Neil with Nola, who has since passed away, but will always be a Creature of Heart.
“We all recognize that our dogs are emotional creatures, that they are creatures of Heart… So what Natural Dog Training does, that none of the other training methods do, it works with your dog on the level of Heart. And you’re getting them into an emotional space that’s conducive to obedience and social behavior. Every dog is operating from that level of how the world makes them feel. And so, if you’re just trying to control their behavior, but you’re never trying to get into how to make your dog feel differently, then you’re kind of missing the boat.” –Neil Sattin, author of The Natural Dog Blog
I recently sat down with Neil Sattin at Crèma Café on Commercial Street to discuss our mutual interest in Natural Dog Training. In the late 90’s Neil adopted a 6 month old dog named Nola. Nola, it turned out, was aggressive to other dogs. In his search to help Nola work through this issue, Neil says, “I tried everything in the alpha school, the dominance school, the correction school, and then I tried everything in the positive school, the clicker, like, everything, and … nothing worked.”
He was advised by certain trainers that Nola should be euthanized, but Neil was not going to give up. He worked with other trainers and found that their methods “would work up to a point, and then it would just clearly not work. In the alpha-mode, ultimately I could see that she was becoming fearful and timid and it wasn’t helping the actual problem. And in the positive school…she would be good up to a point, but as you know, with aggression, you can’t click away aggression… And that whole step-by-step process of trying to desensitize your dog to those situations, only works up to a point.” So he continued working with Nola, seeming to make progress with certain methods, but then she would end up attacking another dog and he would find himself back at square one.
Back in those days, the internet was just beginning to put it’s pavement down as the information highway. But Neil kept searching high and low until he finally found Kevin Behan and bought his book called “Natural Dog Training.” The way Kevin described dog behavior and his approach to training really clicked with Neil. He went to work with Kevin in Vermont and was immediately intrigued with Kevin’s philosophies and system of dog training. Neil ultimately ended up apprenticing with Kevin for a month-long intensive program where he was immersed in the world of Natural Dog Training.
This experience changed Neil’s perspective on dog training, and he came back from his apprenticeship with the necessary tools to not only help rehabilitate Nola, but to then start working with other dogs as well. He even produced a DVD set explaining and demonstrating the main techniques and principles of Natural Dog Training.
I told Neil about some of the NDT work I was doing with my own dogs and asked him if there was a “prescription” for training in terms of time spent every week with the exercises, or how often should one practice bite-work or other techniques. I had concerns that I was going through periods of doing too much “training” and then getting burnt out and not doing enough. So Neil put it into perspective for me.
He compared it to people who have horses, and ride and work with their horse every day. There is no day that the horse is perfectly “trained,” they are constantly evolving and always improving their relationship with the horse. Well, same goes for your dog. Every day is an opportunity to work with your dog. But actually, even the “training” can be in the spirit of play. So it doesn’t have to feel like work at all. “Everything is an opportunity for you to engage your dog in the spirit of play, and the awesome thing is, this kind of play leads to really social behavior.”
He goes on to explain the pressures people put on their dogs, often in total disregard to what’s in their dog’s best interest. He says, “Most people, whether they realize it or not, they get a dog to serve a need for them…” What Neil asks us to do is flip that paradigm around and see if the human can serve the needs of the dog. He believes that we put a lot of demands on our dogs without really thinking about what the dog needs. “If I’m asking my dog to be cute on demand when guests come over, or to always come when called because I want to feel significant in their life, that’s all putting a lot of demands on the dog… On the flip side, if you buy into the premise that all your dog really wants to do is to feel flow, and find ways to release stress, then why would you ever want to do anything else with your dog other than helping them release stress–which is the pushing, the bite-work, even when you start doing obedience work, that becomes a vehicle for helping your dog feel flow and release stress.”
Neil’s experience with Kevin and the Natural Dog Training paradigm ultimately led him to work with people who had problems with their dogs, but in a way that was more focused on the people-problems. He says, “Kevin’s approach is all about how the dog’s emotional experience is a mirror of what’s happening with their human, and his tactic is that you work on the dog and that ripples back to the human.” In Neil’s approach, he teaches people techniques for working with their dogs, but he also encourages the humans to change their emotional, spiritual and physical habits in order to bring about change in the whole system. Because the dog is responding to the human’s emotional state of being, he believes that there needs to be a shift in the human’s life in order to see a shift the dog-related symptoms.
We also talked about how people can get caught in the “story” of why their dog is acting a certain way (myself included). As Neil puts it: “They get a rescue dog or for some reason their dog starts being aggressive, and my sense is that most of the time people are really trying to come up with a story about why that is; and in my experience the story is actually not that important, in fact it can get in the way.” So Neil does his best to get people out of their “story” and into the present moment, which is where the changes take place.
If you are interested in learning more about Neil’s methods in working with dogs or with people, please visit his website: www.naturaldogblog.com.