“What if there are no bad dogs?” Dog behavior specialist Matt Beisner, star of Nat Geo WILD’s Dog: Impossible, poses a question he already knows the answer to–there aren’t. “If that’s true, it puts us in a mindset of consideration.”
This is the philosophy behind Beisner’s practice, THE ZEN DOG, a revolutionary training and education facility for dogs in downtown Los Angeles. As its popularity spread, Beisner realized he could help countless more dogs by sharing his methods on television.
I was delighted to get the chance to speak with Beisner, who, in spite of all his success and fame, remains remarkably humble and focused on the dogs.
A Dog Trainer Starts Like Many Dogs–With A Second Chance
AMANDA: Thank you for taking the time to speak with DogTime. Your work is amazing. How did all this start for you?
MATT: In hindsight, it started with me getting a second chance, myself. I grew up afraid and learned temporary—but self-destructive—ways to self-soothe. Did you know 90 percent of aggression in dogs is due to fear? There’s a direct parallel with me and those dogs.
Years later, after I got sober and clean, I found myself living with someone who had a little black terrier, Kingston. He was eight or nine months, give or take. I was already afraid of dogs, because I was bitten by one as a kid on Halloween.
Kingston was aggressive. I’d get up, and he’d attack me, or he’d attack me for my food. But I saw something in Kingston that reminded me of myself—and I wanted to help him. He deserved a second chance like I had.
Helping Kingston literally got me out of the house, got me out of my own head.
Here I thought I was helping him, and he was helping me at the same time. I realized, with him and with all dogs—if I make it about what the dog needs, my life is going to change for the better.
We started to build the bond by me talking to him. I had to get quiet—had to practice detachment. I had to look differently, not at what he wanted but at what he needed. Earn the trust, and the love is actionable.
If I solely lead with love, I don’t totally trust him and he doesn’t respect me when I need him to. That’s where any number of dog parents are, with unwanted behavior—chewing, barking, etc.
A Different Approach To Dog Training
AMANDA: How is what you do different from others?
MATT: I’m not an animal behaviorist—more loosely, a dog trainer. I call myself a dog behavior specialist, and what I do is evaluate what the dog’s daily living is like and how best to reach them. I want to teach them how to behave and think positively for themselves, rather than relying on commands.
For a long time, there were basically two camps of dog training: aversive–which includes “dominance” theories, alpha rolls, choke chains, prong collars and intentional physical corrections of dogs; prove that you’re the “alpha.” The other camp was positive reinforcement, generally focused on behavior modification through the use of clickers and treats.
I have worked within both approaches. I no longer subscribe to the aversive methods, nor do I rely on the positive reinforcement technique, specifically as it pertains to the use of treats and clickers.
My work is based off of experience, backed by sound science and dog-training communities—I think that’s important for all trainers.
I’m here to help dogs and be part of that community.
I am most interested in helping humans change their dogs’ behavior by changing their relationship with their dogs. My aim is that all interactions are built on respect first, then trust, then love.
Rewarding Good Behavior Without Treats
AMANDA: Can you tell me more about the way you use these philosophies?
MATT: We’ve been domesticating dogs for 15,000 years. A lot of people focus way too much on asserting their “alpha” role—it’s already ingrained into dogs’ brains due to domestication.
I think it’s better to work with the dog’s natural behavior—reinforce a dog’s self-induced calm with respect.
Part of that respect includes paying attention even to how you give affection.
Never touch a dog without their permission. You can tell what this means based on how they’re reacting—do they have a mixed reaction, like they’re enjoying the petting but also worked up?When and how we give affection is how we’ve changed dogs’ behavior over last decade more than anything else.
The evidence is empirical. Recent studies show that the rewards centers in dogs’ brains fire more for their humans’ attention than anything else—and that is great for us to work with.
So while I may not rely on treats for positive reinforcement, I am sure to praise a dog for making a good decision. All of this reinforces three simple things for the dog: One, you can calm yourself down completely; Two, I’ll respect your space; Three, you’ll be rewarded for being able to do this.
AMANDA: That’s really neat. You seem to place a lot of agency on the dog.
MATT: Exactly. If I tell the dog to sit, it doesn’t mean they’re calm or that they’d chose to do that themselves.
Verbal commands can make the dogs co-dependent—can make them need the human to dictate when to be calm. Whereas, this rewards/respect method makes the dogs think for themselves and decide to behave well.
