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The dog whisperer

Hans Schlegel, the dog whisperer (picture: Hans Schlegel)

It would be tempting to dismiss as mad a man who had lived in the wild with a pack of wolves and claimed to be able to listen to what dogs tell him about their owners. But Hans Schlegel is one of the most respected dog trainers in the world.

Police forces around the world are using the skills of Schlegel, who says he has a unique way of training the animals based on his ability to communicate with them.

His record is testimony to his success. At least 6,000 dogs are brought to his Wolfsprung Kennels in northern Switzerland for training every year, and Schlegel estimates he has trained about 100,000 animals worldwide since 1989.

In an interview with swissinfo, he said he had no objection to being called a "dog whisperer" after the character in Nicholas Evans' best-selling book - "The Horse Whisperer" - who could treat temperamental horses simply by talking to them.

He says he understands the animals and listens to what they tell him - especially what they say about their owners.

"I can communicate with the animal without words, just movement and motion. I can tell a problem animal, like an aggressive dog. Actually, he tells me what the problem is with the human being," Schlegel said.

He said he was taught to work with animal energy by a Native American in the United States, and believes everybody is capable of learning the skill.

"You have to open yourself to the animal. Every person has the ability to do this, but they don't because they are unsure," he said.

Schlegel said another key experience in learning to understand canines was the 18 months he spent living in the wild with a pack of wolves. He said this period was crucial in helping him develop his training method for dogs.

"You can see all over the world that people don't understand animals anymore, especially working dogs," Schlegel said.

People typically use rewards like sausages or cookies to instil obedience, but the Schlegel method is different. He says praise, affection and fun activities are much more effective.

"The wolves taught me to train dogs using motion or movement. At the end of any exercise, there needs to be praise for good work, like 'good boy'. And this is a communication from my heart to the animal. That's much higher than a sausage for the dog," Schlegel said.

The problem with tangible rewards as a means of training dogs, Schlegel says, is that as soon as the sausage is withdrawn, the animal stops listening.

He says police dogs have traditionally received the worst training, based on negative feedback. They were beaten if they did anything wrong, rather than praised if they succeeded.

Police dogs were also trained to hunt down criminals and attack them. Under the Schlegel method, they are taught, first through games, to trace criminals, and then wait for the police to arrive and deal with them.

Schlegel says one of the worst examples of bad police dog training was in South Africa. Last year, footage of German Shepherds attacking blacks trying to enter the country illegally was broadcast around the world.

Schlegel, who is heading their police dog training scheme, said he was appalled by the images. After inspecting the police dogs, he realised they had been trained to attack black people and had been beaten and ill-treated.

He runs training programmes for police forces in the United States, Korea and almost all European countries. He spends up to three months per year training in the US.

But most of his work, which includes training family pets, is carried out at his 60,000 square metres centre in Gansingen. The Wolfsprung Kennels are not just the temporary home to hundreds of dogs in training, but also to seven wolves and Schlegel's own 45 dogs.

by Samantha Tonkin


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