There is no such thing as a bad dog, according to Matt Beisner, dog behavior specialist, proprietor of LA's THE ZEN DOG, and star of Nat Geo WILD's six-part series Dog: Impossible. Beisner is bringing his unique approach to rehabilitating aggressive canines to the animal-focused cable network for a new series that demonstrates how understanding what's triggering a dog's response to certain stimuli, and correcting human behavior around the animal in question, can lead to dramatic improvements in dog behaviors. Meanwhile, watching these transformations take place over the course of an episode makes for emotionally affecting viewing that's also plenty rewarding for dog lovers of all kinds.
Beisner and his crew at THE ZEN DOG take on a variety of seemingly impossible challenges (natch), helping dogs and their owners with everything from handling jealously and fear to overly aggressive behavior toward other dogs and even humans. Each episode sends Beisner and some of his colleagues into the homes of dog owners who care for their animals, but have hit a wall with regard to handling or correcting their dog's aggressiveness. The result is a compelling new series that offers viewers a chance to watch some cutting edge approaches with regard to unwanted and unsafe dog behaviors.
Beisner recently spoke with Screen Rant to discuss how his Zen approach to dogs came about and why he believes in the mantra of "There is no such thing as a bad dog." In addition, Screen Rant is pleased to present an exclusive clip from Dog: Impossible that illustrates Beisner's techniques and just how startlingly effective they can be. Check out an exclusive clip above and Screen Rant's interview with Matt Beisner below:
How did you go about developing these skills and techniques with regard to handling aggressive dogs?
When I was a child, on Halloween I was bit by a dog. I had been great with dogs, lived with dogs up to that point. But then I was afraid for the next 30 years, and fast forward to me moving in with a girlfriend at the time who had a little puppy that she'd rescued, who's featured in the show: A black terrier, Kingston. Kingston was aggressive and I was detoxing at the time, and I was kind of homebound, so I was stuck with this little aggressive dog and had to start to figure some things out. And that was the beginning of the first cornerstone of the foundation of THE ZEN DOG, which was, if I try and help another dog, I'm actually going to help myself, and that's how that started.
My reward for helping Kingston was that my then-girlfriend sent her friends and their aggressive dogs my way, and so I got rewarded with more aggressive dogs. It kept coming and I tried a lot of the other more conventional approaches from aversive training to positive treat training. About five years ago, my wife, Brooklin (who's not the ex-girlfriend) and I had adopted a dog from the shelter whose behavior was really stellar, but when she snapped she would go to kill, and it was the first time I had seen a dog up close who could demonstrate all of the desirable behaviors, but was still not consistent with who the dog was. And none of the conventional methods that were out there, and none of my peers, really could make definitive change with this dog. And I basically hit a wall and was ready to quit.
We stopped a bunch of people, my colleagues, and I said, 'Can I intern with you. I'm at an impasse. I'll pick up poop, whatever you need me to do, but there's something here that I don't know how to handle,' and Brooklin said to me, 'Maybe you're the mentor you're looking for and you have to start seeing things differently.' Right around that time I was reading a fascinating book called The Crooked Cucumber, which is the biography of a Buddhist monk named Shunryu Suzuki, and Suzuki's one of the forebearers in Buddhism in California. Suzuki was considered by his Buddhist practitioners and by the monks in Japan to just be a dolt, and an absolute failure because he was so fallible.
That spoke to me because I was so fallible and I had such a mistake-ridden life. And I saw that, in fact, we had to create a new way of going about things, and so that's kind of a detailed and packaged answer that I can give you so far as how we got here, and I started building stuff. Testing, trying stuff, and then I would bring it to the leading people in my industry, Dr. Ian Dunbar and Ken Mccort and Nicole Wilde, and people who are masters in what they do, and I'd say, 'What do you think about this thing that I'm doing. It doesn't require treats or commands or force or fear, and it seems to be working," and they said, "Yeah, you're on the right track, and what you're doing is cutting-edge.' So that's what has become the way of THE ZEN DOG.
Have you found it difficult or challenging to get people and dog owners on board with your methods? Do they come to you because they know how effective your methods are, or do you still have to sell what you're doing a little bit to newcomers?
What I didn't know is that there was this grossly underserved niche in the realm of aggressive dogs because most people, by the time they reach out to us, they've already seen one, two, three, four other trainers who were using a lot of the traditional methods, and it's not a hard sell, actually. This underserved niche has actually become the center of something. I didn't anticipate that happening, and so by the time people get to us they more or less know what they're going for. They're at least not entirely new to the world of dog training as it stands.
I focus on teaching rather than training. It's a different mindset, and it certainly speaks to the approach. I think the moment that's challenging for the humans is in the home, I prefer to go and work in-home first, that's the moment where [dog owners] realize, A) that it really is this simple, and B) that they're going to have to change. But what happens over and over again in that first in-home session is they see something miraculous. They see some real profound change and then they have their aha moment, and they realize that them changing is not only not that much of a stretch, it's immediately impactful, and what's possible here is transformation both for the dog and the human. And then it's like anything, it's word of mouth.
Do you find that aggressive dogs develop the tendencies they're showing because of various environmental stimuli, and perhaps also the actions of their owners, whether they are deliberate, or in most cases, inadvertent?
