By Robbi Hess ~ Managing Editor Pet Calendar, Crimeless Cat Executive Story Editor, Chief Cat Herder
Matt Beisner believes, “It’s never too late to get a new leash on life.” As someone who shares that he was “damaged” and that he had a personal transformation, he knows dogs deserve a second chance at a new life as well.
Bitten by a dog on Halloween when he was a child Matt was afraid of dogs for more than thirty years. “Until about eleven years ago I was afraid of dogs.”
Matt, who has a television show on Nat Geo WILD’s new series, “Dog: Impossible” said, “my personal transformation came from a place in which a lot of my behavior was based on fear. Ninety percent of my life was fear-based. I was afraid of so much myself and would lash out and ‘misbehave’.” As a recovering drug addict and alcoholic he understands he lashed out, was aggressive and drove friends and family away.
Years ago, his then-girlfriend let him move in when he was detoxing. “I was trying to get better. I was afraid of dogs and I was moving into a house with small, aggressive terrier-mix.” As he was being attacked by the dog, he realized he needed to change his old way of thinking about dogs. “My old school thinking, and I am sure many of you have heard of this, is to ‘rub a dog’s nose in its mess, punish it with a newspaper and think he will learn.’”
Matt picked up books, read them, watched videos and immersed himself in rudimentary dog training. “I started taking the dog for short walks, I sat outside with him and I quickly realized I was doing these things and making it about me, not about him. I had to think about what was going on with the dog. Why was he attacking me? What could I do to make this dog’s life better?” He knew making the dog’s life better would change everyone living in the house change for the better.
A “light bulb” moment came when Matt realized much of the training he was reading about focused on needs-based training rather than on wants-based relationships. “I had to stop thinking about what I wanted. Teaching a dog is not about what you want, it is about what the dog needs.”
His teaching — Matt prefers “teaching” to “training” because he works with the dog’s owners as well to teach them how to live in harmony with their dogs.
Interview With Matt Beisner of DOG: Impossible
“I knew I didn’t have to be the alpha with this dog. I didn’t have to prove anything,” he said. “Here I was, in early recovery. I had an anxiety disorder and on paper I was the last person you’d think would be working with dogs.”
It was his own feeling of helplessness and hopelessness that brought him to the conclusion he didn’t have all the answers. “I just wanted to work through the aggression and build a relationship with Kingston (the terrier). I don’t have all the answers back then, but now I work with dogs and their owners in a manner that is accessible to them.”
Matt’s relationship with Kingston’s “mom” ended and when she moved away, Kingston went with her. Years later, though Kingston came back into his life.
There are no bad dogs
That phrase is the mantra of Matt and his business, The Zen Dog. His approach to teaching a dog has been considered by some to be “the cutting edge of dog training.” He works to help the dog and his owner forge the deepest possible relationship they can and to help alleviate the tensions in the house.
There are no choke chains, shock collars, alpha rolls or other of the more “popular” aversion training techniques employed. Neither does Matt rely on treats, or clicker training or other methods because he says they are intended to create “obedience” in the dog.
At The Zen Dog, he wants the dog owner to know they are not alone.
“There is hope. We can help. There are no bad dogs.”
When I asked Matt about there being no “bad dogs” and asked him if there were dogs who simply couldn’t be trained away from their aggressive behaviors. He said, “Sometimes a dog and his current family aren’t a fit. The current family may not be willing to make changes to their behaviors and routines that might help the dog or they simply cannot personally handle the dog. In that instance, it is best for the dog to find a new family.”
Matt said there is no blame or fault to a family who simply might need to rehome an aggressive dog. “Everyone in the house needs to be safe. That is even more important when there are children in the household.”
When he began The Zen Dog and immersed himself even more fully in working with aggressive dogs, Matt said he needed to change his thinking. “It’s not about what I want. Teaching a dog is discovering what he needs and then developing a way to give him that and help him work through aggression and fear.”
Matt knows he can be an imposing figure to a dog who is already scared. “I’m tall, bald and come in always wearing black,” he laughed.
In order for a family to understand their role in the dog’s life, they need to understand their dog isn’t bad. “It’s an error in judgment to label a dog as ‘bad’ because that almost immediately prohibits a trainer and the dog’s family from being of maximum service to that dog and her family.”
