In January, five irrepressible dogs stood with their silent, nervous owners for Day 1 of Growly Dog Class. Despite careful partitions preventing the dogs from seeing each other, all four-footed creatures were nonetheless growling.
The only human unperturbed by the canine cacophony was Annie Phenix, the formidable instructor and founder of Growly Dog Class.
“Whenever they want to growl at something – dog, human, air – we’re going to make chicken fall from the sky,” she cheerfully bellowed over the barks.
On Phenix’s orders, the owners released food onto the ground and clicked a clicker whenever their dogs started growling, forcing the dogs to break eye contact with perceived aggressors – which, apparently, were everywhere.
“It’s classical reconditioning,” said Phenix, while Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” – from the CD series “Through a Dog’s Ear: Volume 1: Music to Calm your Canine Companion,” (“Recordings psychoacoustically designed to support you and your dog’s compromised immune or nervous system function,” according to the official website) competed with an incessant chorus of panicked woofs.
The soothing stream of piano music, like the trick of making “chicken rain down from the sky,” was all part of Growly Dog Class’s Pavlovian pedagogy. Phenix believes that with simple therapies, growly dogs can form new, positive associations disrupting usual behavioral patterns of fear, aggression and, eventually, growling with much quieter behavioral patterns. They work by forcing them to form new, positive associations with other dogs.
Immediately, Bodhi, a garrulous 125-pound Saint Bernard, started baying at Blossom, an intelligent, heretofore composed German shepherd-hound mix. Blossom responded to the much bigger Bodhi’s howls with snarls so ferocious, a reporter became afraid.
Phenix commanded, “Let chicken fall from the sky!”
The owners frantically clicked and dropped food. Blossom promptly pounced on a stream of Cheese Whiz and forgot Bodhi.
Bodhi showed no interest in the food. Phenix approached Taren Shmida, Bodhi’s owner, who physically was struggling to keep Bodhi from bounding out of his cubicle.
“What kind of food did you bring?”
“Chicken-flavored kibble,” said Schmida.
“That’s not good enough,” said Phenix, who intervened, flinging high-quality beef-flavored morsels around Bodhi’s head. Bodhi immediately snapped to attention and forgot about Blossom.
Phenix is not your ordinary professional dog expert. An author of several books about dogs, Phenix, who has many degrees in canine psychology, recently was chosen to be a columnist for Dogster Magazine, a publication available in Petco stores nationwide. Her column – “SPEAK!” – focuses on dogs that lunge at other dogs on leashes – an issue close to Phenix’s heart.
“The biggest problem in Durango is off-leash dogs,” Phenix told the class repeatedly.
“But you have to blame the humans. I don’t want to be friends with the kind of person who walks their dog without a leash,” she said, shuddering.
In the manner of the most earnest public defenders, Phenix considers aggressive dogs victims of a cruel world, and she swears by rehabilitation, not punishment.
“Punishment doesn’t work; chicken works,” she said.
To Durango’s downcast dog owners, Phenix is a positive-psychology pet messiah, coaxing terrific behavior – and the miracle of silence – from dogs whose souls are in tumult.
Like the parents of troubled teenagers, many of the dog owners at Growly Dog Class appeared desperate to reach their troubled dogs, and confused, guilty and humiliated as to how their beloved pets could behave so monstrously.
Blossom’s owner, Cortez preschool teacher Brianna Dunn, said before Growly Dog Class, she and her husband, Kevin, had been ashamed of Blossom’s growling.
“I’m a perfectionist. I want things to be perfect – the kids to get As, the house to look nice, to walk down the street without my dog growling at everybody,” she said. “We struggled. I was concerned about what people thought.”
Though at her wits’ end with Blossom, Dunn couldn’t bring herself to enroll in courses “based on negative reinforcement in Cortez.”
Likewise, Schmida, a hairstylist at Incognito, said last year she and her husband, Sean, grew so alarmed by Bodhi, she tried begging TV dog trainer Cesar Millan for help.
“At home, he’s the cuddliest lover of the house. But, whenever he saw a dog, he went into attack mode, like he would kill it – all the time.”
Fast forward to March: It’s graduation day.
Bodhi licks his diploma. Blossom sniffs Bodhi. The humans looked on, amazed, as the dogs quietly lie down, exhausted.
“This is hard, emotional work for them. They’re tired,” said Phenix. “But dogs are so much faster than humans. If this were a class about conquering your biggest fear – spiders, or public speaking – you’d never be able to do this in a month.”