June 27, 2007 -- A dog, as the saying goes, is man's best friend.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always seem that way. Terrorized neighbors, chewed-up furniture and constant, ear-splitting barking -- these are just some of the potential joys of dog ownership. And according to many people who have shared their stories on ABCNEWS.com, these problems are not uncommon. Dogs that don't obey commands, fight with fellow dogs, and nip at kids drove readers to send in video and e-mails pleading for help getting their animals under control.
They wrote in to elicit advice from a dog trainer who's been making a splash in Hollywood, Tamar Geller, dog trainer to the stars and author of "The Loved Dog." (Click here to read an excerpt of the book.) Geller believes that the key to a perfect dog lies not in dominance but in creating a loving environment where the dog wants to obey. "I don't believe in anyone who is in a relationship with anybody, whether it's a dog, whether it's a child, anybody, that submission needs to be a part of it," she explains. "I actually believe in the opposite. I believe in happiness, in joy, in empowerment."
Earlier this month, "20/20" put Geller to the test and introduced her to John Stossel and his dog, Luca. Although Luca is usually well-behaved, he doesn't come when called and Stossel, who lives on a heavily trafficked street and walks Luca in a bustling public park, is worried for his safety.
Dogs Don't Care If You're Famous
Geller recommended that Stossel take Luca indoors, away from distractions, and play hide and seek with him -- calling his name from a different part of the house and rewarding him with a treat. The point, she says, is to play the game repeatedly until Luca automatically associates his name being called with something good. The technique is typical of Geller's overall training method: Make learning fun. But does it work?
A long list of celebrities seems to think so. Geller has trained Oprah Winfrey's puppies and helped out Ben Affleck, Steve Martin and Courtney Cox-Arquette with their dogs. She's even worked with the Osbournes. Explaining her popularity in Hollywood, Geller says that a little discretion doesn't hurt. "You want to know somebody who doesn't judge you, somebody who is not going to go and tell the tabloids about you," she says of her clients. "I couldn't care less how famous they are because their dog couldn't care less."
Speaking Their Language
But Geller hasn't always cavorted with the stars. She traces the roots of her loved dog philosophy back to her childhood in Israel. Growing up in what she describes as an abusive home, Geller developed an aversion to forceful teaching early on in life. She escaped home by joining the Israeli air force, where she was horrified by the techniques being used to train dogs in the military canine units. "I saw, basically, the army train the way a lot of people train in the United States," she says. "By choke chain, and force, and breaking the spirit."
This traditional form of dog training -- mastery by dominance, where an animal owner uses force to assert him or herself as the alpha member -- seemed all wrong to Geller. But it wasn't until she spent several months at a nature center in the Israeli desert, observing wolves in the wild, that she realized training dogs was her life's calling.
"I would sit and observe them, and I realized there was none of that nonsense of breaking the spirit involved. As a matter of fact, they really interacted and set their pecking order by games," she explains. "I would take [the games] to my home, try it on my dogs, and my dogs looked at me and they were like, 'Finally! Finally someone who speaks my language.'"
Love, Not Force
It's that ability to engage dogs, star client Nicolette Sheridan says, that sets Geller apart as a trainer. "The consistent thing about Tamar's training is that it's always been about love," Sheridan explains. "You come up with what it is that you'd like [your dog] to learn, and if you make it fun they're going to learn it and love to do it for you because they want to please you."
So if Tamar Geller has her way, your dog will be your best friend, but only if you return the favor.