Tamar Geller, “life coach for dogs and their people,” is sitting at a café in Venice contemplating her career thus far. “Oprah gave me the title. I did not call it to myself,” she says. The anointing happened about seven years ago, when Geller was flying in Oprah's private plane to Oprah's house in Chicago to live, for one month, with Oprah's golden retrievers.
Geller is best known for her cruelty-free training methods, turning pets into “happy, joyful and well-mannered members of the family,” as her best-selling book, The Loved Dog, describes.
The energetic, 40-something blonde with the megawatt smile was not always a life coach for dogs. In her early 20s, she was an intelligence officer with the Israeli army's Special Forces. They use dogs. Though she didn't like the harsh way the military trained the dogs, she didn't think much of it until after her service, when she went to the desert to, as she puts it, clean her mind.
There, she began to work with a guy researching wolf behavior. “That's when I realized the way to do it.” A wolf pack leader, she came to believe, is more like Gandhi than Saddam Hussein. “Hussein leads through force. He wants everybody to be submissive, to fear him. Gandhi empowers the team. Wolves need everybody to be the best that they can be, because they operate as a pack.”
From the beginning, Geller had a natural way with dogs. She tells a story about attending a lecture in Tel Aviv, before she became a dog life coach. She saw a dog, went up to it, started kissing it. “We are making out, this dog and I. The owner runs over. He says, 'You can't be around this dog. He doesn't like people.'?” The mutt, apparently, begged to differ.
She left Tel Aviv to move to Venice Beach and wound up volunteering at a local dog trainer's business. The trainer got a call from a Beverly Hills resident whose cocker spaniel was stealing socks. “And he goes, 'I don't want to deal with those Beverly Hills people. You go.' What? I'm barely speaking English. But I went, and it was clear that it was an attention-seeking problem. The only time the dog got attention was when he was stealing socks.”
The owner argued, “But I'm home all the time.”
“Well, the fact that you're home all the time doesn't mean that you are actively communicating with your dog,” Geller countered.
She understood: She had a boyfriend like that. “Here's what I want you to do,” she told the owner. She taught him the games that wolves play – chasing, wrestling, tug-of-war. “Then, the other times, if your dog is stealing socks, I want you to turn your back. Close the door. Don't give any attention.”
Within two days, the problem was solved. The guy turned out to be Kenny G. He referred her to his friends. “All of a sudden Goldie Hawn is calling me. Whoopi Goldberg. Rachael Ray. Ryan Seacrest. Charlize Theron. Courteney Cox. Natalie Portman. Nicollette Sheridan.”
It was Sheridan who introduced Geller to Oprah. Sheridan had her dog on the set one day when Winfrey came to interview her. “Nice and behaved, without a leash,” Geller recalls. “Oprah said, 'I want a dog like that. Who trained him?'?”
Eventually, Jon Stewart and his wife noticed that Geller trains dogs in the same way that they train their children. So Geller began studying childhood emotional development.
Cognitively speaking, she learned, the animal that most closely resembles a toddler is not a chimpanzee but a dog. She learned that, as with children, punishment works a tiny bit, with horrible consequences. Praise works better. And you teach a dog the same way you teach a toddler: “Say specifically what they did right.”
The magic words are, “Good job how you cleaned your dishes!” Not simply “Good boy!” or “Good girl!” For a dog, it is: Good sit! Good come! Good leave! Good pee!
Being a dog life coach means having opinions. Geller can't stand Cesar Millan. “He wants a dog to be submissive. I want a dog to be empowered,” she says. “When are you at your best? When you're fearful, or when you're inspired? If you're afraid to make a mistake, you're not going to explore new possibilities. It's called learned helplessness. You see it with battered wives.”
Fear works, the dog life coach believes, but not as well as love does. “A raving fan will go above and beyond. I want your dog to be your biggest fan.”
Being a dog life coach means digging deep into canine psyches. Ask not who the dog barks for but why. Geller believes it's usually attention-seeking or boredom. “You need to address the cause, not the symptom.”
For instance, when a dog jumps up, she reasons, he's trying to get to your face. In nature, the first thing wolf pups do when an adult returns to the den is kiss the adult on the mouth. “It's how the adults bring food home from the hunt,” Geller says. “They don't have backpacks.”
Leash aggression is another issue Geller sees often. This morning she was with Chaz Dean, creator of Wen hair care products, and his Labrador. “Now Chaz is the best dog owner on Earth. His dogs get massages once a week. And yet the dog was leash-aggressive.”
Today, they had a breakthrough. Walking around Griffith Park, Chaz's dog spotted a pit bull and didn't react.
The reason for the aggression is that the Lab associates another dog with pain: “I may be attacked.” So Geller switched it around. She taught him “every time you see another dog, it's the most immense pleasure. Every time you see another dog, you get food.”
To an extent, being a life coach for dogs means solving relationship problems. One client had a dog that wouldn't come. Geller said, “The way you're calling him, I would not come to you, either.” It was curt and hard, more like a command. “Screw command,” Geller advised. “Be yummy!”
A week later, the client confessed that Geller's advice not only got the dog to come but also completely changed the way she talked to her teenage daughter. Geller smiles now. “I am literally, through dogs, making the world a better place.”
Her job is to ensure that a dog and its owner have the best relationship possible. “We get a dog because we want to feel love,” she says. “We don't need them to hunt for us. We don't need them to herd our sheep.”
Geller has been training dogs for 25 years. She is not starstruck by her celebrity clients. She is practically canine in this respect. Oprah's dogs don't know she is Oprah. Just as Geller didn't know who Kenny G. was when she met him.
Fame doesn't matter. What matters is the quality of our relationships. “Do we empower our husbands and wives and pets? Or do we make them feel like they are walking on eggshells around us?” Geller asks.
Being a life coach for dogs means that even though you own a beautiful house in Malibu, and Pat and Leslie Sajak are coming over in an hour to drop off Australian sheepdog, when the coffee shop closes early and kicks you out, you are not above copping a squat on some stairs by the parking lot to finish your train of thought. Not all of Geller's clients are celebrities, she continues. Not all of them are rich. “Regular people are my favorite!” she says. “They are the best!”
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