He gave thanks to the men and women who helped him get his life back together. “They believed in me. They didn’t think I was a lost cause. They helped me get my life back together and worked with me without judgment. That is how I work with aggressive dogs — with hope and without judgment.”
When working with dogs and their owners Matt and his team believe there are rules to the relationship:
Before they work with an aggressive dog they follow three rules of engagement:
A self-taught dog teacher
When he started, Matt taught himself all he knew. “After I’d found out everything I could on my own, and I studied the works of – and from – Dr. Ian Dunbar, Ken McCort, Nicole Wilde, Jonathan Klein and Patricia McConnell.
He attended training conferences and availed himself of what the speakers had to say.
I talked with Dr. Ian Dunbar at an APDT Conference, and he said, “what you’re doing [not relying on treat, tricks, commands or force] is the cutting edge of dog training.”
He started talking with master dog trainers about his ideas for teaching and working with dogs and those trainers kept telling him he was right on track.
“My team helps me stay on top of the latest in behavioral development studies, education, nutrition and anything else we can incorporate into our conversations with dog owners. We don’t want to, and none of us should, live and work in a vacuum. We always need to make certain what we’re doing is appropriate and builds on scientific work the giants in the dog training field have done and are doing.”
How did the business get off the ground?
It was thanks to Matt’s ex-girlfriend — Kingston’s mom. “Even after we split, she’d send friends to me who had aggressive dogs and needed help. I had enough of an ego that I wasn’t going to say I didn’t want to, couldn’t or wouldn’t help,” he said. “Once I was able to help one dog and knew I was making a difference, I moved onto the next dog. I got my love of dogs back — the one I’d lost when I was a kid.”
It might not make sense, but Matt said even though he loves dogs and even though the people he works with love their dogs, in order to work with an aggressive dog (or even a non-aggressive dog) the foundation of the teaching is “detachment.” It is not easy for a dog owner to “detach” from his or her dog, but it’s necessary.
“In working with aggressive dogs I see not only the transformation in the dog, but in the people who are around the dog. They aren’t afraid to be in their own homes with their dogs, they don’t feel stuck with a dog who is exhibiting unwanted behaviors. There is such a feeling of being trapped because the dog owner doesn’t know how to help their dog nor can they help themselves. Detachment helps with that and can have a radical pay off for the dog and the family.”
What is detachment and why is it important?
“What I have seen in detachment training, both empirically and scientifically — is enlightening when it comes to teaching the dogs.”
Just as touch can be a violation of an individual’s personal space and even their sense of well being and safety, the same holds true for dogs.
“When I first started working with dogs I was very ‘handsy,’” he said. “I saw trainers touching dogs, petting them, showering them with affection and in many cases it just didn’t work.”
When he works with a family and asks them to not engage with their dog and its behavior it’s difficult. “When the family detaches from the behavior I get a clear view of what is going on in that household,” Matt said. “I want to see how the dog will react to me — a stranger. I also know I am a walking trigger for many aggressive dogs.”
During a teaching session, Matt said the dog is not engaged with until he calms himself down. “I am looking for the dog to lie down and to relax completely. I am waiting for the posture to soften and when I hear the big exhale I know the dog is ready to learn. The exhale is the punctuation mark on the self-calming the dog has initiated.”
After the dog is calm, she is praised because that is what Matt said will, “reinforce the Zen calm.” When he first started incorporating this into his teaching methods he saw that, sometimes, within an hour the dog was behaving differently with him and the family. “The dog wasn’t barking or lungeing. We essentially turned the idle down on the dog’s motor.”
Matt said if the dog is operating from a “level one” and gets triggered and goes to a “level three” that is one thing, but if a dog starts at a “level three” and ramps up to a “level six or seven” and when he sees them calm down from the level at which they’ve started he knows where he needs to begin in order to see results.
It is an eye-opening time for the humans in the room, Matt said, when they see how they may have — very inadvertently — been impacting their dog’s behaviors. “The human gets his or her power back just seeing their dogs relax simply by not engaging with them — practicing detachment. When we work with aggressive dogs we are teaching the humans as much as we are teaching the dogs.”
