The Dog Diaries: Our canine companions want us to take charge. What we don’t understand may come back to bite us

Sam Malatesta: makes a point about socializing dogs around other dogs during a recent training session at the Zorn Avenue Ramada Inn.

Sam Malatesta: makes a point about socializing dogs around other dogs during a recent training session at the Zorn Avenue Ramada Inn.

Sam Malatesta says dogs should be bomb-proof. He believes you can stand in the median of I-71 at morning rush hour, your dog at your side, with neither of you feeling any particular stress.

He also knows how far most dog-owners are from such a scenario, which is why he’s dedicated his life to learning about dogs and what makes them tick, and sharing that with others.

I met the 44-year-old Canadian-born Italian dog trainer through a friend of a friend, who called late last year to suggest that Sam’s impending training sessions in Louisville would make a good write-up in the context of Louisville’s recently passed dangerous dog ordinance.

I signed up, joining a group of a dozen or so folks from around the region who’ll gather for one weekend a month for 10 months. Some group members want to learn more about training their own pets. Others work with animal rescue groups and hope to learn how to prepare dogs for adoption and a successful life thereafter.
We’ve had two sessions, and my head is spinning from the volume of complex information, not to mention the tricky physical component (try working your dog on a 12-foot lead without nearly falling on your own butt a couple times. Talk about humbling).

Our third session is approaching, and my plan is to write about the work over the next few months. Hopefully by learning to train my own dog, I can share insights that help others think about dog ownership in a new way.
In the meantime, let’s hear a few things from Sam himself:

LEO: What is it people don’t quite realize about owning dogs?
: A lot of people don’t see the primitive side. Dogs were originally used as hunting dogs or protectors — a creature of defensive, predatory instinct with extreme loyalty. When things go wrong, these instincts come out in the wrong way.

LEO: How does this realization, or lack thereof, contribute to problems?
: Many people fall into the trap of including dogs as family members without teaching them this is a reward, based on accomplishing tasks taught. In a work situation — for example, police dogs — long before the dog actually works, it goes through tests. If dogs pass, they begin arduous training, spending weeks in a structured environment.

Now, look at the family pet. The family dog has a far more demanding job — working dogs have a set format and teaching. A family dog, on the other hand, has to accept everybody who comes into the house as a guest, whether he likes it or not. The family dog has to endure children running up to it and has to accept everyone.

The family dog has to not fight with other dogs or act aggressive in any sense. The family dog has to be a convenience — or we surrender it to a shelter. If it takes working dogs a year of solid work to perform in controlled environments, how long do you think it takes a family dog to act accordingly in an uncontrolled environment? Based on many confrontations, my estimate is two years of solid structure — mainly the handler understanding and knowing how to get the pet to be a pet.

LEO: Do we see more dog problems today than, say, 10, 20, 30 years ago?
Yes. I can’t pinpoint why. People say it is population density or genetics. I think it is the vision of humanization. What I mean is, we put dogs in situations of socialization that reaches far beyond our own capabilities of acceptance. Instead, we should work in small steps and ensure the dog is acceptant of the things around us by reading, and understanding, how a dog thinks or feels.

LEO: How do you raise awareness among the general public?
I always say this to new students: You’re human; how would you feel being treated like a dog? Then I ask: If you were a dog, how would you feel being treated like a human being? For some reason, we think treating a dog like a vulnerable creature that needs strong, fair and benevolent leadership is an unacceptable statement.

LEO: How does media play into this — celebrity dog trainers, misinformation, lack of context?
What I see is sensationalism — the dog that kills the child, the dog that fights or bites, breed bans. Dog attacks must be published, but when something like that makes headlines, it would be helpful and educational for a professional dog person to analyze what happened and how it could have been avoided.
On the other hand, dog training has become a multibillion dollar industry. I think it has become an issue of pleasing people at the dog’s expense. What I do is tell people they are accountable for their dog’s behavior; it has nothing to do with genetics, and that makes my method hard to swallow sometimes.

LEO: I am struck by your phrase about making dogs “bomb-proof.” By that, I take it to mean they should react calmly to any stress by finding their alpha and having the confidence the alpha will ensure safety.
Many people don’t understand what an alpha is in the world of dogs. They have the misconception that an alpha is an overbearing, threatening individual who controls his subjects with fear and submission. On the contrary, an alpha is a respected individual who has earned his position through knowledge and understanding.

LEO: Talk about your general view of the dog’s place in human society.
Dogs are what we wish them to be, whether a family pet or working dog. What’s needed to give a dog a complete life can only be achieved by our own discipline and understanding. What I see today is owners with good intentions, but in a lot of cases, the results — the dog’s behavior — speaks mounds.

LEO: Some people would assume a guy like you is too dogmatic, too strident.
Maybe, but a life with a dog is a relationship, and relationships are hard work, not only to develop but to maintain. My own dogs play ball and play with my kids, are allowed to be free on the property without supervision, do not react to dogs aggressively and can be free and admired everywhere they go. I think the greatest injustice we can hand a creature is one where it is feared or disliked.
If the behavior is an annoyance to others, and we are blinded by our affection for our dogs, I don’t think anyone is having fun. A dog is a commitment and a huge responsibility. We are responsible to our neighbors, who should not be annoyed with our dogs. We are responsible to the children, who should never be threatened or afraid of our dog, and equally important, we are responsible to our dogs, to make them well-liked, social citizens.

LEO: Do you “love” your dogs? Do you like them, respect them, admire them?
All of the above. I live and breathe dogs. I wanted to bring one of my dogs on my honeymoon, but my wife drew the line on that one.

LEO: Some people think it’s mean to crate a dog, or to not let it on the couch, or to not feed it everything it wants and so on. Isn’t this human psychology run amok in a consumerist world where we’re constantly told we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it, without consequence?
Crating dogs is important. I don’t like dogs on my couch, but I would save that as a reward when a goal is achieved. The same goes for the bed — it’s up to me to set the path for my dog to achieve these goals. Nowadays, we are demanding, and if it doesn’t work in a convenient way, we get rid of it. Divorce is higher, trouble with children is more eminent … a car or computer breaks and we just get another and blame the manufacturer for our lack of maintenance.

I am seeing this in dogs, even in behavior. I call this the pacifying genetic excuse. We lavish them with love and affection and attention and expect the same back. I hate to say it, but if you have your lips stuck on someone’s heiny and never take them off, the thing attached to that heiny isn’t about to stick its lips on yours. When we don’t get back the love or behavior we want after our over-accommodation, we become resentful, neglectful and cruel. Then we dump it in a shelter and get another one.

At the end of the day, aggression, anxiety and frustration are higher in society now, and our dogs are displaying it. The expectation syndrome, as opposed to hard work. Just as we expect things from our dogs, they expect us to lead and guide them through a safe and happy life, with unconditional trust, respect and love. Notice the order.

For more info about Sam Malatesta, go to Contact the writer at [email protected]