They provide us with endless joy and unconditional love, keeping us healthy and happy. But in order to develop a better understanding of our dog’s behaviour, we must first change our own.
According to leading Australian canine behaviourist Laura Vissaritis, the relationship we have with our beloved four-legged friends is ultimately up to us.
“The thing about dog training is that it’s not really about dogs – it’s about people,” she says, adding, “Dogs are easy to train – it’s people that are the tricky ones.”
Vissaritis’ new book Dognitive Therapy provides a practical and insightful guide into her unique approach to canine training.
Says Vissaritis: “I’ve definitely helped thousands of dogs and I’d say I’ve helped tens of thousands of people who have dogs in their lives – and hopefully I’ll help many, many more. It’s really time we started to think about being their best friend.”
Vissaritis, now 34, reveals she has been a dog lover for as long as she can remember.
“I grew up on a farm with every pet you could imagine,” she says. “Lost dogs would just wander up the driveway, so animals have always been an essential part of my life.”
Sadly, Vissaritis’ father passed away when she was just 11.
“When that happened, dogs were the best comfort – and such loyal friends to me,” she reflects. “I think it was probably then that I realised how much they have to offer us. They’ve just always been there for me.”
After working at Zoos Victoria for a decade, Vissaritis became a highly sought-after canine trainer, formulating her innovative ‘Dognitive Therapy’ approach.
“I decided I wanted to help everyone see dogs the way I do,” she says simply. “I’ve always been passionate about helping people make life better for themselves and their animals.”
Vissaritis says people should be more understanding of their dogs' emotions – they really are just like us
Today, Vissaritis lives in Melbourne with her staffordshire bull terrier Chester and her rescue dog, Alma.
“I think my heart and soul would be empty without dogs,” she says. “Dogs and man are just meant to be.”
But can some dogs be untrainable?
“I think all dogs can be managed, as long as you have realistic expectations,” she replies. “I’ve never met a bad dog, but I’ve met a confused dog or an anxious or frustrated dog that does bad things and that’s usually a reflection of the way they’ve been raised, or the irresponsible breeding of that dog.
“There’s also definitely such a thing as a manipulative dog. Dogs are just like us, and especially like young children – they’ll manipulate things as long as they think they can. But ultimately it’s up to the person – to the leadership of the human.”
One of the most common issues that Vissaritis encounters these days is anxiety.
“We see it in people more and more, and in dogs as well,” she says. “Anti-anxiety medications are on the increase for dogs. The problem manifests in things like excessive barking, reactive behaviour like growling or lunging at other dogs, and in separation anxiety from the owner. All of these issues are based around an underlying anxiety disorder, as this world is very stressful for a dog.
“We have such high expectations for our dogs, and a lot of the time they just can’t live up to what we want. We set them up for failure. We need to empower our dogs to feel confident, reward good behaviours and give them lots of exercise.”
Indeed, just like their human counterparts, dogs respond to empathy and respect.
“It’s all about managing expectations,” says Vissaritis. “We want our dogs to be perfectly behaved, but we need to understand more about where they’re coming from, rather than where we’re coming from. Focus on the good and then you’ll see so many wonderful things that your dog does every day.”
Dognitive Therapy is published by Michael Joseph, RRP $29.99. You can purchase it here.