An Interview with Zak George

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By John Bell Young

Known to millions for his popular Animal Planet program, SuperFetch, Zak George has explored new training territory, teaching dog lovers and trainers alike new and unprecedented ways to connect with their dogs.

Zak George with his Border Collie, Venus

From training dogs to bowl, to gently persuading them to take out the garbage, to developing extreme Frisbee as a canine sport, Zak has shattered conventional perceptions. In his television broadcasts, lectures, and videos he continues to demonstrate what is possible when people simply make time to connect meaningfully with their dogs.

For Zak,  dog training has  never  been merely a job,  nor about the task.   Rather,  it’s  about cultivating the affective  bond that develops between a dog and a human in the course of teaching  behaviors.  From this perspective, tricks are only a metaphor for mutual cooperation,  as well as an expression of a balanced partnership.   The illusion is that we are teaching our dogs. The reality is that they are teaching us.

At the core of  Zak’s  approach is a single, crucial  conviction: that we are all obliged to fully understand just how gifted dogs really are.  While embracing much of what mainstream training surveys,  he rejects  as inhumane and ineffective any method that favors emotional detachment and harsh physical correction. On the contrary,   Zak believes there are few limits to what a dog can be taught, provided the human/canine relationship is both valued and nurtured.  It was this idea that inspired him to become a full time dog trainer,  and to share  his findings — and experience — with the public.

In 2006 YouTube emerged as a new and innovative technology for the distribution of video content on the Web.  Recognizing its potential,  Zak filmed, edited and produced his own training videos, which he made available free of charge, and with the intention of improving the quality of life for dogs  — and their human companions — everywhere.  In his view, the benefits were obvious:  once people were shown how to make their dogs happier,  they would be repaid tenfold:   with consistently good and reliable behavior, trust,  loyalty, and not least, affection.   It was an approach that,  built on respect,  had the potential to radically transform the historic relationship between human beings and their dogs.  To this day, Zak’s training videos remain the most popular and frequently downloaded on YouTube, and with good reason:  both trainers and dog devotees,  having tested and invested in his ideas, have seen the results for themselves.

Discovery and its flagship network, Animal Planet took notice, engaging Zak George to produce a unique dog training series in prime time.  SuperFetch challenged viewers to connect with their dogs in ways they had never before considered, inspiring more people than ever to relate to them in new and fulfilling ways.  Zak has since appeared frequently on national television,  including interviews on the Rachael Ray Show, The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Early Show, Fox and Friends, Dogs 101, and Discovery’s Time Warp. Through these and other major media, he was able to bring his insights to widespread public attention, and  demonstrate just what dogs are capable of  given proper guidance, understanding, and a humane training regimen.

JBY:  Zak, you have long emphasized the value of establishing a strong bond between a dog and his human companion. Your YouTube videos, as well as your television programs have addressed the importance of this. But you have also rustled the feathers of certain trainers by suggesting that by talking to a dog, in simple sentences, it is possible to cultivate an even stronger bond. Can you explain what you mean by this?

ZG: When you work with thousands of dogs, you come to see they are perfectly capable of understanding simple sentences. Simply issuing commands sells dogs short, because what they in fact understand goes so much deeper than that. I’m certain that, at some point, dogs will be shown to be every bit as intelligent as whales or dolphins. But the idea that they need to be “dominated” and that they’re incapable of understanding basic language is arrogant. It’s important to give dogs some credit. My job as a responsible trainer is to enhance the status of domesticated dogs as much as possible, that is, to get them to a place where they can lead happy and fulfilling lives. We all need to show them the respect and recognition they deserve for the intelligent beings they are.

JBY: Your observations are well supported by such ongoing scientific studies such as those being conducted at the Canine Cognition Centers at both Duke University and at Harvard. What would you say, then, is the single most important thing a dog needs from his human companion in order to establish trust? In other words, what is it about human behavior that inspires that trust, an in consequence, such profound loyalty and devotion?

