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Dog: Impossible exclusive: Matt Beisner on The Zen Dog, ‘no bad dogs,’ and being in tune with your pet

"No bad dogs" claims Zen Dog guru Matt Beisner, who turned his own life around and dedicated it to saving the unwanted and feared dogs of society. Pic credit: NatGeoWILD
“No bad dogs” claims Zen Dog guru Matt Beisner, who turned his own life around and dedicated it to saving the unwanted and feared dogs of society. Pic credit: NatGeoWILD

Nat Geo Wild series, Dog: Impossible will turn all your preconceived notions about how to handle your own dog on its axis.

Chances are, you are too loving, too indulgent and not giving your dog the right kind of space, respect and behavioral reinforcement to give the animal its best life.

Sound harsh? It’s far from it.

Meet Matt Beisner, a high profile dog behavior specialist and the founder of The Zen Dog in Los Angeles, who you may have heard of from his celebrity efforts with Lena Dunham’s infamous Lamby and who inspired Carrie Brownstein in an episode of Portlandia.

Tall and fit, Beisner is as centered and calm a human presence as they come. He turned misdirected pathways of his own life to reprogram himself and in the process, locked on to reversing his fear of dogs that was formed in his childhood. He has since mastered this phobia and more, creating a viable and successful business with his wife Brooklin.

Together they did a deep dive into the world of dog behavior and the study of canids, learning from experts about the species that has been molded from 15,000 years of domestication. All dogs today are the result of centuries of fine-tuning breeds to insane lengths to live and be with us for purposes of sport, working or leisure.

Too many times, people discard or abuse animals when they act up, not investing time or the thought to help the animal be it’s best and happiest, thereby creating a secure and loving relationship rewarding everyone.

What Matt also learned while doing all of this was that fear likely is the overwhelming driver in these bad behaviors and aggressive acts, regardless of the breed or size of the animal. Fear is why a dog shows you its teeth or exhibits other telltale body language that telegraphs its “human beware” emotions.

In this informative series, we learn that we do no favors to rewarding dogs with too much affection and touching at the wrong times, and learning how to “ask” your dog if you can pet them.

This act of restraint is an art that Beisner teaches owners at their last tether with misbehaving dogs. It’s amazing to see this human reprogramming demonstrated and completely counter-intuitive to many people who out of love and affection grab up their animals as soon as they walk in the door from work. Or allow them up on the hallowed spot in the house, the owner’s bed after Fido just chewed up someone’s shoe.

Beisner and his amazing team of experts have helped many families and their dogs, some of them so vicious that they had killed other dogs, and their respective owners were ready to put them down.  In other words, if you think a dog is irredeemable, think again, It takes a lot of work but behavior can be altered to the good side.

The new series for Nat Geo WILD was reintroduced as Dog: Impossible at the Television Critic’ Association summer press tour, now renamed from the working title of Red Zone Dogs.

These inspirational true stories, from the trainers who work with the most dangerous and most understood dogs in the country are mini-miracles. No tricks, no treats, nor commands or force, we see Matt’s unconventional methods nets results that are nothing short of miraculous.

Monsters and Critics spoke at length to Matt Beisner about his fascinating and undeniably effective methods to be a better dog owner, and even teach you and your kids valuable correct information on how to properly approach an unknown dog. Read on:

Beisner teaches unconventional and counter-intuitive behavioral pathways to animal and human harmony on Dog: Impossible. Pic credit: NatGeoWILD
Beisner teaches unconventional and counter-intuitive behavioral pathways to animal and human harmony on Dog: Impossible. Pic credit: NatGeoWILD

Monsters and Critics: You were at the last two TCA’s when you were on panels. I think the series was first called Red Zone Dog? Why the name change on the show?

Matt Beisner: Yes. Six months earlier. Well, it wasn’t my call. Thankfully, I was pretty closely involved with possible titles and the thing that was important for us is that we not limit ourselves in terms of what audiences would respond to and in terms of the message of hope that we were trying to carry.

And we do work with a lot of dogs that find themselves at that level of aggression, and we work with a lot of dogs that aren’t anywhere near that. And so, we needed to be truer to the scope of who and what we worked with, again, so that we could really not just tell the story, a fuller story, but reach people that might otherwise feel that that didn’t apply to them.

