Kathy Callahan’s ‘Puppy Planet’ asks: What is the culture and language of our furry friends?

Kathy Callahan with a puppy pal and the cover of her new book. If you click on this photo, you will visit the book’s Amazon page. (Photo provided by Kathy for use with coverage of her book.)

‘This book is about empathy for these beings we are welcoming into our homes.’

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

After a lifetime of living with dogs—and a lifetime as a journalist covering religious and cultural diversity—I was surprised by how powerfully these two realms are connected in Welcoming Your Puppy from Planet Dog, a new book by Kathy Callahan.

As the title of her book indicates, Callahan’s unique creative contribution to puppy care is inviting readers to envision these furry new friends into our homes as visitors from another planet. Rather than unruly animals that need to be tamed and trained, these new puppies usually have spent a couple of months in their dog families of origin, instinctively immersed in their own culture. Our budding relationship will go a lot smoother if we spend some time learning to “read” our new puppies’ reactions, “talk” with our furry friends and learn from their “culture.”

“This book is about empathy. These are sentient beings we are welcoming into our homes,” Kathy said in our Zoom interview about her book.

I said, “Well, I am encouraging people to read your book, in part, because it connects these different realms through compassion and careful attention in fresh ways. I’m quite serious about how unique I find your book. In fact, I’ve now purchased three different copies to give to friends and they’re enjoying your book, too.”

“I absolutely love hearing this,” she said. “I hope people will talk about my book with others.”

‘If you want the gift of living with a dog—’

Then, I further explained: “You’re taking our need for cross-cultural awareness—and our even more basic need to really listen and see and learn from the people we meet—and applying that to our dog companions. On one hand, it’s a simple idea; and on another hand, I can’t recall other authors I’ve read articulating this so well. Did I get your message? Am I describing your message fairly?”

“That’s the message,” she said. “Puppies are a population stuck in our society without a lot of choice in the matter—and that’s not working great for a whole lot of dogs. For a whole lot of them, our pre-existing assumptions about them are contributing to them living a less than optimal life. We’re not even aware of that for the most part. We’re just going on about our day until we spot something they’re doing that bugs us and then we’re trying to train them out of doing whatever it is that concerns us.”

I was nodding across our Zoom connection. “And often, people with dogs are gone for long periods—so the dog is alone, perhaps for much of the day and frequently is penned or ‘crated’. It’s not much of a relationship in many cases.”

She agreed. “If you want the gift of living with a dog, you need to learn more about what a dog needs and wants. And the beauty of trying to figure that out is that you’ll find a much deeper relationship with the dog—which is what you dreamed of in the first place when you wanted a dog, right? We need to begin by thinking about what their natural canine needs are.”

In her book, Callahan describes vividly the start of a typical puppy’s life. For many puppies, that involves a couple of months of exploring a warm and wriggling world of other creatures (the mama dog and sibling puppies), mainly by using nose and mouth to explore that world. So, there are a whole lot of puppy behaviors that folks like my wife and I—lifelong veterans of living with dogs—almost immediately want to curb in some way. These behaviors include licking and nibbling and chewing and snuffling around the house and sometimes having “accidents.” Callahan argues that our human responses in trying to “train” puppies often are so misguided that puppies learn lessons we never intended to teach.

One sign of trouble is when puppies begin hiding their behaviors because we, as humans, get so upset when they do lots of things that they feel are quite natural behaviors. And, often, because our reactions can be delayed or directed in a thoughtless way—the messages get muddled. Callahan explains a number of oh-so-common scenarios in which humans—and my wife and I admit we’ve been among those humans—are so eager to “train” that we wind up sending the wrong message.

‘We should be thinking about our relationships with dogs in new ways.’

Callahan has been known in this field for many years and she reminds readers that “dog training” as we think of it in 2024 was not always the norm in the U.S.

“Remember getting a dog in the ’70s?” she asked me. And, we’re both of an age that, yes, we do have vivid memories of the dogs we lived with in that era.

“Oh, the ’70s!” I responded. “Yes, and I remember hearing about the monks of New Skete who were all the rage for their dog training for a while. As a young journalist, I eventually did a feature story on them, because I was so intrigued.”

“But, remember, that was a very specific kind of training they were doing for a particular breed,” she said. “What we understand about the lives of dogs, now, took many years of research. Today, we simply know a lot more than we did back then. And, because we’ve learned so much more, we should be thinking about our relationships with dogs in new ways.

“A lot of what people call ‘dog training’ today still is rooted in assumptions from the 1970s,” Callahan said. “I got my first puppy in 1976 and I was responsible for taking my 6-month-old puppy to training. And it was mean: Big voices and intimidation and yanking on chains and showing dogs who was The Boss. The whole alpha thing came in. If you didn’t dominate your dog, we were warned, then they’re going to dominate you. And eventually this became an explosion of training classes and people started training because they thought they had to.”