ZG: Time! That is one of the most important things. Where dog training is concerned, there are no quick fixes.  Spending time with our dogs is just as necessary for their development and quality of life as it is for a young child. Dogs are capable of learning amazing things so long as we are consistent, loving, patient, and willing to devote to them the time they need That is the formula for a well-trained dog. Certainly, one of the great lessons I’ve learned in working with dogs is the virtue of patience in all areas of life.

JBY: On your Animal Planet program, SuperFetch, you astounded viewers with your ability to teach dogs complex and unusual tricks. Who could forget, for example, seeing one of your canine “students’ riding a bicycle or another spinning a disc at a nightclub? While it was all enormously entertaining, you’ve said that it also served an important purpose: to challenge a dog to think and make choices on his own. How does teaching tricks enhance our ability to communicate and cultivate an emotional bond with a dog?

ZG: On SuperFetch as well as my new BBC show, Who Let the Dogs Out?  I make it clear that my work is not simply about teaching dogs how to do tricks. The objective is to understand our dogs on a much deeper level. You really have to explore levels of communication that are a good deal more intricate than you might at first believe possible. You also have to develop the means to identify them. Once you move into this communicative space between you and your dog, you will begin to understand each other in new and often profound ways. That is why we teach tricks: not for show, but to better understand our dogs. Though it might appear, in doing this, that we’ve set our minds to achieving the impossible, the fact is  it’s really all about the process. By going through this process we begin to grasp the depth of the animal. This is actually the third most important task confronting a trainer. The first is teaching trainers to become comfortable with the approach, as well as the enhanced relationship that is certain to develop between them and the dogs they work with. The second is showing trainers how to get results that until now many thought were unattainable.

JBY: Some trainers view the notion of talking to dogs as another way of anthropomorphizing the human-canine relationship, that is, attributing human characteristics to animals. And yet, when we see you talking with your dogs, they not only appear calm, but visibly responsive, as if they are really listening to you on some fundamental level.  How do you respond to those who dismiss this approach as ineffective?

ZG: That is precisely the kind of arrogance I referred to earlier. It is an attitude that ignores thousands of years of selective breeding where dogs have learned to perform tasks on behalf of humans. Humans and dogs are predisposed to understand each other. We have it within us to communicate with them, as after all, it is we who bred them, and still do. The fact is that dogs are born with the ability to understand us, and to respond to and interact with people.

JBY: Would you agree that dogs are extraordinarily empathetic beings, who intuitively grasp the intentions and desires of their loved ones?

ZG: Absolutely! They demonstrate that all the time. We hear of dogs saving peoples’ lives, for example, or warning of impending danger and the like. No animal has been better bred to interact with human beings than a dog, save perhaps for the horse. But in this area, dogs take the cake!

JBY: In his book, Dogs That Know When Their Owner is Coming Home [Three Rivers Press, 2011], the noted British physicist, Rupert Sheldrake, elaborating his celebrated theory of morphic resonance –- which points to the interconnectedness of all living things — came to the conclusion that dogs are not only highly sensitive empaths, but perhaps telepathic as well. He conducted experiments that tested the uncanny ability of dogs to anticipate, even at a great distance, the imminent return of their human companions, and to sense if their humans were in danger. Can you tell us if you have ever had any such experiences with your own dogs?

ZG: I don’t know if I have had any experience of that kind. But I cannot rule out that dogs have, to an unusual degree, a heightened sense of awareness.

JBY: Earlier I made reference to the Duke University Canine Cognition Center’s studies in canine behavior. Researchers and scientists there and elsewhere have demonstrated that dogs are indeed able to recognize human body language and other communicative cues, and that their ability to do so is unequaled by any other animal species. These remarkable canine behaviors have even attracted the attention of linguists, who see in this sort of study a new opportunity for semiotics, which is the study of signs, symbols, and meta-languages.  Would you care to comment on this?

ZG: Body language, and its use, plays an incredibly important role in dog training. After all, dogs communicate by using their own body language. Additionally, they have shown an ability to learn certain words. They are also very responsive to pointing, for example, where chimps are not. This is more evidence of just how well dogs have been bred to respond to us. The smartest breeders, for example, have traditionally bred dogs whose objective is to get their job done, whatever job that might be. Take border collies, for example, who respond especially well to job cues (herding is one), and who are highly adaptable to what we ask of them.  Perhaps it would be more accurate, then, to say that dogs are domesticating us!