M&C: I heard a story that you were wearing a Nixon mask for Halloween as a kid and that was your first introduction to a German Shepherd …and it didn’t go well.

Matt Beisner: No, it’s funny now, and it’s clear that my parents had at least a political opinion at the time. No, I was probably eight years old, around there, and I had not been afraid of dogs up to that point.  I had no reason to be afraid of dogs. I had dogs as a little kid.

We went a trick-or-treating, and my parents still understood at that point, like a lot of people do, that if a dog wags his tail, that means that the dog is happy to see you. And that was the first time I realized that wasn’t the case.

I’m wearing this Richard Nixon mask and I have the blue suit and the red tie on and the little Halloween plastic fill-me-up candy bucket, and I go up to this guy’s house and this German Shepherd is in the yard barking, as he should on a Halloween with a strange boy approaching him.

And I saw the tail wagging… I don’t remember that we asked or anything like that, but I saw the tail wagging and I thought that meant I could pet the dog. And I reached out with my right hand to pet him and he lunged and punctured the nook in my arm.

So that was my first dog bite and that was the beginning of me being afraid for the next three decades. My parents didn’t know, none of us knew, how to actually work through that kind of traumatic experience.

As I got older and my fear of dogs grew, even though I had a dog later in life, I was afraid of them and I became more and more ashamed and embarrassed about that.

The most aggressive breeds are brought to the Zen Dog where Matt Beisner re-socializes them to stop acting out in fear. Pic credit: NatGeoWILD
The most aggressive breeds are brought to the Zen Dog where Matt Beisner re-socializes them to stop acting out in fear. Pic credit: NatGeoWILD

M&C: Well, it’s understandable to have fear because I looked online at real pictures of what pitbulls and other typically aggressive dog breeds’ maulings looks like. And it’s not very pretty, Matt. It’s not pretty at all.

Matt Beisner: Yup. No. No.

M&C: I know you have a small child, so I know that you are acutely aware of all dogs’ unpredictability no matter how in tune with their energy you might be.  Some people get animals almost as a child substitute. And they treat the dog as a human, which is, after I’ve seen your show, the worst thing you can do. Why don’t you talk about that?

Matt Beisner:  Yes. Well, I’d say even for myself, if I look back at why I got the dogs when I got them…I’m sure I wasn’t entirely clear on my motives.

There’s the initial draw, which is on the heartstrings. “My dog, this dog, picked me as I was walking through the shelter,” that kind of stuff. But there’s a lot more to it that, if I stay true to the dog, gets revealed.

I would say that a lot of us, my experience, ten years and thousands of dogs in [to The Zen Dog campus in Los Angeles], is that many people, certainly that most of the people that come to us, weren’t quite sure what they were getting into. Whether that’s because of what the dog was going to require or because what a healthy relationship was going to ask of them. So I think our motives get challenged quite a bit.

One of the reasons why our motto “there are no bad dogs” carries weight is because most of the people that reach out to us, even for an initial consult, they tag their submission to us with something along the lines of, “But he’s a really good dog. But she’s a really good dog.” And I know that that matters a lot to people and that there is a personal attachment, almost as if their dog’s bad behavior is a reflection on them.

I think our motives, and I also know from experience, life experience and experience with dogs, that sometimes a really bad motive can lead to a really good result. So none of this gets wasted. That’s a broad way to make space for how people find their way in.

Specific to the humanization of dogs, I think, well because I have a three year old now, it does my dog such a disservice to think of them as my kids. Family is different.

And I know it’s touchy for people because some people, I’ve got friends that don’t have kids, and this is what it means to them, and they do it respectfully and they do it beautifully.

But a dog is so different, in so many magnificent ways, than a child, and vice versa.

So if I look at and see, and choose to view and choose to nurture, the emotional attachments that come with putting that on my dog, then I’m really selling my dog short; and frankly I’m selling myself short because I have to change a lot when I realize I have another species in my house, family member or not.

And one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Ian Dunbar, he said, “I would never trust a human or a dog more than 99 percent.”

M&C: Speaking of percentages, one of the things you said at the TCA and you’ve said in other interviews, that 90 percent of a dog’s aggression issues are all rooted in the fear. What’s the other 10 percent?

Matt Beisner: Yes. Well, there are cases where it’s genetic. There are cases. I learned a while back that when a mother is nursing the pups, if she’s under duress, it will change the chemistry of the milk and it could change the dog’s physiological makeup.

