An Interview With Don Sullivan “The DogFather”

Don & Esther DFA posterIn my personal life, I’m known as “the crazy dog lady.” I wear that badge with pride. So, for this edition of Expert Spotlight, I caught up with Don Sullivan, aka “The DogFather.” With National Pet Month coming up in May, he would make a great interview for any dog articles you’re working on.

A former marine wildlife handler, and a Master Dog Trainer and dog behaviorist since 1986, Sullivan made his media debut in 2000 with his national Canadian TV show, “Doggin’ It.” Wowing audiences with his seven-minute makeovers while working with dogs he’d never met before, Sullivan hit the world stage in 2008 with his globally televised “Secrets to Training the Perfect Dog” system. He is renowned for achieving amazing behavioral transformations in even the most extreme “bad” dog behavior cases, with positive changes seen in just minutes.

We sat down with Sullivan to find out more about how he does what he does, tips for dog owners on taking care of behavioral issues, and what he’s up to next:

How did you become a dog trainer?

My dog training career began to take an exciting turn in 2000. I had trained a local newscaster’s dog and she had been very pleased. She invited me on to her news program as a weekly guest expert. The segment generated so much interest that the phone lines used to light up every time I appeared. We never had enough time to get through all of the viewer questions.

Soon, the television station’s management approached me with a proposal for a fun and educational dog-related national show, “Doggin’ It.” I was to be the host and also perform a dedicated training lesson. Needless to say, I accepted the proposal.

The premise of each training lesson was for me to take an untrained, problematic dog I had never met before and train that dog in just seven minutes of real time (with no edits during or after the filming). I focused on a certain behavioral issue (such as pulling on the leash, jumping up, barking, or even aggression) and each and every time I was able to wow the cameramen with the results. After a show aired, we’d always receive many emails with viewers expressing how amazed and even shocked they were. Some were skeptical and wanted to know what the catch was, but there was none. It’s just that my Nature-Based Discipline, Praise & Play Method was able to instantly tap into the core of the dog’s canine nature, no matter its breed or age.

From the “Doggin’ It” episodes, I produced my own unique “extreme results” training DVDs, and from there I designed my own patented training collar (with a view to improving upon the faults and weaknesses of all other dog training collars on the market).

I also began traveling, scouting out other opportunities to expand my business. That’s when I met Denise DuBarry Hay, founder of one of the two top global infomercial companies (Thane International). Just two weeks earlier, Denise had very reluctantly given away her beloved dog because of his severe aggression problems. She was heartbroken and very interested in what I had to say about being able to rehabilitate all kinds of dogs, no matter their issues. Denise quickly connected me with Thane. The company was very impressed, so they took me on board, and together we began promoting my Perfect Dog training system (with over 1 million systems sold since 2008).

Thus began my quest to change people’s lives on a worldwide scale. Much has happened since then, including a PBS television special and branching out into training service dogs. It’s such a priceless reward for me to offer lifelong solutions to struggling (and often utterly exasperated) dog owners, and to see their dogs’ quality of life maximized.

What behavioral issues most commonly cause pet owners to abandon their dogs?

Most people start out with a “Lassie”-type dream for their new dog, especially new dog owners. They envision a fulfilling life of mutual companionship, fun, and love. Yet, most often, this dream is quickly shattered within days of a new dog’s homecoming, and soon life with the dog is shadowed by frustration, destruction, and disappointment.

Nearly 4 million dogs enter U.S. animal shelters each year. Aggression is one of the top reasons why people give up on their dogs and surrender them to the pound. Other reasons are constant housebreaking problems, severe separation anxiety, and never-ending mischievous and irritating behaviors (such as destructive digging, chewing up household items, getting into the garbage, etc.).

These owners get to the point where they simply have had enough of the chaos despite their many attempts to train their dogs. One of my popular sayings is, “A dog never fails training. It’s the training that fails the dog.” The owners can no longer endure the distress, the financial loss of expensive items destroyed, the constant interruptions to their daily lives, and/or the danger of someone possibly getting hurt. They view their dogs as burdens (even just subconsciously) and give up on hoping that things could ever be different.

It’s such a shame, because I know (and have proven time and again) that everything could turn around within days for most of these exasperated owners. With each and every one of them, the foundation of all the problems is very simple: from day number one, the dog was allowed to be dominant — even in just little ways at first, which soon led to bigger ways. What used to be “cute” and entertainingly mischievous when the dog was a puppy (or at least excusable) later became undesirable and even very problematic. Most dog owners don’t realize that the seeds they sow in the very early stages will determine the dynamics of the future relationship.

What’s the biggest mistake most dog owners make when it comes to their pet’s behavior?

