

Myles said she invited behaviorists that she knew of from their reputations and excluded people whom she knew to be “chain jerkers.”

They had doctorates, master’s and bachelor’s degrees in zoology, biology, anthropology, veterinary science, psychology and combinations thereof. None had a license or certificate to practice as a dog behaviorist because no such certification exists, Myles said.

No Certification in Field

Fetko said people can and do call themselves behaviorists and charge $400 to $500 to teach dog owners chain jerking, and there is nothing to stop them. He said he doesn’t see any kind of certification in the next few years because “the animal field is so new, that (no one is qualified) to decide.”

Myles said she charges $45 for an office visit and $65 if she goes to the client’s home. But Fetko, who declined to quote his fees, said other behaviorists can charge much more. If you have a behavior problem, he noted, it can take four or five visits, which can run into hundreds of dollars. And all behaviorists charge more for aggression, Fetko said.

Consumers considering hiring an animal behaviorist should look for some sort of background in behavior modification, or psychology, Fetko said. There are a few universities beginning to offer degrees in animal behavior, but most of the behaviorists in the field now have degrees in other fields, he said.

At the conference, the behaviorists discussed such common dog problems as house soiling, barking, fear responses, aggression towards humans and destructive behavior in the owner’s absence.

Vickie Marx, a behaviorist who owns the West Coast Academy of Dog Training in Newport Beach, uses systematic desensitization to deal with separation anxiety. When an owner leaves for work, many times the dog thinks that he is never coming back, she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh God, mommy and daddy are leaving me.’ ”

This produces an anxiety that the dog may relieve by barking, chewing on and destroying furniture, she said. Most dog owners punish the dog when they come home and discover the damage, but to show the dog the damage and hit him is pointless, Marx said, because “he will not make any association with that at all. They (dogs) will just think they didn’t do a good enough job.”

Systematic desensitization involves putting the dog in an area by himself and taking him out, always increasing the length of time, Marx said. This desensitizes the dog to being alone, she said.

Behaviorist Miriam Yarden, owner of Animal Behavior Guidance in Long Beach, said that owners could relieve some of the tension of separation anxiety by letting the dog feel their presence while they’re away. “Wear a T-shirt for a couple of days. Don’t launder it and give it to the dog.” She said that owners who do this should not expect to get it back.

“Putting on the radio is fine if you’re a radio listener yourself,” she said. Her major advice on this is to not make a big deal out of leaving and to get out of the house as fast and quietly as possible.

Yarden said dog owners who immediately punish a dog when they come home and find that he has had an accident on the living room rug may be “playing right into his paws.” Adult dogs who break house training may be doing it with the main intent of getting attention from their owners, she said.

“How better to get attention than going on the Persian carpet,” she said. What owners should do in a case like this is, among other things, spend time, “a good 10 to 15 minutes with the dog to the exclusion of others,” Yarden said.

Behaviorists disagreed on using the crate method to housebreak puppies. In the crate method, puppies are kept in a crate or a box when they are not being watched by their owners. The idea is “if you crate a puppy, it will not eliminate in it’s own nest,” Yarden said.

The dog can be kept in the crate for up to four hours and is given a specific time and place to eliminate, said Ron Berman, behaviorist and owner of Best Behavior in Manhattan Beach. The crate method takes advantage of a dog’s natural instincts, he said.

“It’s based on the fact that a dog is a den animal,” Berman said. A den is usually a small area, and puppies after they are a few weeks old learn to leave the den to eliminate, Berman said. Wild dogs seem to know that “littering the den would create a lot of bacteria and destroy the pack,” Berman said.

The crate is also small and is “natural for the dog,” Berman said. Owners tend to resist the crate, because they think it is cruel, he said, “but once I explain the basics of it they accept it.”

One of the behaviorists suggested telling dog owners to think of the crate as a crib for a baby.

“You can call it by 10 million baby names, but (to the owners) it’s still jail, and ‘I won’t put my baby in jail,’ ” said Carole Schatz, owner of Best Friend Learning Center in San Diego. She said she doesn’t try to convince owners who are truly against the crate and doesn’t suggest it for people who work all day and leave the dog alone.

Yarden is against the crate method because, she said, it could cause internal problems for the dog if he is in the crate and can’t eliminate. “I worry about claustrophobia,” she said.

When a dog becomes aggressive and begins biting people, Deena Case, director of the Pet/People Relationship in Thousand Oaks, said she always discusses euthanasia as an option. “When a pit (pit bull) or a Rott (Rottweiler) or a shepherd becomes aggressive, it can be very serious. We have to stress the ethical issues . . . and human beings come first.”

Myles also said that she has had to recommend euthanasia but that she has a method of dealing with what she called dominance-motivated aggression, where the dog shows aggression because he believes he is the dominant family member, the leader of the pack.

First, she removes the dog from the family for a period of five to seven days and begins training the dog. The idea is for the dog to accept that human beings are dominant over him, she said.

Myles said she will stroke the dog on the head, something that dominant dogs do to others in the pack, give him a treat if he accepts stroking and withhold the treat if he shows aggression, such as growling. She keeps increasing dominant behavior toward the dog, and when the dog goes back to the owner, he continues the training, she said.

“I have had increasing success with this,” Myles said.

More and more people are accepting canine behaviorists as people are accepting all kinds of psychology in general, Case said. “People used to say you have to be crazy to see a psychologist.”

And often, a behaviorist is the only option between keeping a dog and giving it away, Yarden said. When people love their dogs, she said, “it is very important that the dog fit into the family. This is a family member.”