JBY: In your view, what is involved positive reinforcement training?

ZG: In addition to what most trainers know about positive reinforcement training — at base it’s a humane approach to communicating with dogs that favors rewarding good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior — it should also concern relationship training between a person and his dog. By putting the human/canine relationship first, we will end up with a much better dog.  Having a well-trained dog is only a consequence of having a good relationship. When we make that relationship our priority, we find that dogs are not only far more responsive to listening to us,  but existing with us, too.  You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that!  Both species know how to relate to each other on a fundamental level. Though developing that understanding is a natural, organic process, we tend to over-complicate it as a society.  Competitive activities, for example, are just one way of putting our dogs first, and I’d like to see more of that.

JBY: Does it matter what one says to a dog, or is intention conveyed entirely in the tone of the voice? What do specific sounds or tones mean to a dog?

ZG: I think this, too, is one of those things that has been over analyzed. Dogs understand tones and individual words, and just as humans interpret things, so do our dogs. They respond much in the same way as people do. People will say “But they’re not listening to your words, only to your tone!”  But that’s just not true. From what I’ve observed, dogs do learn, or at least respond to language in much the same way a child does.  If you speak to them in simple sentences, they will learn contextually what they’ve been taught.

JBY: As you know, protagonists of the widely – and scientifically — discredited dominance hierarchy theory of dog training often reject affection as a means of building the human/canine relationship. Can you explain how such archaic methods compromise the trust that every dog needs from human beings? Isn’t the notion that one must “dominate” dogs in order to teach them, aside from being demonstrably flawed, also potentially cruel?

ZG: Dogs are not wolves! Basically the dominance movement is about taking the path of least resistance. It fails to take into account a dog’s emotional life and intelligence, preferring to disguise them with phony theories. At the end of the day, dominance theory amounts to bullying. Just like a cop can coerce a confession from a person, so does an attitude of domination force a dog to do what is wanted of him.  Simply forcing a dog to sit or lie down on command is not training, though that has been a conventional idea for years. But how is that training a dog? It’s just pushing a dog around! While we can easily make our dogs do things of that sort, the real challenge is making them want to. When behavior originates from within the dogs brain, rather than from an external stimulus, it becomes something much more substantial than just pushing their butt to the ground.

JBY: Do you have any practical advice, training tips, or exercises that you can give our readers eager to improve their relationship with their dogs?

ZG: Fetch! It’s one of those things that goes a long way to stimulating high energy dogs, especially. Behavior issues in most dogs can usually be attributed to a lack of both mental and physical stimulation. The status quo has long held that taking your dog for a walk is enough, but walking can only accomplish so much. A game of fetch, on the other hand, compels a dog to expend a lot of energy. More often than not, it also takes care of behavior problems, and in consequence, helps build the relationship every dog lover wants with his pet.  Of course, it also helps to build upon that relationship; dogs just love the experience of doing that.  Dogs are not so complex that they cannot be satisfied with even a little bit of physical activity. On the other hand, whereas humans can often be slow moving, dogs will go fifty miles to do what they need to do. They are highly adaptable and crave activities that will satisfy their instincts.

JBY: In closing, can you tell us something about your new show on the BBC? Will it be broadcast in the US, and if so, when?

ZG.  Who Let the Dogs Out?  is a program geared to teaching young trainers in the United Kingdom. To that end, it is aimed at a new generation, who I hope will take to heart some of the new approaches I have recommended here. With regard to its broadcast in the United States, I don’t know just yet. But it looks promising, so stay tuned!

For more about Zak George, visit his YouTube channel:
www.youtube.com/zakgeorge
Subscribers will have free and unlimited access to all of Zak’s dog training videos.

With regard to the scientific research on canine behavior discussed in this article, see:
www.evolutionaryanthropology.duke.edu/research/dogs/research/understanding-communicative-intentions

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