I said, “Let me emphasize that you’re not opposed ‘training’—quite the opposite—but you are showing us different perspectives on training. I would say the biggest theme you’re exploring in your book is that forming our relationships with young dogs involves just as much of our own discernment—our learning to ‘read’ our dogs and communicate with them in a compassionate way—as it is making them learn specific behaviors by rote.”

“Yes,” she said. “If you learn how to read your dog, you will discover that you can tell a lot from looking at a dog’s tail, a dog’s ears, a dog’s behavior, whether the dog yawns—there are so many things that a good trainer is noticing in a dog’s behavior that I want readers to begin to understand. Our dogs may not be able to speak English but they are talking all the time if only we are looking for the signals.

“I am not telling readers to give up on training,” she said. “Yes, it is helpful to teach the basics like sit and wait and stay and down. But the most important thing to learn is how to read your dog and support your dog.”

As we discussed the evolution of training in our interview, we talked about various authors and teachers from Ian Dunbar, who broke new ground in puppy research in the 1980s, to Marc Bekoff, an internationally known advocate for taking dogs’ personalities seriously in our relationships with them. Then, we wound up talking about Kim Brophey’s work in recent years, which Callahan credits in her book with providing the concepts behind one of Callahan’s most intriguing chapters, “Narrating Planet Human: Talk to Your Puppy.”

Kim Brophey and ‘The Mister Rogers Hack’

That chapter in Callahan’s book is based on a training concept Brophey pioneered and calls “The Mister Rogers Hack.” Callahan writes about taking one of Brophey’s classes herself:

It turns out that dogs have a receptive language ability on a par with a toddler’s. As Brophey delved into this topic during her week-long course, a light bulb went on for me. I taught preschool before I pivoted to dogs, and I can tell you that while most toddlers can’t articulate their thoughts very well, they understand an astounding percentage of what people say. … So—think about the old show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and that dear man’s reassuring commentary. … That purposeful narration works for dogs too, and Brophey calls it her “Mister Rogers Hack.”

I told Callahan over Zoom, “My wife and I have been using this principle in daily walks recently with our two new puppies. We read your descriptions of key words and phrases to use with pups and we chose some of them to teach our pups. To our surprise, this actually works!”

Callahan laughed, then said, “Yes, it does. Among the many people who have influenced my work, Kim Brophey is No. 1 or No. 2. She’s been using this method for years, but didn’t develop the course in which she teaches this until about five years ago, then she began to teach this to other dog trainers and that’s where I learned about it.

“What happens is that your dogs begin to learn some of these words you’re using to narrate the world around us. The words begin to have an effect over time. As you’re walking around with your dogs, they don’t know what’s coming next—and things that surprise them can make them nervous and do things you don’t want them to be doing. So, we use this language in our walks that helps them to anticipate and understand things we encounter. They become calmer and happier—and we’re happier too.”

One of the most valuable examples in her book’s list of “Mister Rogers” language to use with dogs is the phrase “Fixing it.” If there’s someone in the path of our dog walk who is using l0ud equipment (from a roaring mower to a buzzing lawn edger to a chorus of hammers on a new roof), we say as we approach: “It’s OK! They’re fixing it.” Then, we might repeat this calm reassurance a couple of times as we pass the source of the noise.

As surprised as my wife and I were—this actually has worked with our dogs. We use a half dozen of the terms Callahan teaches in this book and our dog walks now are nearly stress-free and bark-free. Also, our dog walks have taken on a fun, relational feel—actually relating to our dogs as we go.

My wife and I obviously are advocates for Callahan’s new book—but I asked Callahan to describe for us what she hopes readers will find in her book.

“I hope that my message in this book is reassuring,” she said. “I hope people will stop feeling so bad about their frustrations with trying to get what they want in dog training—and pause to think more about how our dogs are perceiving our relationships. I’m really encouraging compassion.

“And I hope there can be a ripple effect any time we encourage compassion. As people who have read this book spend more time thinking about the empathy they can experience with their dogs—that lesson just might spread to the way they relate to their children, their partners, their co-workers and friends. And, if so, that’s a good thing to be doing in the world.”

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Care to learn more?

GET THE BOOKHere’s the link to Amazon, where you will find the book, Welcoming Your Puppy from Planet Dog, is available in Paperback and Kindle.

LEARN MORE ABOUT KATHY at her home online: https://www.puppypicks.com/about-kathy When visiting her website, you also can contact her.

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Comments

  1. Joe Grimm says

    Thanks, Read the Spirit! I have to check this out for gift-giving. This book could be a great gift for my wife, who shows (grooms, breeds) airedale from birth through their golden years. This looks like a fresh angle for her and her dog-showing friends to talk about.

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