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animal instincts

Whisperers’ Secrets

It’s all about understanding the beast

Some years ago my wife, Linda, found the horse of her dreams: a gorgeous black Cheval-Canadian cross thoroughbred. She named him Jack. Soon, however, we realized that Jack bucked a lot and was impossible to ride. One day, I found Linda pacing, wringing her hands, agonizing. “I think I may have to contact a horse whisperer,” she said bravely.

Whispering is a nonviolent method for training difficult animals, as many people know from Nicholas Evans’ book and film The Horse Whisperer. There’s a whisperer who has helped workers maneuver a whale, a whisperer who has tamed elephants by massaging their feet, ears, face, and tail. Dog whisperers abound. The most famous is probably Cesar Millan, of National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer program.

The truth is that I was taken aback by Linda’s declaration. She and I are both veterinarians. We trust in science, not movies and TV shows. But she was desperate, so I tried to help. I plunged deep into the world of whisperers, talking to several practitioners.

One was Monty Roberts, a down-to-earth guy who lives in Santa Ynez, California, and likes cowboy hats and kerchiefs. Roberts has spawned a veritable cottage industry. He’s got books (The Man Who Listens to Horses), videos (You and Your Wild Horse: From Trailer to Trail), speaking tours, and T-shirts. I didn’t expect to like what he had to say, but I did. “When you work with horses,” he told me, “you have to work with the nature of the horse to bend it, enhance it, and allow it to flow along.”

To teach a horse not to run away from its owner, he walks toward it in a round pen with a stern look on his face. As long as the horse runs away, he keeps advancing. When the horse pauses, he stops. Eventually, the horse walks up to him voluntarily. Punishment is replaced with communication through body language.

Another whisperer, Claire Bessant, chief executive of the Feline Advisory Bureau in Salisbury, England, and author of The Kitten Whisperer, said that she meets cats, notes whether they’re confident or timid, and interviews their owners. “Punishment is the worst possible thing to do,” she affirmed. Recently she had an owner whose cat refused to use the litter box. She discovered that the owner had begun biking to work and storing the bike indoors—with remnants of the outside world still stuck on the tires. The cat felt invaded by foreign smells. Once the owner began storing the bike elsewhere, the cat reverted to its normal behavior.

As Paul Owens, author of The Dog Whisperer, explains, whispering “involves treating animals with the same kindness, compassion, and respect we employ when we educate our children or care for our friends and family.”

It all sounds good, but when my wife searched for a whisperer to work with Jack, she hit a wall. She first tried a woman who described herself as a “natural horsemanship trainer.” The woman proved to be a charlatan. Then, after numerous phone calls around the country, it became clear that all the established horse whisperers are hundreds of miles away, and that their fees are at least $4,000 a month.

No wonder desperate owners settle for impostors—and, believe me, they are legion, for dogs, cats, and horses alike. Some self-styled dog whisperers use tools such as choke chains and prong collars. One woman in California who took her pit bull mix to such a trainer said his methods “were all about physical dominance—pushing, kneeing, and pinning the dog to get the point across,” and the dog grew to fear her. Her story ended happily when she found Paul Owens.

As for Linda, she ended up boarding Jack with a man who used to train state police horses. He simply jumped on Jack’s back, hung onto his mane, and rode through the bucking like a rodeo cowboy. Jack got the message, though it wasn’t exactly whispered. Linda can now sometimes walk, trot, and canter Jack. The problem isn’t completely solved yet, but we hope to get there soon.

I eventually realized that the concepts behind whispering aren’t all that different from what I learned in vet school: Under-standing what is going on is key. Behaviors that are rewarded will be reinforced. Behaviors that are ignored will dissipate. So there’s nothing complicated about it. With kindness and patience, any of us can become whisperers.

One of the world’s leading animal behaviorists, NICHOLAS DODMAN directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the author of four bestsellers in the field. His latest book is The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend (Houghton Mifflin).

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