I see aggression come from four places. One, brain development. The primary window of brain development for dogs is two to ten weeks old, and that's neuroscience. Two, subliminal fear triggers. Every dog is predisposed to one of 13 subliminal fear triggers, and the fear triggers, unfortunately for dogs, fall under the stuff that are all part of day- to-day living. Men, strangers, noises, weird things, kids, toys, bones and food, being touched over the top of the head, those kinds of things. So subliminal fear triggers is one, brain development is another.
The third thing that we see is just general lack of socialization. Dogs that haven't been exposed to the world. And then the fourth thing, which is evident in every home that I go into, is the owner, the human impact. Particularly excessive or inappropriate affection.
In the first episode, there is a pug by the name of Moneypenny, where you brought up the notion of that inappropriate or excessive affection and a need to socialize. I've failed to properly socialize dogs that I've had in the past. Can you explain how important it is for dog owners to socialize their animals and what it really is the easiest way to do that?
I've failed at socializing my dogs in the past too and what I've found is that if we can ... Think of it this way: If we think of a dog like our kid, and I think of dogs as family, not our children, but if we think of a dog as being like our kid and we homeschool the kid, which can be a great experience for kids and parents. If we homeschool the kid, but the kid doesn't actually get out into the world and have to apply and draw from and learn and integrate social skills, then there will be unwanted behavior that is directly linked to the inability to socialize.
So from a dog's perspective, proper socialization is key. A scientist said to me years ago that it took him three years to study twenty minutes of dog play at a dog park, so clearly there are subtleties and intricacies in how dogs play that are well beyond us, but the reality is there's some pretty simple things that we can do where we let dogs play, run at high levels of adrenalin, explore, and be with appropriate dogs that don't take things personally, that set good boundaries. Dogs that don't teach them that being really mouthy and toothy and impulsive is healthy. Dogs teach each other. That's what ends up happening.
So if you take your dog to a place where they put your dog in with 50 other dogs, your dog might not get dinged for being, "bad," but it doesn't necessarily mean that the dog can integrate comfortably, or socialize. But if we start with a one-on-one or a one- on-two or a one-on-three, where we respect their exponential changes for the visiting dog with each dog that's added, and we give that time, then what we see, over and over again, is that the dog actually gets a confidence that is its own. It doesn't rely on us to handle situations. It actually becomes trustworthy. It makes good decisions on its own.
And the confidence that comes out of that and the security that comes from that, plays into a lot of its day-to-day living that we don't even have to address.
How the series came about and how did you build it so that it showcases your skills and what your project is doing and how it's helping?
The turning point was ... we work with a lot of different clients and some of them are celebrities, and we respect privacy on that. Lena Dunham was one of our clients and she went public about us having helped her with her dog Lamby, who has since been adopted by a former staff member of ours, and when she went public, we had this quiet little social experience, and the miracle became public. Within a couple of hours people were reaching out to me personally about the possibility of exploring a show.
There was an article that I thought was really well written in The Cut that talked about what we do and how and why we do it. And then I had the incredible fortune to get connected with and work with High Noon Entertainment, and my management team, Harriet Sternberg, and then we ended up landing with Nat Geo WILD.
So when we actually got down to filming, the feedback I got from my executive producer, both at High Noon and at Geo WILD, was that we adapted pretty quickly to each other, given how first seasons go. And basically, the crew, everybody that I worked with, was really great and humble, is the word that comes to mind because I said to them, 'Listen, we have to have a safety meeting every day. We don't know how it's going to impact these dogs to bring cameras in and strange people and all that." I said, "If you follow our lead, myself and my lead trainer, Stef DiOrio. If you follow our lead, we can capture magic, but if you don't listen to us, just as I would say to anybody working at THE ZEN DOG. If you don't listen to us, this is not going to work out well for the dog and somebody might get hurt.'
And so we figured that out pretty quickly and I just got to do what I do. I think a big part of the joy in the show was that I know I'm here ... I have this purpose to help dogs and this show gives us a platform to offer hope to people worldwide, whether or not they're animal-lovers or dog owners. You know, everybody can relate to, 'I have this thing that I can't break through with or that I can't get around or I've been labeled or I've been ostracized or I feel hopeless.' Everybody can relate to that on some level, and this show speaks to that at its heart. I couldn't be more excited to be a part of it.
And then I watched some of the rough cuts early on, and I was cringing like I didn't know what was going to happen, and I was crying like I didn't know how it worked out. So what I've seen is just beautifully done.
One of the things that you return to throughout the episodes is the idea that there are no bad dogs. Can you explain how important it is for people watching to understand what that idea means and how they can apply that?
Yes, and apply it to themselves and to people. I was considered a bad dog and I had a track record to prove it, and like I said, 90 percent of aggression is fear-based and most of my aggression was just born out of fear. So it began with my experience, that I could actually transform from who I thought I was into who I really am. That parlays into the dogs and in a nutshell, there are no bad dogs. If we are willing to operate from that mindset, then it immediately puts us into consideration. There's something about this dog I don't know which could change its life, and if I'm willing to work there, I make space for a miracle.
And if we're willing to do that with a dog, what I have found for myself as I start to think about animals, I think about animals now in ways I never used to, and of course, I have to think about people in that way because I'm trying to help people to help the dogs that have come to me for help. And so the ripple effect of me being willing to see a dog differently because my life was changed, is immeasurable, and that's something that can change the conversation.
Dog: Impossible premieres Monday, September 2 @9pm on Nat Geo WILD.