So even something like that, we’re always trying to play catch up to some degree when we’re working with dogs.

Sometimes it’s genetic, sometimes dogs actually are predisposed to having that trait. People that are breeding dogs for fighting, for example, the ones that don’t seem to “have it” and they generally get tossed away or used for something awful. And there are dogs that are just, they’re prone to that, but it’s rare, and even we see it here. And our show actually features a dog that has killed another dog and is able to re-socialize.

And even in the most intense cases… I don’t know. I really have to think about whether or not I’ve ever met a dog that was naturally aggressive. I think, to this point, the answer’s probably no.

Even if that dog was naturally aggressive, even if I did happen to work with one of those dogs, I’m sure that the Zen Dog method was able to help that dog see the world differently and act differently.

M&C: There’s always anomalies though. I just watched the second season of Netflix series Mindhunter and there’s certainly bad brained human anomalies and psychopaths. One had to wonder if dogs and mammals, in general, have bad brains too…

Matt Beisner: Right. Yes.

M&C: Walk me through the creation of The Zen Dog, your wife Brooklin and you both created The Zen Dog… but your partner in a lot of the scenes that I saw was dog trainer Stef DiOrio. How did you connect with Stef?

Matt Beisner: Yes. Back that up for clarity, I actually, I founded The Zen Dog and created the method. Brooklin and I co-own it, but… There’s no but, Brooklin and I co-own it. I started it and then, thankfully, she quit her job before we were going to get married and then she had jumped all in to the company.

So the distinction’s important because I wouldn’t have the business as it is without her. She really helped me build the business and she was there with me through it, but it wasn’t her journey to start.

Stef DiOrio came to us, and I still joke about this with Stef, she came to us just past four years ago, she just had her four year anniversary with The Zen Dog, and she came in in an interview.

We used to do these group interviews where the entire staff would circle up in a yard and the interview candidates would come in and they would be asked a question by everyone on the staff. It was just a great experience. I don’t know for the candidates. And my joke with Stef is, “You know, you actually weren’t our first choice,” which she still doesn’t think is funny.

But she showed up with all this wealth of knowledge and with this willingness and she had something. I missed it. If I knew then what I know now, the other two would have just gone home right away. She clearly would have been the number one. She was in school at the time; and she and I began to trade information and she started to realize that some of the stuff that she was studying was actually outdated because I was able to stay current with some of the more important information that’s out there.

I would say, above all, with Stef is that she is willing. She’s willing. She brings a real light to the company and everything. Things just feel better when she’s there. Dogs feel better, people feel better. And you always feel Stef’s presence when she’s on and you miss it when she’s not. She’s not even a right hand. I think that kind of does her a disservice.

I couldn’t ask for a better partner and foil and in a lot of the work that we’re doing because she sees things I don’t see. We work really well together. I learn from her. She’s eminently teachable, and above all, that the dogs are the priority, so no matter what, it still is going to come down to, “What can we do.” And I trust her implicitly.

So to be able to do the show with her was a real gift because she and I, we’re like a couple of satellites. Often, you know, we’re off leading something else, and so for us to be able to be together over the course of the three months it was filming, and to jump back into the work, it was like old times…It was just a real joy.

M&C: Energy is a big undercurrent of a premise in your entire series. The hardest thing that I observed watching your show was owners’ inability, unwillingness, or sadness actually, at the detachment phase on taking that energy of love, that proactive, “I love you” physical acknowledgement then having to stop doing that. Talk about that downshift of energy when you detox a family from their behaviors with their animals to get a handle on the problem.

Matt Beisner: Well that was a real “aha” for me, personally experiencing that. And what changed the game, what became the way The Zen Dog started, about five years ago give or take, when Brooklin and I had adopted a American Staffordshire terrier named Noula, and Noula read like a Canine Good Citizen. If you’d have tested her, she probably would’ve passed everything. She was the kind of dog that would jump the fence and then wait in the yard for me to come home.

Noula had all of the appropriate behavior, but in Noula’s case, when she was triggered, she would go to kill. And it was a real eyeopener for me. And so I realized that there was something that I wasn’t seeing, and my failure to see that, or my inability to see that, or unwillingness, to the extent that it might’ve been the case, was going to put somebody in jeopardy.

