Mark Vette is one of the world’s leading animal psychologists and behaviourists, who has been studying and training dogs for more than 40 years. He has seen - and solved - every behavioural issue imaginable and is known as the star of the hit TV show ‘Purina Pound Pups to Dog Stars’, which screens in over 150 countries. He caught the world’s attention in 2012 when he taught three rescue dogs to drive a car, and more recently he successfully taught dogs to fly a plane! Mark has also recently launched an online dog training programme, available at www.dogzen.com.
1. Mark, what does an average day look like for you?
I know this probably sounds like a cliche, but no day is average! At the moment I’m writing a book, so I’m spending a lot of time staying at a lovely place on Muriwai beach, absorbing myself in writing and having a lot of quiet time. It is about my unique training techniques and sharing my life-long love and understanding of dogs and my experience of living with and studying the ancestral wolf.
But on other days I could be advising and mentoring my team as they treat dogs with serious behavioural issues at my Auckland based Behaviour Clinic or train animals for film or TV ads, consulting with organisations on dog behaviour transformation strategies, filming animal-related stories with news crews from around the world (we have one coming up with a German TV show), meditating or attending a Buddhist retreat, or simply spending time with my partner Kim, my four dogs or my two lovely young granddaughters. Life is very full (some might say chaotic but I prefer to think of it as full!), and I’m grateful for that.
2. How have you gotten to where you are in this industry?
It’s been a long and interesting road, I have to say! I’ve always had and loved dogs, but my passion for animal training was ignited at 6 years old. Our family had a big rescued German Shepherd dog called Scott, he caused our family real drama! My Grandfather was a war dog trainer and he taught me my first hard lessons in the old school way. It was then I promised myself I would learn to understand and work with the dogs I loved so much. I went on to have many more dogs and to study Zoology and Animal Psychology before doing my Masters Thesis on sheep dog behaviour and genetics - I was among the first to work out how we shaped sheep dog herding behaviour. I went to the United States where I studied wolves with Professors John P Scott ad Erich Klinghammer and several other world experts. Dog behaviour theory was in its infancy in that time, and the wild and captive wolves I worked with became my fondest and deepest inspirations to understand dogs.
After all this study, I went on to train as an Animal Behaviour Consultant and became the first in New Zealand in this field 40 years ago. I set up kennels, a dog behaviour clinic and an animal training offering to film and TV producers working in New Zealand. Since then I have made four TV series’ and created my online programme, Dog Zen.
3. Where do your ideas about dog training come from?
A good understanding of where and why these behaviours developed is critical, which is why my time spent studying wolf packs is such an important part of my knowledge. The latest research confirms that dogs are solely descended from wolves (not coyotes or jackals) and are still 99.96% genetically identical to wolves, so most of their behaviours have a basis in the ancestral wolf. The first proto-dogs evolved tens of thousands of years ago by living around man when we were hunter gatherers, and since then they have co-evolved alongside us, becoming friendlier, more domesticated, less inclined to hunt large prey as a pack etc.
By understanding why the wolf behaves the way it does, we can understand why our dogs behave the way they do, and it is my very strong belief that when we understand why a dog does what it does, we can then work with those natural behavioural instincts to adjust those behaviours to make life happy and easy for dogs in the human world.
4. Is there such thing as an “untrainable” dog?
There is, but it is not common. A dog is, in my mind, “untrainable” if it has a medical issue that prevents it from learning or training, such as brain damage. But this is very uncommon, 99% of dogs are trainable - it’s just a matter of understanding where their behaviour comes from, so that we can understand how to fix it. This is true for all behaviours including hyperactivity, severe separation anxiety, destructive tendencies and aggression.
5. You taught dogs to fly planes this year - that’s kind of hard to believe, what was it like?
Haha yes, we did indeed take to the skies with a dog in full control of the plane! It’s funny, people often say it’s “unbelievable” but when you work with dogs as closely as I do, and you understand how deeply dogs and humans are bonded, it’s actually not hard to believe that we can achieve these types of feats together. Dogs and humans have co-evolved together over tens of thousands of years, and we have this incredibly unique relationship that enables us to work together. I look at therapy dogs, blind assist dogs and sheep dogs and I think these roles are equally as amazing as having a dog as a pilot. People say dogs have the intelligence of a toddler, but we wouldn’t trust a toddler to lead a blind person across busy roads, so I think that assumption is a bit misguided. Dogs and people can do amazing things as a team and I think we’ve only barely scratched the surface of that.
6. What is the biggest mistake people make when trying to train their dogs?
People assume that dogs should think and act like humans, but it’s not the case - they are still 99.96% wolf! As bonded as we are, dogs are not the same species as us, and I think it’s our responsibility to recognise that and adjust the way we communicate with dogs so that they can understand our meaning. This doesn’t mean they aren’t “part of the family” because they are, it’s just that we need to learn to speak in a language that our dog understands and understand that they aren’t human children. Dogs are gestural and tonal communicators, so learning what our gestures and tones are saying to our dogs can go a long way in helping us understand why they act the way they do.
7. What’s next for you?
My deep passion is to create happy lives for humans and dogs together, so I am doing what I can do to work towards this in a myriad of ways, including educating people on how to understand their dogs and build a solid relationship with them in which they aren’t stressed by their dog’s behavioural issues.
I am also passionate about the plight of rescue dogs - every dog deserves a happy and loving home, so I encourage anyone considering adding a dog to their family to opt for a rescue dog. This was the purpose of teaching dogs to drive cars and fly planes - they were all rescue dogs, and we wanted to show that rescue dogs are smart dogs who deserve a home.
As for anything else, I can’t say too much right now but keep your eyes peeled!
Vette’s comprehensive online dog training programme, Dog Zen, gives the public access to his unique training techniques, which have seen him transform thousands of dogs’ behaviour. It is a series of 30 videos, designed to help dog owners properly understand, communicate with and train their beloved pooches. Dog Zen covers everything from understanding dogs’ language and teaching basic commands, right through to correcting serious behavioural issues such as hyperactivity, excessive barking, destructive behaviour, separation anxiety, noise phobias and aggression.
Dog Zen is available on monthly subscription from www.dogzen.com, $67 per month. Subscribing gives users a unique login code and access to the entire programme.
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