From Home + Heritage, October 2006

BY MARLENA CHAVIRA-MEDFORD – PHOTOS BY CAN TURKYILMAZ

She’s no Dr. Doolittle, but this North Dallas resident does specialize in communicating with dogs.

Anyone who’s raised a puppy is familiar with the frustration of potty training. It’s an aggravation Debbie Butler says she knows all too well after working with her puppy, Daffodil. “I could not potty train that puppy, no matter how hard I tried,” she says. The memory still brings exasperation back to her voice. “I was pulling my hair out. Even if I took her out every 30 minutes, she’d still use the bathroom in the house.”

So Butler tried crate training Daffodil.

“That worked while she was in her crate,” she says, “but then, the second I let her out of her crate, she went to the bathroom on the floor.”

Butler says she finally hit her breaking point.

“I was desperate to potty train this puppy and was just about ready to give up on it,” she says. “But then a friend told me about this lady who specialized in dog behaviors and helped owners with problems like mine, so I figured I’d give it a try because I had nothing to lose at that point.”

Butler clearly remembers the first day Susan Strough, a dog behavior specialist, worked with her and Daffodil.

“She came over to my home, and she said to me, ‘Right now this dog is in control of you because she is acting like the leader of the pack,'” she says. “I looked at her and said, ‘What? This little dog is in charge of me?'”

A skeptic at first, what Strough told her next changed Butler’s entire mentality about dogs.

“She explained to me that dogs are pack animals and that pack order is all they understand,” she says. “People try to relate to them as humans, and they’re not, so it doesn’t work. It was like a light went on, and it all finally made sense to me.”

Strough says reactions like Butler’s are common.

“When pet owners finally realize why these problems are occurring, they have that ‘ah-ha’ moment,” she says. “After the owner gets it, I can give them the skills they need to be in control of their dog.”

Butler noticed a change in Daffodil’s behavior immediately.

“After one session, she was like a whole new dog because I wasn’t letting her have control anymore,” she says, laughing and adding: “I tell Susan she’s the Dog Whisperer.”

Strough says she gets a kick out of comments like that.

“It’s funny because people think I’m magical, but I’m not,” she says. “I just empower pet owners, that’s all.”

The key, Strough says, is teaching people to act like alpha dogs in a pack.

“My methods may seem extreme or silly, but they work,” she says. “They don’t have to get down on all fours and bark or anything, but they do have to make sure the dog sees them as leader of the pack.”

There are several ways to do this.

“For example, if an owner yells at their dog when it’s bad, it might scare them, but they won’t understand anything that’s being said,” she explains. “But if the owner hovers over the dog and gets in its personal space, it can understand that as dominance. I teach owners to use their bodies to communicate.”

She says babying dogs is another big mistake owners make.

“Dogs understand baby-talk and cooing as a form of submission,” she says. “To a dog, it sounds like whimpering, and they interpret it as a weakness. Once you have dominated your dog and they respect you as leader, then it’s OK to do the baby-talk thing. But until then, you should avoid it.”

Strough says it typically takes about two weeks to completely change a dog’s behavior, but that each situation is different. Ultimately, she says, it depends on the owner.

“I don’t really work on training the dogs; I work with the owners,” she says. “It’s only in our minds that dogs are misbehaving. In their minds, they are acting how they are supposed to. If people want to change their dog’s behavior, they have to be willing to change their own behavior.”

And if more owners understood how to control their dogs, fewer would end up in the pound, she says.

“My favorite thing is giving people hope that they can learn to control their dog, and in turn, that keeps dogs out of the shelters. I want to help relieve owners of their frustrations and give them hope.”

Strough doesn’t just teach others how to control their dog’s behaviors; she also practices the same techniques in her own home with her three rescued dogs: golden retrievers Ben and Mattie, and Daisy, a cocker spaniel.