First published in The Record, Jan. 4, 2018
The dog Whisperer
It was a Friday afternoon, and there was so much to be excited about! Of course, for Finn the labradoodle, every afternoon is a cavalcade of exciting things, like treats and walks and mommy, known to the humans of Midland Park as Mary Ellen Saar.
But today Finn had visitors — visitors! — and these visitors were extra exciting. One held a black pointy thing. Every time she raised it to her face and aimed the shiny part at Finn, the thing made a noise like “whir-click!”
Finn found this super exciting, so he jumped and barked. Another visitor was a man. This man didn’t act like any other human Finn knows. He sat on the floor, looked Finn in the eyes and petted Finn very slowly. Finn liked this very much.
But then the man asked Finn to sit. Finn thinks it’s boring to sit. So he tried to squirm free. Then he barked.
Finally, Finn growled.
When most humans hear a dog growl, they take command and yell at the dog to stop. But this man, known to many human owners of difficult dogs as Corey Cohen, just kept petting and hugging.
“Oh, shush,” Cohen said. “Good boy. Shhh.”
Cohen, a Fair Lawn native, has trained dogs for 47 years, since he was 10. He spent most of that time abiding by the premise that undergirds America’s modern dog training industry: Dogs are pack animals, descended from wolves. It follows that dogs behave best when humans act like pack leaders, setting the rules and rewarding or punishing dogs accordingly.
“The idea is that dogs are not your friends,” said Cohen, who lives in Montrose, Pennsylvania. “It is dominance-oriented.”
In this framework, Cohen excelled. He won the first dog obedience competition he ever entered, at age 10. He became a top competitor in the German sport of Schutzund, training pets to perform as police dogs.
“I became very good at bite work,” he said. “I could get any dog to bite hard.”
He also built a successful business, working with people in their homes in Bergen County and Pennsylvania to control their dogs’ behavior.
“Holy moly, this guy’s the real dog whisperer!” said Carol Rubel of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, whose Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Blaine ran and barked incessantly until Cohen got involved.
Seven years ago, though, Cohen had a revelation that challenges the dog training industry’s dominant wisdom, one that merges his practice of meditation with his business of helping dogs.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one doing this,” he said. “Maybe there are more people like me out there, just we haven’t formed a club yet.”
The point is to stop being your dog’s boss, and start being her friend.
A natural talent loses his way
Cohen came by his philosophy of proper human-dog interaction naturally. His education killed it. Growing up in Fair Lawn and later in Dobbs Ferry, New York, in Westchester County, Cohen and his family had lots of dogs.
One was Dilly, a miniature schnauzer who never listened to anybody.
One day Cohen was playing in his front yard when Dilly ran into the street. Cohen and his parents called for her to stop. Dilly ignored them, and was killed by a car. Cohen was 8.
“That was pretty devastating,” he said. “That has a lot to do with what I do now.”
When Cohen was 10, his parents bought him a standard schnauzer, which he entered in an obedience competition.
“I beat everybody without even knowing what I was doing,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, this is my track that I’m going to go on.’ ”
When his dogs followed a scent, Cohen followed them. When they dug in the dirt, he dug with them.
“I never had very close friends, because I always felt I needed to get home and play with the dog,” he said. “Going back to my dog was always like going home.”
To get closer to his dogs, Cohen began to study meditation in high school.
“Dogs don’t think in terms of words or symbols. They just experience what’s happening right now,” he said. “I got into the meditation because I wanted to experience what I thought a dog would experience.”
Cohen received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Pace University. He got his dog trainer’s certificate from a school in the Bronx, started training police dogs, and stopped seeing dogs as friends.
They became tools.
“I’m on top, the dog is on the bottom. I’m trying to get control of the animal,” Cohen said. “These people were the experts. I learned what they did, and I thought, ‘OK, I have to do it this way now.' ”
He did it that way for nearly 20 years. Then Cosmo nearly died. Cosmo was a German shepherd, and he was Cohen’s best-trained competition dog.
Cosmo developed a double hernia at age 7. An operation would be expensive. Cohen considered putting the dog to sleep.
“Even after he has the surgery, he’s not going to be Cosmo; he’s not going to be able to do all these things,” Cohen said. “I was only thinking of Cosmo in terms of his usefulness to me.”
Then Cohen saw his dog, who was sitting on a couch, looking pitiful and afraid. He had a revelation. Cosmo was more than a tool. He was a friend, and friends don’t use one another.
“That’s when a light switch went off, and I went back to how I felt with dogs when I was a kid,” Cohen said. “This is my friend, whatever it takes.”
The realization saved Cosmo’s life, and changed Cohen’s. He paid for the surgery, and spent another five years with Cosmo until the dog died in 2016. Starting with Cosmo, Cohen returned to his original view that dogs are equal partners with people.
“Dogs’ brains are much better at being present, and being happy. So they can teach us that. Humans are very good at seeing the big picture,” he said. “It’s a dance, but you’re both leading.”
Finn learns a new dance
Lying on the floor of a well-appointed home in Midland Park, Cohen began to teach Mary Ellen Saar this new dance. With so many visitors around, Finn was getting unruly, barking and running around. Cohen asked Saar to ask the dog to sit.
“OK, Finn. Sit!” Saar said, standing over Finn, pointing in his face and yanking on the leash. “Sit!”
“Remember, you’re not giving him a command, you’re giving advice,” Cohen said. “He has a problem, and you’re helping him to solve that problem.”
Next Cohen asked Saar to sit on the floor and stroke Finn slowly, from nose to tail. After the dog lay flat, Cohen instructed Saar to place her right hand on Finn’s chest, directly above his lungs, and breathe in time with her dog.
“I think he just needs a little more security that he’s safe, that he doesn’t have to try as hard to get attention,” Cohen said. “You can communicate a real attachment here.”
After a few tries, Saar laid her hands on the right spot. The room immediately fell silent. Finn’s head fell to the floor. He yawned. Even with three visitors standing nearby, Finn, the excitable labradoodle, nearly fell asleep.
After a few minutes, Saar removed her hand. Finn stood up. He was calm and attentive, a different dog entirely.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s fabulous. Are you amazed by this?” Saar said to Cohen. “I’m amazed.”