By Cate Terwilliger, Special to The Denver Post
Post / Lyn Alweis
Sylvia Wilson, Bark Busters founder, with Mini.
Article Published: Sunday, June 22, 2003 – 12:00:00 AM MST
Tammy and Mike Houde had a pack of trouble and too many veterinary bills after their Siberian husky and three wolf hybrids began working out dominance issues – on each other.
Alicia Leech was pooped after a year of dealing with her little dog’s habitual soiling of the family’s new home.
Jo Teubner had a giant schnauzer with a giant problem: a propensity for taking a nip here and there – at the ankles of frightened visitors. The Colorado Springs dog owners say they were played out with pooch problems, rapidly nearing the end of their leash.
That’s when they fell for the leader of the pack: Bark Busters, an Australian-born company that established American headquarters in Denver three years ago. The world’s largest dog training business – known throughout Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom – Bark Busters now is opening offices in the United States, Japan and Canada.
Its success is based on keen understanding of canine psychology, plenty of people smarts and an assurance that makes the $375 price tag palatable to even confirmed skeptics: a life-of-the-dog guarantee.
The company’s premise is simple.
- “Dogs are usually not getting direction from their owners, and they want direction,” says Sylvia Wilson, half of the Aussie couple who founded Bark Busters in 1989. “If they haven’t got a strong leader, they don’t feel protected.”
As pack animals, canines require a certain hierarchy, Wilson says. Lacking leadership from humans, they’ll assume the role of top dog, even if they’re not the alpha type. That can lead to anxious, destructive behaviors – chronic barking, chewing, jumping on people, aggression, house-soiling – that may earn them the label of dog delinquent and a trip to the nearest animal shelter.
Behavior problems top the list of reasons for pet relinquishment, according to the Humane Society of the United States. That’s what prompted Wilson, a veteran dog-trainer who worked for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to start Bark Busters. “She was sick of seeing dogs put to sleep (for behavior problems),” explains husband and Bark Busters co-founder Danny Wilson.
The couple, who live in Sydney, recently visited Denver to meet with American franchisees, including Pete and Kathy Beinetti, who, in January 2002, became Bark Busters “therapists” in Colorado Springs. The Beinettis have since worked with more than 300 dogs and are considering splitting the franchise because they can’t keep up with demand.
The Bark Busters approach begins with a phone consultation, followed by home visits.
- “We spend an awful lot of time trying to understand the situation,” Pete Beinetti says. “The very first thing we do is observe the interaction between the dog and the humans to learn how the dogs dominate the people, and we can see a lot of that in the first three to five minutes.”
Expressions of top-dog behavior may surprise humans who don’t understand canine psychology. For instance, dogs dominate passively by “asking” to be petted or jumping into a human lap or bed – behavior owners often encourage, Beinetti says.
Bark Busters puts people in control through gestures that articulate “alpha” in the canine world – notably, standing at full height and issuing a deep-throated “bah” that resembles a growl. Like treats-and-praise training systems, the techniques teach who’s in charge; unlike treats and praise, Bark Busters mimics the pack hierarchy and gets quick results, Beinetti says.
- “The leader of a wolf pack in Yellowstone Park is not handing out treats,” he notes. “That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work … but if the only thing you’re doing is rewarding positive behavior, it takes a long time.”
By contrast, Beinetti says he’s able to resolve 60 to 80 percent of canine conflicts with a single home visit.
- “It varies, depending on the seriousness of the problem, how quickly owners grasp the techniques and how quickly the dogs respond,” he says.
Temperamental differences between married co-owners frequently complicate the equation.
- “It’s typical in households that a dog will recognize the dominance of one person, but not another,” Danny Wilson notes. “But the family dog should always be at the bottom of the pack. If it’s not, you’ve got trouble.”
- “The husband is usually more dominant because of his height and voice,” Beinetti explains. He may not see the need for a professional trainer – even if the animal is running rough- shod over the woman of the house.
- “The vast majority of people who call us are women, because they don’t have dominance over the dog,” Beinetti says.
Jo Teubner’s troubles began after her high-strung giant schnauzer, Cher, was startled by one of Teubner’s friends and began behaving aggressively toward visitors. After six sessions with a trainer, the dog showed little improvement.
- “She attacked everyone who came into the house; she would lunge at them, and I had to muzzle her,” Teubner recalls. “I had made up my mind that if I couldn’t get this dog under control, it was either put her down or lock her up all the time.”
But when Beinetti first visited in early May, he had Cher under control within three hours, says Teubner.
The de-muzzled dog has since stopped lunging at visitors, she says, “but you need to remain in charge at all times. Staying on top of it is the hardest part as an owner.”
Beinetti also worked with Addie, who abandoned her toilet training when her family moved to a new home. Despite trips to a trainer, the little dog continued to defecate whenever she had free run of the house, prompting owner Alicia Leech to keep her constantly on a leash indoors, confined to an area she would not soil.
- “She had zero freedom to do anything, and it had been that way for a year,” says Leech, who called Bark Busters after another trainer’s efforts failed. “I knew it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
Since late April, when Beinetti recommended a strict feeding schedule and the Bark Busters approach, the house-soiling has stopped, Leech says.
The Houde household – with three wolf hybrids and a Siberian husky – presented Beinetti a tougher challenge. The animals’ in-fighting and general rowdiness were driving Tammy and Mike Houde to distraction – and it wasn’t doing much for their marriage, either. Her husband was bitten by a dog when he was young, Tammy says; then he got nipped again while trying to separate the pack during a fracas.
- “My idea of having animals is to walk them, to enjoy them, but because of the way they were, we could not walk them together,” she says. “Mike was so angry (at how they behaved) that he wouldn’t even think of taking them for a walk. He’d go outside and be so stressed we’d have to come right back in.”
A four-hour initial visit from Beinetti, with monthly follow-ups and regular phone calls, has helped turn the tide.
- “Pete could see they were in control of us,” Tammy says. “He figured if we got back on top, the aggressiveness would probably stop.
- “Sure enough, within a couple days, the fighting stopped, and now they know we’re in control.
- “It was like somebody gave me guidelines to follow – and I needed them.”