AMANDA: That does sound pretty different than typical command training.
MATT: I’m still amazed at the profound simplicity of this approach. It’s teaching more than training—which is important, because teaching is generative.
If you think about experience being taught, there’s generally a desire to share that info with others. The dynamic is different if trained—you can pass it on, but it’s not the same value.
Something that’s inherent in teaching makes it something the dogs can choose. I’ve been thinking about teaching versus training for a long time. I’m not knocking trainers—there are masters who are educated and talented—this is just my particular method.
Correcting Unwanted Behaviors Without Physical Punishment
AMANDA: What do you do when a dog isn’t behaving well?
MATT: I never use physical corrections—I think that’s disrespectful.
I have no problem raising my voice to stop a dog if he’s about to do something dangerous. As soon as the dog pauses that behavior, give immediate praise.
Dogs understand up to 240 words, but they get a lot from tone, too.
Sometimes all you need to do to break a dangerous chain of thought is to clap, hiss, or make some other noise.
If your dog is having a problem with something, it’s probably just too much too soon. They don’t get used to the trigger—they just get used to the Pavlovian association, adrenaline—they can’t get themselves out of the self-perpetuating loop.
For instance, if your dog is hyper and barks a lot—wait to engage her till she looks like she’s going to take a nap. Watch your tone; higher pitch and higher volume ramps her up. Give her praise that allows her to stay that calm. Don’t respond to her or give her affection until she’s so calm she looks like she’s going to take a nap. Eventually, this should break that cycle of triggered response.
AMANDA: That makes a lot of sense; I’ll have to try it!
Training THE ZEN DOG Way
AMANDA: Can you take me through what a typical training and education program looks like for your canine clients?
MATT: I start with a full in-home session for all the dogs I see. I need to see what their everyday life and environment are like. There may be elements the owners don’t even think to tell me about. I’m never judgmental—I just need to know what we’re working with to have the best success.
There are five key elements I focus on in the home: feeding; walking; front door environment/response; dog off the bed–this gets really emotional for some owners, but it’s key to establishing respect; and demonstrating what appropriate/respectful affection looks like.
These five simple things can change the dog’s behavior immediately.
After that, we work on socialization at THE ZEN DOG facility. These sessions in-home are usually two and a half to three hours, and at our facility are usually one and a half to two hours.
Because a filming day is usually seven hours, it’s too much to ask of the dogs all at once, so we broke down the film days into shorter three- to four-hour sessions. Some dogs are more challenging than others, but typically, even with really dangerous dogs, you’re only going to need two sessions: in-home and walking/socialization at their place.
Regular, consistent socialization here in our facility where we can help their dog be more “dog” is helpful, after that. What’s happening in home, with other dogs, and on walks—those three things handle most of what people are concerned about, regardless of the depth of their behavior concern.
It’s a general sense of security and calm for the dog—and it gets a lot easier to isolate the specific concerns–garbage trucks, isolation, etc.
Dealing With Dog Triggers
AMANDA: You mentioned some triggers that upset some dogs, like isolation and garbage trucks. How do you scale that down?
MATT: The general philosophy is to change the nature of the energy and relationship with the dog–For example, and primarily, giving affection at the appropriate time.
If we look at the scene or event, then we break it down into small bits. For instance, if the garbage truck picking up the cans is the event that triggers the dog, where is the dog on the anxiety scale, from one to ten? Where does the dog cross the threshold–the state of anxiety where they can’t be reached by talking to them, by giving food, etc.?
My job is to deal with the threshold, not the event–the garbage truck. If the dog is at a five, I specifically work at one to five, not one to ten.
When I hear the garbage truck coming and I see her ears perk up, I make a connection with her before she escalates too high: praise her, have a conversation, etc., so she never gets up to that anxiety.
Break the focus that makes her anxious, then praise her for staying calm.
Keep reinforcing the calm on her anxiety scale—try to reach her closer and closer to the event so she needs less and less interference.
A Week In The Life
AMANDA: What does a typical week look like for you, and how has that changed over the years?
MATT: Nowadays, a typical week includes two to three days at THE ZEN DOG facility—there’s a lot of admin and owner stuff to do. Today, I got to be in the yard with the staff and dogs—which is great, because it keeps me fresh and teaching.