TEACHING, not TRAINING. This is an important distinction for Matt and his team at The Zen Dog.
“There is a different feeling and experience when you’re being taught something rather than thinking you’re being trained.” The phrasing matters, he said.
Windows of opportunity
Dr. Dunbar was speaking at a seminar and Matt found out there are primary windows of development for puppies. “Between two weeks and ten weeks old, puppies are in learning mode and puppies are wired to be potty trained, chew trained (having bite inhibition), dog social and human socialized, ” he explained. “After that window puppies who don’t receive that training or human interaction don’t have that neurological wiring necessary to learn. They are technically ‘brain-damaged’ but it takes longer to learn.”
(Per Dr. Dunbar) A twelve-week-old puppy who has missed that primary window of development (two to ten weeks of age) will require seven to eight months of conventional training. And an eight to nine-month-old puppy will require three to four years.” What we do at THE ZEN DOG (which does NOT focus on commands) creates sustainable change in a radically short amount of time. For us, it’s never too late. I once crate and potty trained a fifteen-year-old blind Shih tzu.
The evolution of the Nat Geo WILD series
How did you get your own television show working with aggressive dogs? “It kind of started with actress, director and writer Lena Dunham. She had a rescue dog named Lamby. He was a terrified aggressive mess. We worked with her and we also took Lamby into our facility and worked with him on his own to curb his aggressive behaviors.
Lena eventually made the very difficult decision to rehome him and he went to live with one of the trainers who worked with him,” Matt said. “Lena received a lot of backlash from her decision to rehome Lamby, but as we point out, sometimes a dog and a human just aren’t a good fit and never will be. It is unfair to place blame on a dog owner who makes such a difficult decision to do what is absolutely right for their dog even though it means rehoming him.”
Dunham was very vocal about her struggle with Lamby, she went public with it and told people about The Zen Dog and Matt said his phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.
Two years after that, “Dog: Impossible” came out.
“Our experience with Lena was great. She wanted to do good for her dog and eventually realized they weren’t a good fit,” Matt said. “The inherent message is that I cannot be of service if I were to judge the dog parents who come to us. What we do is about helping dogs and their families live happy lives and sometimes those lives are meant to be lived separately.”
Aren’t there some dogs who just cannot be taught? This was a question I was burning to ask but was afraid to!
“We have never not been able to help a dog,” he said. “I know that seems like a bold statement, but it’s true. Whether the dog stays with the humans who contacted us or whether that dog finds a new home is outside of our control, but we know the pet parents we work with are seeking solutions to their dog and its aggressive behavior.”
What Matt and his team at The Zen Dog do is give the family a fair and informed space from which to make a decision. “We work with the dog and teach them how to move past their aggression. We work with the humans in the household to teach them how to appropriately deal with their aggressive dog.”
There are some aggressive behaviors that are circumstantial. “If a dog needs a lot of exercise and the human in his life can’t walk (yes that is an extreme situation) then that’s not a good fit. The exercise may help the dog with her aggression and if that need can’t be met, something needs to be done that is in the best interest of the dog and the family.”
Dog and baby integration
An important aspect of what Matt and The Zen Dog does is “dog and baby integration.” Matt and his wife have five rescues and they have a three-year-old child. “We don’t have any problems but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We had to do the work to make the integration safe for our child.”
Matt, and many people in the pet industry, have likely seen dogs being rehomed because a family has welcomed a new baby into the house.
“Many dogs will lose their homes because the family has expanded. In a lot of these cases, the dog WAS the baby before the child came along. When the dog gets pushed aside in favor of the baby, aggressive behaviors can manifest,” he said. “When we do baby/dog integration there is no room for risk.”
Matt will often do an in-home session to see how the dog is interacting with the baby. “I do follow up sessions, check-in every month and make sure everything is safe in the house. In most cases, with some work, on the part of the adults in the house, they can keep the dog.”
However, Matt shared, “Sometimes we work with the family and we work with the dog on his aggression toward the baby or toward other family members and it just doesn’t work. The dog is not able to move past his aggression toward the baby, the parents are exhausted from caring for the baby and from keeping everyone safe from harm and they just can’t do it. In those cases though the decision to rehome the dog is done from a place of informed knowledge. We know there will be pain and shame on the part of the owners, but safety needs to always be front of mind when a child is in the house.”