She twice almost killed my alpha dog…the Jindo. So that’s when it began to turn and I began to observe closely how, what’s the thing underneath the thing, how am I interacting with these dogs in a way that is reinforcing, just generally speaking, is reinforcing adrenaline?

Because if I’m reinforcing adrenaline around the front door, when I’m feeding, when I’m giving you affection, if I’m not respecting your space, those kinds of things, then I’m telling the dog, “This is actually how we live.”

And then you take a dog that might have some quirks or fears or anxieties or aggression, and they’re operating from, they’re idle on their motors, buzzing pretty good, and then you add the trigger and then we get what we get.

So I recognize now for myself, including my dog sleeping on the bed, nobody gets a dog to practice detachment. That’s not why we do it. And it’s not where we’re at socially. It’s not where we’re at culturally. And so often what I offer to people, it not only feels counterintuitive, it feels counter-emotional.

But, because it’s so simple, basically what I’m teaching people is, “If you do nothing, you will be able to see and experience everything.”

And once I can help them have that experience, and it almost always happens in a first in-home session and we have the aha moment, and once they see it, and then to your point, once they feel it, they realize, “Oh, this is what it’s like to have a dog that’s calm, whose space I respect, who I can love infinitely and my dog stays calm. This is what it’s like to have a dog that’s calm when I come home.”

Those kinds of things.

So energy and detachment allows us to be able to get a better read at it when we take ourselves out of it, and we get a better read on what’s happening with our dogs. And it allows our dogs to show us more of who they are, and then we can start loving them for who they are and not who we want them to be.

But it’s certainly not habitual. It’s more, I don’t know if it’s not natural, maybe it is totally natural, but it’s not how we’re nurtured and it’s not how we nurture our dogs until they see the difference, and then the buy-in for people is easy.

M&C: Curious about correct behavior approaching a stranger’s dog, something you would teach your child or anybody who approaches a dog that you don’t know. I live in Boise, Idaho, which is the Paris of America. Dogs go everywhere. I see these stranger with dogs and impromptu interactions a lot.

Matt Beisner: Awesome.

M&C: I noticed that people sometimes let their kids rush up to a leashed dog. Some will ask “May I approach your dog?” or, “Can I touch your dog?” I was taught to get down on the dog’s level and put your hand down low so the dog can smell your hand, and the dog will let you know if they’re receptive or not for you to pet it. Is this correct or incorrect?

Matt Beisner: Well, it’s a question of risk. So if I get down on the ground, because my parents had told me that too, if I get down on the ground and put my hand out, I’m now at face level with a dog that may tell me with a bite on my nose that it doesn’t want me to be there.

So I’d back it up a few steps. If I see a dog that I really want to approach, and actually we did this with my boy, we see a dog that we really want to approach, we stop about six feet before we get to the dog, and then we start talking to the person about their dog.

Now in my home and my family and what I pass on the owners is, while you’re talking to the person, making small talk, just read the dog for some tells. Is it panting? Obviously, is it lunging? Is it barking? Is it growling? Is it yawning? Is it licking it’s lips? Is it doing things that indicate that it’s not comfortable in this particular space?

And if you give the dog space, you’re going to give the dog time to adjust and maybe feel comfortable with the meeting, and you will protect yourself.

So let’s say you got space, that’s the first thing I look at, then, approach the owner, but do not engage with the dog. Just approach the owner and stand close and give the dog a little more time. And then the dog will generally show you if they want to know you better because they’ll come over and smell you themselves.

Then I would put a hand out, open-handed, never touching the dog over the top of the head. Number one subliminal fear trigger.

Put a hand out, open-handed, it could just be by your waist, or if the dog seems more friendly and the owner gives the okay, you might crouch down then, usually a little bit to the side, not directly facing the dog so that you’re not running a risk there of imposing in the dog’s space.

Most important, once you’re in that intimate space, is that that hand is open and it’s underneath the dog’s head, underneath its mouth, so then the dog can decide what it wants to do.

And if the dog is okay at that point, if it’s a friendly dog, you’re probably going to be getting kisses, and if it’s a dog that’s uncertain, at the very least, you will have given it an opportunity to meet another person in a way that’s respectful.

Dog: Impossible airs Sundays beginning on Sept. 8 on Nat Geo WILD.

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