Who's in charge? Becoming next 'whisperer'

In the business of pet rescue and city pound work, I have the opportunity to deal with many breeds of dogs and cats under many different circumstances.

In the business of pet rescue and city pound work, I have the opportunity to deal with many breeds of dogs and cats under many different circumstances.

`I also have the opportunity to watch people interact with these animals, sometimes under the worst of circumstances. I never cease to marvel at those folks who have the natural gift of animal control.

The cat whisperer

I will be the first to state that cats really, really are not my area of expertise. I like them as mousers in my barn and shop, they play an important role in the training of my service dog pups, and I admire the lightning speed with which they can deliver a series of defensive swats. But I just can't communicate with them on the same level that I can with dogs.

The pound cats know that and use it to their advantage against me. When I struggle with a cat issue, I go looking for Judy.


Judy has a way with cats. She rarely misses in identifying age, breed or sex of the cats brought in to the city pound. Judy is very knowledgeable about common parasites and illnesses seen in the cats that are caught roaming the alleys and streets of our town.

She trouble shoots well when something is amiss with one of our rescued residents. And the cats listen to her. A cat that will retreat to the back of the cage when I approach will often as not watch Judy for a few minutes and meet her at the cage door.

Judy owns dogs and handles as many dogs as I do in a day, so it can't be that I smell more like a dog. It has to be something in her natural manner that I lack.

Comfort zones

Dogs on the other hand seem to respond to me better -- at least the large ones. Occasionally Judy comes to my rescue when I'm dealing with a small bundle of fur and teeth. But with the larger dogs, Judy tends to wear the "bite me" cologne more often than I do. What makes the difference?

Judy has raised and handled a lot of small breed dogs. She knows them, understands them and is comfortable with them. The smallest dog I own is a 45-pound Australian Shepherd mix.

I'm in my comfort zone with Labs, German Shepherds, Rotties and Newfies. Do the smaller dogs sense that I see them as fragile and I am not nearly as comfortable handling them? Why am I more comfortable entering a kennel with an irate German Shepherd Dog than reaching into a crate containing an angry Chihuahua? And how can they tell it so fast?

Be the boss


Animals are very perceptive of the confidence or comfort level of other animals around them, humans included. I know that a dog brought to me for training is evaluating me as I approach so I best be letting him know who is the pack leader (note is, not will be) in this relationship.

Puppies have studied the science of body language since the day their eyes focused on mom and her mobile lunch counter. They rapidly learned when she was approachable and when she was not.

Since we humans are a bit behind that schedule, most animals will have us evaluated and ranked before we even get a hand extended for the first head pat.

What skills we don't possess naturally can be learned. Extending a hand to a strange and scared animal is not putting your best foot forward. I talk to the animal as I approach.

A skittish dog probably won't come to me if called, but may well sit when told to. That sit allows me to praise the dog, which often results in a tail wag. The sit and wag are acknowledgements that the dog has accepted me as being in charge.

Reaching over a dog is a sign of dominance, a possible challenge in the canine world, whereas petting under the chin is a grooming gesture.

When I do extend a hand toward the dog, I don't stop unless the dog shows serious bite intent. Reaching out, then retracting my hand shows the dog my uncertainty.

Once I get a hand on the animal, I talk quietly and stroke or massage the animal. As soon as possible, I snap a leash on the collar, another statement of control. If possible I will scoop up a small dog and get him off the ground, a position of advantage to me.


Each step is followed by praise. Some animals will accept a treat at this point, others will not.

Many books have been written on stance, ear position, flagging tails and other temperament signals. You can read the articles and watch the training DVD's, but nothing compares to genuine hands on experience.

Volunteering at your local animal shelter is a great start to becoming the next "whisperer."

Please send your questions and comments to me, Linda at .

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