Matt is still working at The Zen Dog and is doing some private training sessions, but knows when the show takes off it will be a logistical challenge. “I know there will come a time when doing private teaching in individual homes will not be practical. I will have to find new ways to help dog owners,” he said. “I have a great team who use the methods I employ and that helps as I move forward.”
Because so much of what we do is about detachment and not engaging with or reprimanding your dog I find that with detachment training no one has gotten hurt. “If you’re not engaging, and you’re not imposing yourself on to the dog, the dog doesn’t feel put upon and stressed and that lessens the risk of injury to the dog or the pet parent immediately.”
If I don’t have an aggressive or an “impossible” dog, will I like your new show?
“You don’t need a problem dog or a dog deemed impossible to enjoy the show. This show appeals to dog lovers and even those people who don’t currently share their lives with a dog,” Matt said. “We know there is still the possibility of being moved by the transformation that is happening in the lives of the dogs and their families. This is, at its core, a deep-hearted show about transformation.”
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?
“Yes! Thank you for asking! I really want people to understand the relationship with their dog and the way they interact with them may come from the dog owner’s wants rather than being based on what the dog needs.”
As an example, he shared, “You may WANT your dog on the bed with you, but does your dog NEED to be there? Does your dog WANT to be there? Does your dog NEED you to pet her or do you WANT to pet her? There are a lot of wants versus needs that not all pet parents think about.”
A want-based relationship may lead to your dog becoming anxious or stressed because you’re not interpreting his needs and are not paying attention to his needs or his body language.
Dog petting example
One of the episodes of “Dog: Impossible” showed the owner attempting to pet her Pug. The dog didn’t want the interaction and Matt explained we should “ask” our dogs if they want to be petted. We can do that by holding our hand out to them. “Does your dog pull back? Does your dog rest his head in your hand or put his head under your hand? Those signs will let you know whether your dog is open to your touch.”
A dog on a bed
Some dog parents feel having their dog on their bed with them is giving the dog the highest value of affection. The bed, Matt said, is a very personal issue for dog owners. “Since my wife, Brooklin and I got our dogs off the bed — years ago — I have met thousands of people who let their dogs on the bed. Matt feels, “the altitude of the bed changes a dog’s attitude. The higher up they get, the bigger sense of status in the hierarchy of the family dynamic they feel they have.”
Matt also said when he sees a small dog on the back of the couch he also sees more of an inappropriate sense of propriety the dog feels it has.
“The greatest reward your dog gets is your affection — that’s what they want.”
“I will be forever learning. I am not The Zen Dog, I am the founder of it. I don’t purport to be anyone other than who I am. I am not interested into getting into a negative discourse about what we are doing. I am interested in helping dogs and their families in the fastest, safest way possible. When we help the people feel safe, their dogs feel safe and that helps everyone build trust in the world.”
My PERSONAL PUPPY TRAINING NOTE
This was an eye-opener for me and I told Matt so. I rescued Hazel when she was already three-months-old. The people who had her hadn’t named her and hadn’t done any kind of potty training with her. She lived her life in a wooden box by a garage. She was skittish and is still afraid when I speak loudly or when the television plays loudly.
My main issue right now is house training. She will go to the bathroom outside BUT she will not “ask” to go outside. She has no tells that let me know she needs to go potty other than spinning in a circle and going.
Hazel will sit either from a verbal command or a hand sign. She can dig through a toy box and bring me the exact toy I have requested BUT house training is a frustrating exercise right now. She wears her leash and collar in the house all the time and is looped around my waist so I don’t miss her beginning to spin and go to the bathroom.
Matt’s information and explanation are helping me have more patience with Hazel and her reticence to grasp the house training concept. I need to remember she isn’t doing it to be naughty — she doesn’t know any better, she obviously isn’t being “vindictive” she simply missed that opportune window of learning.
My heart breaks when I think of her start in life — no name, no interaction and obviously some sort of abuse to make her afraid of loud noises like the other dogs barking, any changes in her environment (moving a couch or chair scares her when she has walked into the room) and many outdoor noises and sights have her shivering.