A few years ago, my wife Linda found the horse of her dreams: a gorgeous, black Cheval Canadian-cross thoroughbred. She named him Jack, and he seemed as calm and confident as can be. It wasn't long, however, that we realized he was far from perfect: Having been abused in the past, he bucked a lot and was impossible to ride. Linda tried just about everything. Nothing worked. One day, I returned from work to find her pacing up and down, wringing her hands, agonizing over her options.
"I think I may have to contact a horse whisperer," she said in the most matter-of-fact tone she could muster. I was taken aback. This was not like her. She and I are both veterinarians. Our solutions to problems are dictated by science, not by some new age practice popularized by the movies. But she was desperate - so I tried to help by plunging deep into that world to find out if there was any truth behind the hype.
Everyone knows, thanks to Nicholas Evans's book and film The Horse Whisper, that whispering is a method for training the most difficult of animals through non-violent means. The technique's gained tremendous ground over the years, and not just on the ranch. There's a whisperer who gently distracted a whale so that relief workers could pull it back to safety, a whisperer who tamed elephants by massaging their feet, ears, face and tail. Dog whisperers abound, in name at least. A quick search of the Internet revealed 2800 self-described of them.
How did whispering move from fringe to mainstream? And does it actually work? I decided to hear out the whisperers themselves.
Monty Roberts is a down-to-earth guy who likes cowboy hats and kerchiefs and lives in Santa Ynez, California. Some say he inspired the character in the Horse Whisperer, though others, including the book's author, disagree. Roberts describes himself simply as a horse trainer, albeit one that's spawned his own veritable cottage industry. He's got books (The Man Who Listens to Horses, and such), videos (You and Your Wild Horse: From Trailer to Trail - out in DVD this fall!), speaking tours, and T-shirts.
I didn't expect to like what he had to say, but I did. "When you work with horses," said Roberts, "you have to work with the nature of the horse to bend it, enhance it, and allow it to flow along."
Sometimes, his methods are quite peculiar to watch: To teach a horse not to run away from its owner, Roberts walks toward it in a round pen with a stern look on his face. As long as the horse runs away, he keeps moving toward him. When the horse pauses, Roberts stops advancing. Eventually, the horse walks up to him voluntarily. Punishment is replaced with silent communication through body language and posturing. "You have to create reasons why the horse wants to do what you want it to do," says Roberts. In other words, the motivation to behave is intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic. The force for change comes from within.
The term whisperer was apparently co-opted from a nineteenth-century report about an English woman who had a way with horses - evidently by whispering sweet nothings into their ear. But that is far from the truth when it comes to modern-day whisperers of any sort.
"We certainly don't whisper in cats' ears, that's for sure," laughs Claire Bessant, chief executive of The Feline Advisory Bureau in Salisbury, England, and author of The Kitten Whisperer, out this fall. She's actually a cat behaviorist but uses the term whisperer simply because people are more familiar with it. "People think of whispering as a technique for understanding the animal," she says. And indeed, her methods are gentle - meeting the cat, noting whether it's confident or timid, interviewing the owner. "Punishment is the worse possible thing to do, and cats don't let you get away with it," she affirms. Recently she had an owner whose cat refused to use her litter box. It turned out, it was because the owner began biking to work and storing the bike indoors - along with remnants of the outside still stuck on the tires. The cat felt invaded by foreign smells. Once the owner began storing the bike elsewhere, the cat reverted back to normal behavior.
It seems that whispering is not so much a new technique as it is a new way of branding an old service - and it comes at a time when our love affair with animals has never been more intense. In the past, people had a utilitarian relationship with their pets. Dogs were kept for sporting or guarding, cats for ratting, and horses for riding. But now, pets are for companionship and their owners are outfitting them with pricey capes, buying them custom-made furniture, and taking them to pet-friendly hotels. It was only a matter of time before they searched for medical treatments and disciplinary methods that didn't hurt the pet - or their feelings. There are now herbal medications for pets, aromatherapy, even massage. The veterinary acupuncturist on staff at Tufts Veterinary School, where I teach animal behavior, is always busy. And I just received a visit from the owner of a veterinary homeopathic company who told me that his anti-anxiety product for cats and dogs was flying off the shelf. He left me with some samples to try on my patients; I'm certain there will be no shortage of takers.
Clearly, pets have become almost human in their owners' eyes, and whispering falls in step nicely with this growing trend. As Paul Owens, author of the acclaimed book, The Dog Whisperer, explains, "The way whisperers interact with our animals is directly linked to how we treat each other as human beings. Dog whispering involves treating animals with the same kindness, compassion, and respect we employ when we educate our children or care for our friends and family."
That's exactly why my wife wanted to find a whisperer, as opposed to a trainer who used punishment-based methods. At first, she settled for a woman who described herself as a "natural horsemanship trainer." The woman proved to be a charlatan and Linda eventually gave up on her. After a number of calls around the country, she came to the conclusion that whisperers are hard to come by. All the established ones were hundreds of miles away, and, because they are so sought after, they get away with high fees - at least $4,000 a month to start. She started to try and train Jack herself, using kindness and a lot of patience.
Some owners, however, are so desperate for a whisperer they end up with impostors. There are many -- for dogs, horses, and cats alike - and they operate like conventional trainers. Some even use tools such as choke chains and prong collars. One dog owner in California took her pitbull-mix to such a trainer to handle its aggression toward other dogs. His methods, she says, "were all about physical dominance - pushing, kneeing, and pinning the dog to get the point across." Her dog actually became scared of her during the "training." The story ended happily, however, when she eventually found Paul Owens.
Indeed, people like Owens and Roberts have helped a lot of clients and their pets. But the idealist in me continues to believe that the true whisperers are already in peoples' homes. They are the pets' owners, relatives, and friends. I know of several storm-phobic dogs that have stopped quaking when their owners took on a more matter-of-fact approach: Whenever the dogs started to panic, the owners simply continued to go about their business. The dogs immediately quieted down -- feeding off their owners' newfound confidence, it seemed. Another dog that did back flips for attention quit pestering his owner when she ignored him instead of pandering to his tricks.
Linda's dilemma was resolved when she boarded Jack with a man who used to train state police horses. This fellow simply jumped on Jack's back, hung onto the mane and rode through attempts to buck him off like a rodeo cowboy. Jack got the message, though it wasn't exactly whispered. Linda can now sometimes walk, trot, and canter Jack. The problem isn't completely solved yet, but we're hoping that we'll get there someday soon.
I eventually realized that the concepts behind whispering aren't all that different from what I've learned in vet school. Understanding what is going on is key to finding a solution: behaviors that are rewarded will be reinforced; behaviors that are ignored will dissipate. You can take it from there. After all, I believe there is a whisperer in all of us.