The biggest mistake dog owners make is trying to relate to their dogs on human terms. We must deal with dogs the way they have been innately created to deal with one another in order to create a strong, harmonious “home pack” environment. If we turn to bribery and doting as forms of persuasion toward good behavior instead, we will create all sorts of problems for ourselves and our dogs.

If you took a stray dog and placed him with an existing dog pack, the other dogs would each assess the new dog according to its strength of will. The pack leader would first establish his authority over the new dog and then each of the other dogs down the line would either dominate or submit to the new dog, depending on the new dog’s personality. After all of the pack positions got sorted out, harmony would be established, and an intense loving bond would be built that would only be shaken if one of the “lower” dogs tried to challenge the leader for the top spot.

Now, if you also considered placing a chunk of tasty meat between the new dog and the pack leader (or even one of the more dominant dogs), the leader would be willing to fight (even to the point of death) to establish his right to that food. In a dog pack, whoever wins the food is the boss and the one who doesn’t is the subordinate. The submissive dog must wait until he is permitted to eat by the leader.

With this in mind, think of what kind of message you send your dog every time you hand him a piece of food from your hand. Can you start to see this “treat giving” in a new light? Whether you are using the food to reward your dog for good behavior or not, you are still silently telling your dog that he is the leader and you are the subordinate. Your dog sees that you willingly relinquish to him one of main elements of life he’s willing to fight for, so to him you’re the passive and submissive one in the relationship.

Now multiply this by the number of tasty morsels you “lovingly” offer your dog day after day and you suddenly realize why your dog is challenging you in many areas of your life with him. According to your dog, he’s the boss when it comes to food, so why shouldn’t he also lead in all other situations? Sure, yes, you might have an advantage over him in terms of size and weight, but take away the restraints like the leash, baby gates, and shut doors, and who knows what disasters will quickly ensue? Your dog will simply do what he wants without regard for your wishes, and he won’t understand consequences in terms of the human world he’s been brought into. Hence the reason why many dogs tragically get run over.

So, what you thought was a “loving” thing to do for your dog turns out to be one of the worst things you can do for him. Your dog didn’t have a choice whom he went home with. The kind of life he will end up living for his 15 or so years with you is all up to you. So, it’s your responsibility to do that which is truly loving — in dog terms — and train him to accept the subordinate position.

Once your dog contentedly accepts his place in your “home pack” hierarchy, you will be able to trust him because he will naturally look to you for leadership. And the exciting and wonderfully fulfilling thing is this: this “Trust Zone” opens up all kinds of opportunities. You can now live that “Lassie” type dream together, free of stress and heartache, and full of the priceless rewards that the master and best friend relationship brings.

Can you tell me about your work with service dogs?

Training service dogs to assist injured war veterans and disabled persons was a natural addition to my work. Since my training method works so well with all dogs no matter the dog’s breed or age, I was able to use my system to create a strong foundation for the service dog training. Actually, we simply use my Nature-Based Discipline, Praise & Play Method to bring each dog to the “Trust Zone” level and then train for the specialized assistance skills on top.

The most rewarding service dog placement The DogFather Academy has so far accomplished involved a wheelchair-bound war veteran in Maryland. Clark had lost both of his legs in battle and was yearning for a four-legged friend to help him through the tough times. We paired him with “Josie,” a beautiful English Cream Golden Retriever. Josie was a luxury-breed breeding female, but she had turned aggressive and was about to be euthanized by the breeder. Our team saved her and we were able to fully rehabilitate her, transforming her into a helpful and affectionate companion for Clark.

Josie helps Clark by picking up items and she provides him with emotional stability, especially during Clark’s “freak-out” episodes — as Clark calls them — where he becomes overwhelmed in public situations. The relationship between them is a pricelessly rewarding win-win situation. Clark was given a new lease on life, and Josie was rescued from death row.

What are you working on now?

I can’t tell you everything I’m working on right now because some of it’s confidential and needs to be kept under wraps until the official release. However, I can tell you that my team and I just released our new website (www.dogfather.tv). It features a fresh design, plus lots more helpful and inspiring content. Via the site, people can now subscribe to our new mailing list, enabling them to receive direct updates rather than just relying on our Facebook pages: www.facebook.com/PerfectDogSystem/ and www.facebook.com/donsullivanthedogfather.

We’re also gathering expressions of interest in a Perfect Dog Interactive Seminar tour. People can register their interest in having a Perfect Dog seminar staged in their city by filling out the form that’s on our Contact page. The interactive seminars will feature an enlightening and motivating presentation followed by a chance to have me work one-on-one with audience members and their dogs. The seminars will provide a great opportunity for people to connect with other Perfect Dog enthusiasts, so they can build their own community of like-minded and supportive dog lovers.

For media interviews, contact Sullivan through his website: 
dogfather.tv/contact/

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