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Malta’s own dog whisperer

Impressed by celebrity dog whisperer Cesar Milan? Ramona Depares meets up with Malta’s home-grown version, Robert Spiteri, responsible for introducing the official positive reinforcement pet training technique to the island.

Mention reality Mr Milan to him and, rather than the oohs and aahs of admiration that you’d maybe expect, you receive a cautious smile and a shake of the head. Mr Spiteri, who is a certified dog behaviour consultant, has worked with countless “problem” dogs and is fully aware of the potential pitfalls that owners who expect a total reinvention of their pet’s personality in under 30 minutes face.

“Cesar Milan’s system works beautifully for television purposes. He uses the negative technique in order to persuade the dogs to submit to his commands. In reality, the negative technique is very commonly used in dog training circles but I find that the disadvantages by far outweigh the results. Of course, the dog will obey Cesar’s instructions in front of the camera but the likelihood is that, as soon as Cesar leaves, the owners face exactly the same problems as before. When using negative training with pets, as soon as you remove the source of fear, the pet’s problematic behaviour comes back.”

Mr Spiteri uses a training system that is a hybrid of the UK and the German techniques. With the UK system erring on the side of too much permissivity and the German one too rigorous for average pet owners who are not training their dogs for a specific purpose, a “middle-ground” that is quickly gaining popularity on the inter­national dog training circuit was found. The technique, dubbed the PET (Pet Education Transcript) Scheme, offers owners both practical and theoretical instruction.

When we met, Mr Spiteri had just returned from a consulting session with the family that will be giving a new home to Star, the dog that survived being shot in the head and buried alive.

“Dogs who have been through this kind of trauma can develop phobias. The most obvious one is a big fear of humans, which, thankfully, is not the case with Star. This leads me to think that the abuse that the dog went through was a one-off. However, she could develop other fears. A fear of noise is an obvious one given that she was shot at close range in the head.”

Consulting sessions with Star will not start until the dog has made a full physical recovery and is off all forms of medication. But, in the meantime, Mr Spiteri is busy meeting up with the family that was the first to offer a new home to the dog. Meeting with the owners is actually more important than meeting the dog itself, he explains.

“In the majority of cases, a dog ends up suffering from behavioural issues because the owner has no clue about dog training. A couple of chats with the owners is usually enough to identify the source of the problem and to correct it through a series of techniques.”

The most common dog behavioural problems encountered by Mr Spiteri in Malta include extreme shyness and aggressiveness. This is due to a combination of factors, mostly the owners’ lack of expertise when faced with a new puppy and also the fact that dog breeding in Malta focuses more on the aesthetics rather than the temperament of a particular line.

“In Malta, anyone can be a breeder, offering their dog for breeding and then selling the offspring. In Europe, you need a licence. Before licences are granted, owners need to pass two tests: the lineage test and, more importantly, the breed temper test. Through the latter, any genetic or temperament problems are highlighted and curbed. In Malta, pedigree dogs with such problems are allowed to continue breeding, passing the same problem from generation to generation on to new and un­suspecting dog owners.”

Another common problem is that some owners are simply un­suited to a particular type of dogs.

“At the moment, there is a craze for the bigger breeds from the north: beautiful dogs with a very strong temperament and totally unsuited to inexperienced owners who are too soft with them. Dogs need a very definite structure of command. If this is lacking, it’s in their nature to try and bring order to the chaos by taking decisions on their own. When a dog is left to its own devices, more often than not it takes the wrong decision. The PET Scheme teaches owners all about these canine character traits and makes it easier for them to understand the logic behind certain commands.”

Is there such a thing as an untrainable dog? Mr Spiteri says this happens only very rarely and that most dogs – while seemingly a lost cause – in reality only need evidence of a strong structure before the problem is sorted.

“In normal cases, three visits from my end are all that is required, coupled with the owner’s sustained efforts, of course. Once the owner understands how the technique works, half the work is done. I’ve had some highly problematic cases. There was a particular owner whose chihuahua was so coddled that it just couldn’t handle any kind of stress. As soon as his owner left him alone, the continuous barking would start and she’d get back home to find a highly aggressive dog. In most cases, this can be corrected. However, the owner needs to continue following the system even after the problem is solved.”

Sometimes, the only solution is rehoming the dog, especially when owner and dog are not well-suited to each other.

“I find it a common problem here that owners get a particular dog simply because they like the way it looks, without considering the needs of that particular breed. To give you a simple example: border collies are one of the most intelligent breeds. However, the dog was bred as an outdoor animal and border collies are extremely energetic. An owner with a sedentary lifestyle who doesn’t address these needs is likely to cause problems to his dog’s personality, leading it to develop conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder and other forms of anxiety. If owners gave their dogs what they needed, the amount of problem dogs in Malta would be severely decreased.”

Mr Spiteri’s own dog, a beautiful rottweiler (Mr Spiteri is also president of the Rottweiler Club in Malta) named Balto, appears to be the epitome of the wonderful results that good training can offer. The gentle giant responds immediately to every single instruction from his owner. So well-trained is it that the dog is often used for filming purposes, the most recent example being the Italian production Gemelle, which was shot in Malta some weeks ago. Mr Spiteri’s expertise is also in huge demand and his services have been used in movies and TV shows such as the highly popular Il Commissario Rex, during the episodes that were shot in Malta. Broken down to basics, Mr Spiteri’s technique focuses around finding the good points of the dog and reinforcing them through rewards. The lack of negative reinforcement, which includes chokers and shock collars, means that the dog does not start associating his owner with pain but instead places complete trust in him/her.

“A well-trained dog will not react to other outside stimuli but only to the owner. In any given situation it looks to the owner for instructions. This can only be achieved through complete trust and where there is fear there is no trust.”

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