I was not compensated for this post. I just want to save anyone else looking for a dog trainer the headache I went through. But I do get a free night of boarding for private client referrals which I REALLY REALLY want, so pleeeease mention Taking Fountain if you sign up!
If your dog needs a trainer, chances are you do, too. Because this whole dog-owner thing is not as easy as it seems, and THERE IS NO SHAME IN THAT. And if you're looking for a trainer to illuminate the path to a happy life with your dog, look no further than THE ZEN DOG. Trainer Matt Beisner will work with your dog AND you to get you both on the same page. Read on to find out what the experience is like!
It's Not Just About the Dog...
When I first adopted Chance, I did a load of research to prep for the responsibility, and one of the oft-repeated mantras was "your dog is a DOG, you can't treat him like a person!" To which I scoffed, because I grew up with horses and was very comfortable treating animals like animals. Beautiful, wonderful, big-eyed animals with frequently almost-human-like personalities, sure...but if you treat a horse like a human, you're not gonna get very far.
Then along came Chance. Chanceypants. The Chancellor.
I mean, I have had the pleasure of knowing some wonderful horses in my day, but not one of them ever looked at me with what could ONLY BE skepticism. And when a four-month-old furball is looking at you SKEPTICALLY, you start doubting your own authority real quick. And I discovered that "treating a dog like a human" doesn't just mean you want to dress them up in adorable hoodies--it means that when they do something wrong, it can be SUPER frustrating that they don't automatically get it when you say, "No, don't do that ever again!"
Now, Cesar Millan set me off on the right foot with the "The Dog Whisperer" show and his How to Raise the Perfect Dog book, which were complete godsends in my first couple weeks of dog ownership. Through Cesar's perspective, I realized that "owning a dog" is more aptly described as "living with a dog." I mean, when you own a horse, it lives in a barn, you clean its stall, you feed it, you ride it, and definitely you love it but only sometimes do you feel like it could actually talk back to you. The minute you've got a dog in your kitchen--you realize that thing is watching you and understanding. It's a part of your family that ALMOST speaks human but doesn't quite.
And Cesar is wont to intone that he "rehabilitates dogs and trains people." This immediately made a whole lot of sense to me--I was ready to accept from Day 1 that I needed to learn how to be a good pack leader to my little Chance just as much as he needed to learn not to chew on my things.
So I followed a ton of Cesar's advice in the first few weeks (check out my Quick-Start Guide to Your New Dog if you want to know what worked for me), and for the most part things went really well.
Except when Chance decided he didn't want to go for walks anymore.
Maybe seven days after we brought him home, he suddenly had no interest in leaving our apartment complex. We had been taking walks twice a day since Adoption Day with absolutely no problem, but one day...he wouldn't budge. Not one step past our front door. And no amount of Cesar-tsching, collar-jerking, or foot-tapping was helping.
I started searching for a trainer and immediately got frustrated that there wasn't a clear answer. A friend's recommendation was impossible to pin down, and other trainers/schools in the area required that I bring Chance to their facility--but Chance got carsick on EVERY car ride longer than five minutes, and I really wanted training to be a good experience.
Enter Matt Beisner
"THE ZEN DOG method is intended to develop the deepest possible relationship between you and your dog with the least amount of tension. We don’t promote choke chains, shock collars, alpha rolls or other popular aversion techniques. Nor are we that interested in clickers, treats and/or other methods intended to create obedience. We want to help you look at, see and feel your dogs’ energy, understand their needs and assume your natural role as leader."
An email inquiry for more information yielded the best news ever--for the first session, Matt would come to our apartment for around TWO HOURS. Then, if another session was even necessary, we would schedule from there. AND HE GIVES A DISCOUNT FOR RESCUE DOGS.
I loved the idea that more than one session might not even be necessary. Not that I was already looking to skimp on the training--more that I'm super leery of folks who insist from the get-go that you're gonna need a LOT of their services for a very long time. And BONUS: Chance didn't need to get in the car.
So How Does It Work?
The first session was mind-blowing. Matt and his assistant showed up at our door and told me (and my then-boyfriend) to sit down on the couch and to ignore Chance for the remainder of the session. He stood in the doorway (LIKE A TOTAL BOSS) for maybe 20 minutes while my puppy cycled through his various hysterics, trying to get the new person to play with him. Matt never acknowledged him, and Chance finally collapsed on the floor for a nap. That's when Matt sat down. Patience like an actual Zen master.
In this initial session, Matt introduces you to his Rules of Relationship, Rules of Engagement, and the Five Precepts (which he has included on his website). You should definitely read this, whether or not you want to train with Matt, but trust me when I tell you YOU WANT MATT TO EXPLAIN IT TO YOU. As he goes through it, you'll have questions about how it relates to you and your dog specifically, and only Matt is able to instantly elucidate everything. But it says something about Matt that he makes the core of his philosophy available on his website--for him, it's less about forcing you to pay him money to get his "secrets," and more about making the world a better place for dogs and their people.
As you'll see if you read the Precepts, most of what Matt wants to teach you is how to be "in right relationship" with your dog. This means that you both have an equal amount of work to do to in the relationship--it's not just up to your dog to behave. YOU have to "set him up for success"--and the training is where you figure out what means for your dog.
For Chance, that meant that I had to figure out how I was NOT setting him up for success with our walks. Matt showed me how Chance could tell that we were unsure leaders (when he stopped walking, we were COMPLETELY unsure about how to handle this new development), so he felt it was his responsibility to handle any situations that might come up on a walk--since he was just a baby, he knew enough to know that he COULDN'T protect us, so he decided the best course of action was just to not leave the area where we (as leaders) seemed to have shit under control.
