A dog is a man’s best friend – until they’re yapping and snarling at him. Over time, the gentlest spaniel can turn sour, and the tiniest pomeranian go potty. When Phnom Penh’s dog owners are left at a loss by their hairy friends barking and biting they call Will Barton, 34, aka ‘the dog whisperer’. At home in England, Will trained problem dogs at an animal shelter and rehabilitated them, helping them to find new families. He moved to Cambodia 18 months ago and his clients include ambassadors and brewery managers. Julius Thiemann learned how to stop a furry friend from going feral.
1. How do you whisper to dogs?
Everybody calls me the dog whisperer, but I don’t call myself that: I train dogs. If you really want to train the dog, you have to stop being its friend but become its leader. A dog knows everything. If you say every week, “Hey my boy, please come here,” the dog thinks: “Man, you don’t really mean it so why should I listen to you?” You have to say the commands with a lot of force and meaning because when dogs dominate people they are unhappy.
They get nervous when they are in charge and develop aggressive behaviour when they think they have to guard you. When you are in charge, you take all the weight off their shoulders and everything falls into place.
2. Why do dogs become aggressive and bite?
Dogs can be conditioned wrongly. Imagine you have a dog and hit it every time it jumps on the sofa. When you hit the dog it doesn’t put you in charge. When you have a baby, the dog will consider the child below it in the hierarchy. If you then hit the dog when it jumps on the sofa, it will do the same to a baby sitting on the sofa. Dogs can also be scared of being hit and then get aggressive and bite as a last defence. Other dogs are so spoiled and dominant that they do whatever they want.
3. So dogs become difficult because people misunderstand the human-dog relationship?
Yes, in many cases. But people also keep them in apartments that are too small. It’s a huge problem in Phnom Penh. People usually don’t have gardens and there are no open spaces in which dogs can run. I had a client, a woman who had a German shepherd and kept it in the garden for six months. She asked me: “Why is my German shepherd trying to take my head off?” and I asked when she last walked him. She said: “Well, I haven’t.”
The woman was terrified that her dog would bite the street dogs, and I explained to her that the dog would notice that and become terrified too and start biting. So we calmed him down, walked him around the block a few times and the street dogs came and looked but there was no problem.
4. Is there a difference between the human-dog relationship in Cambodia and the West?
I mostly have Western clients but also some Cambodians. The main thing is to discipline the dog so it doesn’t jump or bite you – not to teach it tricks. People will make a fuss and give the dog treats when it shouldn’t get one. In many cases it is easy to train dogs and harder to train clients.
The dog’s behaviour depends on how it sees its master. Westerners tend to understand this better, whereas Cambodians often think that I will take the dog, fix it, and give it back after a few weeks. The dog has to see you as pack leader, otherwise it is not going to work.
5. Handbag dogs like chihuahuas and pugs have become really popular in the West. Are they becoming fashionable here too?
Cambodians seem to really like little fluffy dogs like pomeranians. There is a shop in Street 51 that specialises in pomeranian puppies, and they sell them for $1000 a pup. There is a problem with abandoned puppies here, especially the little fluffy ones that people don’t expect to grow into large dogs. I think many Cambodians are scared of big dogs.
I always notice that when I walk the British Ambassador’s labrador, even though labradors are the most passive dogs.
6. What should a dog owner know and take care of when thinking of having dog in Cambodia?
They should really think about the breed they want to get and what needs they have. I know a woman who got a Siberian husky. It is really cruel to bring a Siberian husky to the tropics: they need to run around in snow. Their hearts and lungs are twice as large as that of normal dogs.
A French bulldog, for example, is an apartment dog. You take it for a short walk and it pants and is really tired. You play with it in the apartment with a ball or balloon and it gets tired – done. But if you brought a spaniel here it would go loopy. Only bring one if you go running with it for two hours every day.
7. Realistically, should expats get a dog in Cambodia, when many leave after a short time?
Having a dog is like having a child. Some of the more transient expat community here get a dog and then leave it behind when they get a new job in a different country. I find that a really worrying attitude.
I get really annoyed when people tell me they got a puppy just because it is cute. A client offered me his dog because I was the only one who could handle him. I’ve had dogs all my life and was very tempted, but I didn’t take it. I don’t have a dog myself because I don’t know for sure if I will be living here long enough to take one on. That is the main thing people should consider.
Will Barton can be reached on 097 914 2236
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]