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Supporting Dog Trainer Sanzone Helping Veterans, Is It a Mistake?


I’m sad, personally hurt that after nearly two decades of enthusiastically and single-mindedly supporting what’s been now coined “positive training techniques” and not being afraid to speak out about aversive and I believe archaic techniques – that according to some – overnight I’ve transformed.

There are many examples just Google. What isn’t ‘Googleable’ is how I personally stood up to the National Geographic Channel and Cesar Millan’s production people, even when they threatened to sue me.

Talk about public pressure – I received more hate mail – even from my “fans.” There could be no denying Cesar Millan’s popularity, especially several years back. With all that, I never wavered.

Millan aside….I’ve always been a supporter of clicker training, and any methods which benefits the human/animal bond. I’ve pointed out publicly that aggression begets further aggression, etc.

One legendary behaviorist once called me the behind-the-scenes catalyst of positive training….while others communicated to the professionals about positive techniques, I was out there interpreting to the general public – over and over again, year after year, and starting before the concept was politically embraced. Indeed I was made fun of (some the parodies quite funny).

Of course, I wasn’t alone. Many have been communicating to the public about positive techniques for a very long time, much longer than I’ve been around.

What is true is that over the past 18 years – since I’ve been writing my national pet columns and through a variety of other venues, including radio shows, and even TV appearances, and this blog – I’ve reached more pet owners than anyone else in the media overall.

All that said – overnight, I’ve apparently transformed into a “bad guy” because I’m supporting an event held by a Chicago dog trainer seeking to assist U.S. Veterans. And all sorts of assumptions are being made….One note written to me by a trainer said that she that will no longer be recommending my columns. So my columns that were yesterday accurate no longer are? But that’s what I’m getting and worse!

I’ve received hate mail about all this – by “professionals” – or people who say they are – but don’t sign their names. Yet, maintain in their diatribes they are positive trainers. Do you possibly see the contradiction here? Whoa – these folks may be positive with dogs, but they certainly aren’t with people.

Well, with absolute transparency – here’s what happened. And in all honesty, I am not sure about what to do about it.

Several months ago I received a phone call from an animal rescuer, who has a great track record of doing good work. With good intent, she told me about a trainer named Toriano Sanzone, who then needed some PR to help out U.S. Veterans.

I didn’t know Toriano. In fact, I had never heard of him. But the idea certainly appealed to me. I said I would speak to him, and I did.

I will say after going to his website, noting that he calls himself “the Wolfkeeper” (a choice which conjures an image which is inaccurate and a very different image of how I think of dogs), and watching a Toriano made video of a dog sitting uncomfortably on a fire hydrant (that dog’s signaling was clear – he  wasn’t thrilled about sitting there), I wasn’t comfortable either. I asked Toriano lots of questions. He answered, acceptably.

Was Toriano was telling me what he guessed I wanted to hear, or the truth – to be truthful with you. I now don’t know.

But anyone who knows me, knows I like promoting events which save lives, and support the human/animal bond. His event, called 14 DDV – is about taking Pit Bull type dogs, demonstrating they can be trained, and then giving these dogs (free) to deserving U.S. Veterans. He assured me – and I did ask, about how the dogs would be trained. Indeed, they are being trained in a very public way. Would I be there to watch him train? No. But I believed him.

So, I went ahead and interviewed him in a WGN Radio Petcast. LISTEN HERE, and judge for yourself.

You can tell, I had “issues” with some of what he said….but then I don’t agree with everything that everyone says, how many of us do?

Many weeks went by….and Toriano began to train the 14 dogs. I mentioned 14DDV in a recent blog post; and that I plan to broadcast live this coming Saturday (July 14) and that is when word began to spread on lists and Facebook pages. Old videos of Toriano’s began to surface and simultaneously current videos, and I became – in some places – the object of attacks (even more than Toriano, which is interesting).

In Toriano’s defense – how many trainers have old videos (if there were YouTube back then) that would make you cringe?

On the other hand – maybe he does have the wool pulled over my eyes. I don’t  know.

This video, for example, disturbs me.

I am not going to dissect every detail here….And if you’re a dog trainer you likely know exactly why I am squirming as I watch.

So what do I do?

I never endorsed Toriano, by the way, or his methods….I have endorsed the idea of what this event is supposed to be about. That is all….Toriano listed me on his website as endorsing the event – clearly I should be more careful, when I nonchalantly tell people sure.  I am also nice, and do ask for endorsements often of this or that….I also try to be careful. Perhaps, not careful enough.

I am aware this is a PR gimmick, and that Toriano is out there for media attention….but I also believe that Toriano is sincere about wanting to help veterans and also wanting to help re-brand dogs called Pit Bulls.

Few could argue – pairing dogs with veterans (at no fee) is a great thing, and that Pit Bull looking dogs do require canine ambassadors. And also, for these dogs, they were destined to be euthanized.

By the way, he is not training dogs to be overnight (or in 14 days) service dogs….though that may be the ultimate goal. At least to my knowledge.

And that what will happen more immediately is that dogs can pass an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizens test in 14 days. There many who don’t believe Pit Bull type dogs can do any such thing just because of how they look, and I love the idea that he will demonstrate otherwise.

I don’t spend a lot of time in ‘the hood,’ and I suspect most who are highly critical of me don’t either. Let’s be honest – saying that dog trainers in certain neighborhoods are under-represented is an under-statement. In many neighborhoods, trainers don’t exist – not a single one.

On lists and email to me – people have said this is being done all the time in the inner city for veterans. Really?

Do I have some issues with some of the videos I’ve seen, absolutely?

One issue I am actually concerned about is what we don’t see – these dogs are presumably living in crates in kennels outdoors when not being trained. Well it’s been about 90 to 100 degrees in Chicago for much of those 14 days. I assume, he’s had a method to keep the dogs cool. Are they being brought indoor into air conditioning when they’re not being trained? I don’t know. Are these dogs being watched overnight – I think he said they are – not sure.

Are the dogs – presumably skittish from what I’ve seen – being overtly abused (assuming they’re being kept cool), the answer is no by all accounts. Is there a better way, seems – from what I’ve seen – absolutely!

So, what do I do?

I know that I don’t love everything Toriano is doing.

I received all sorts of email about Toriano using electronic collars, which he says he doesn’t, and colleagues in Chicago confirm. But if it’s on the Internet, it’s gotta be true, right?  That is one example, there are many other reports perpetuated on the Internet, which in Toriano’s defense are likely not true.

I also know that at least he’s there. Even if his methods are hardly considered ‘perfect’ by judgmental people like me – if he wasn’t there, well, then no one would be. Is Toriano – and others like him in other cities open to education and open dialogue. I don’t know. But maybe that should be the first option.

Maybe instead of hollering at me – Toriano can be reached, and agreement made about methods – and energy could be expended about rescuing more dogs.

Back to my question – what do I do from here? I’m not sure to be honest. The only question is whether or not to broadcast from the event on Saturday….where I would at least have opportunity to continue my conversation with Toriano on topics, such as his training methods, and also educate some city officials, such as Alderman Walter Burnett, who is expected to be there. I tend to always like the idea of open dialogue. And praising what I do like….

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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