I mean, you guys, I'm reducing TWO AND A HALF HOURS of conversation to a blog post. Matt dropped so many knowledge-bombs in that first session that TOTALLY changed how I interact with my dog. Long story short, it ended with Matt taking us all out to the sidewalk and putting a Halti on my dog (if you've never used one, you should absolutely check with Matt to see if it's right for you). At first Chance bucked like a tiny little bronco as Matt coaxed him up and down our block, but after maybe 30 minutes, CHANCE WAS TROTTING ALONG THE STREET LIKE A CHAMPION.
When he left, he suggested that we could set up a "socialization" session if I wanted to, but that he didn't think we needed to right away. But I definitely immediately wanted to. Because when someone shows up at your door with all the answers? You don't want them to stop talking.
The Socialization Session
So the first session is like a foundational download, while the second session puts everything into motion. Imagine you want to learn how to play basketball--Session 1 is like Basketball Theory 101, only the professor focuses on how it all relates to you specifically. Session 2 is like having Phil Jackson watch a game with you and analyze every single play.
I took Chance to THE ZEN YARD (Matt's facility) for the socialization session. This was back before I'd dared take Chance to the dog park because I had no idea how he interacted with other dogs. Matt had me sit in the yard (again ignoring Chance completely) while he introduced Chance to individual dogs from his pack--small, large, playful, kinda scary, the whole spectrum. Sometimes it was just Chance and one other dog; sometimes it was several dogs at once.
CHANCE (L) and PIP work it out in today's socialization session at #THEZENYARD. CHANCE came in to address potential small dog aggression issues. PIP has been highly dog reactive. So after taking several safe steps we put them together and they were instant beasties. #dachshund #catahoula #rescuedogs #pals #THEZENDOG #therearenobaddogs #Napoleon #fancypants @carriewiita
Over the course of an hour and a half, Matt narrated everything that was happening. He pointed out TONS of tiny interactions that I never would have noticed on my own, and explained SO MUCH of how my dog was reacting/interacting with the pack. Again--MIND. BLOWN.
*Sidenote: I recently took Chance back for another socialization session focusing on small dogs--long story short, there was an incident with my neighbor's dog that made me worry Chance was developing some issue with small bark-y dogs. Turns out, notsomuch. Which is such a relief. (check out the video to the right)
Matt validated that Chance was actually quite respectful and played well with other dogs, which gave me the confidence to take him to the dog park. More importantly, it gave ME the power to analyze Chance's behavior with other dogs and recognize signals (both good and bad).
Trust me when I tell you that the money I invested in these first two session was the best money I've invested in my dog (along with the money I've spent on pet health insurance). It's not cheap, but having had this experience and ALSO done obedience classes (and had one other session with another trainer that my mom wanted to try), it is worth EVERY SINGLE PENNY and then some.
Why Not Just Go to Obedience Class?
Look, Chance and I have been doing obedience and agility classes at Zoom Room Hollywood for a couple months and we are having a lot of fun. The thing is, the training method there is focused on getting your dog to obey commands. This is awesome if your relationship with your dog is SO SOLID that the only thing you need to work on is teaching your dog different commands and you want some help.
Unfortunately, that's not the case with Chance and me--and based solely on my own observations, I think that's not the case for a lot of folks at Zoom Room, too.
When Chance wouldn't go for walks, all obedience classes could have offered was "try a treat! try a clicker!" Maaaaaaybe they would have suggested the Halti, but I wouldn't have known WHY we were having the problem in the first place.
That's the crucial part. Solving a behavior problem without knowing why the problem exists is just a band-aid. Getting to the root of the problem is the REAL fix, and will most likely prevent more problems in the future.
Matt tries to get to the root of the problem, and if he doesn't know the answer right away, he doesn't try to give you an answer right away. Obedience class teachers like the trainers at Zoom Room (who are SUPER nice) unfortunately seem to be trained to act like they always have the answer--this can result in some very confusing contradictory answers when one trainer has said one thing like it's The Absolute Truth, and when that doesn't work, a different trainer tells you THE OPPOSITE as though it is also The Absolute Truth.
Word on the street is that obedience classes may soon be offered at THE ZEN DOG, and you can bet I'll be signing up right away. Because I think it'll be a perfect blend of teaching commands AND working on my relationship with Chance. UPDATE: THE ZEN DOG is now offering Walking & Socialization classes led by Matt! Email email@example.com for information!
How Else Can the Zen Dog Solve All My Doggy Problems??
Glad you asked. They also offer dayplay (doggy daycare), boarding, boarding/training packages, dog-walking, and dog-sitting. We've done dayplay and boarding so far, and the peace of mind I have when I drop him off there is PRICELESS.
When I take Chance for dayplay, that dog comes home utterly exhausted and with THE BIGGEST DOGGY SMILE plastered across his adorable little face. It's honestly like he just got back from Disneyland.
I can also vouch for the boarding program--I had to board Chance there for about a week last summer, and it was the perfect situation. It's big enough that there are plenty of other dogs for him to interact with, but not so overwhelmingly large that his well-being can be overlooked in the confusion. Not to mention the fact that I unequivocally trust Matt's judgment when it comes to what dogs he'll allow Chance to come into contact with.
And whether your pup is just there for the day or staying for awhile, the folks at THE ZEN YARD are happy to send you photos and videos of what your furbaby is up to. It's just great.
The Bottom Line
I've worked with Matt for just over a year now, so maaaaaaaybe I exaggerated a little with the title of this post. I don't have experience with ALL THE OTHER TRAINERS in LA. But when I was desperate for a trainer I typed "best dog trainer in Los Angeles" into the Googlemachine, and if anyone else is doing the same thing, I want THE ZEN DOG to be one of the first results. Because I am SO GLAD we found THE ZEN DOG!!