If what I’m teaching can’t be passed on, then it doesn’t have much value besides an interesting isolated idea. The generativity comes into play every day with the dogs.
I’m also helping dogs in people’s homes two to three times a week, two to three times a day.
We’ve had THE ZEN DOG facility in downtown LA. Before that, THE ZEN DOG was working solely in people’s homes for five to six years. I’ve been teaching in people’s homes for the last decade.
Nat Geo WILD’s Dog: Impossible offered an opportunity for us to show something on a global scale. It also presented me with the interesting challenge of formatting my teaching into something accessible and transferable for people to learn over the medium of a TV show.
There’s a 100-person wait list for THE ZEN DOG right now, so I was really happy to be able to share my methods on that global scale to help others, even if they can’t make it to our facility.
I know that what we do is so simple that it can help others, even without them meeting me in-person. Also, the arc of the show shows the full cycle of teaching, which is helpful.
AMANDA: That must be really rewarding.
Dog: Impossible Shows What’s Possible
AMANDA: How involved were you with the direction of the show?
MATT: I got to be involved in editing and with notes. The arcs of the transformations are real.
The arc has to fit into 45 minutes, but it could be three hours. I’m willing to trade that off to represent the spirit of what we do here.
AMANDA: What are you hoping the show will accomplish?
MATT: I’m hoping to show people there is hope—I want people to know they’re not alone. Transformative life experiences are possible by giving dogs what they need.
There’s no limitation to how we can help our dogs. I hope that’s what this show achieves.
The framework that there’s no “impossible dog” is really important—it sets the tone to show every dog can be helped. The idea of changing the consideration for your animals can make you talk to them differently.
Part of my hope is that as this show expands, I will have the opportunity to talk to the people who most disagree with me so we can find where we meet and where we can help dogs better.
Helio, A Pit Bull Transformed
AMANDA: Tell me about one of your most profound transformations, one that has really stayed with you.
MATT: The first time I met Helio, a Pit Bull rescue, he went for my neck–thankfully, his savvy owner had him muzzled.
His ferocity was bested only by his dog-mom’s tenacity. She. Never. Ever. Ever. Gave up on him.
Helio helped break me of myself. He fundamentally shaped THE ZEN DOG. He was more dangerous than most–he scared me more than any. Each session was like a meditation in how to perform heart surgery with a hand tremor.
But because there are no bad dogs, he got—and deserved—so much of our respect, trust and love.
In time, Helio became gloriously free: running like a banshee in the yard, gums bared in a grin, teeth chomping, spinning out every dog who thought they’d come to play. He NEVER hurt a dog. Though he wasn’t for everybody, if he was for you, it was for life.
My pit bull rescue, Daeja Blu, loved him immediately and forever. She never could catch him.
Helio was diagnosed with congenital heart disease not long ago. His once proud body was now lifted mostly by his spirit. Helio’s mom brought him to our facility recently so those of us who knew him could say good-bye.
When I saw him Helio and I ran to each other. He wagged gently while I held him, told him how proud I was, how grateful I am and how much I loved him. I just cried and he just smiled. When Daeja Blu tried to get him to play, he only grinned wisdom.
I can’t thank Helio enough for what he taught me. He was an “impossible dog” who did the “Dog: Impossible.”
AMANDA: That is a beautiful story.
What About The Dogs Who Get A Bad Rap?
AMANDA: Why do you think people have such a prejudice against Pit Bulls?
MATT: No dog is just born bad. We know breeds have certain skill sets.
I’m not a magician—if a dog arrives with a certain trauma, it makes things difficult for the dogs. Because Pits, Rottweilers, etc., have certain skill sets–of strength, especially–they’re going to be used for certain things, bred by certain breeders—and introduced to certain traumas by certain owners.
Selective breeding is clearly changing dogs’ wiring for behavior. Those are things we have to take into consideration.
Some people will use that as a rationale that Pit Bulls shouldn’t live. Others take accountability of what humans have been doing for the last 15,000 years and see their responsibility to give dogs a proper environment without abuse and violence.
I’m actually hopeful about the public’s mindset—movies are featuring Pit Bulls, and dog-rescuing has become popular. Typically, Chihuahua and Pit mixes get put down first.
What’s challenging is the ignorance around it; the unwillingness to have a conversation about it.
What If There Are No Bad Dogs?
AMANDA: So you think all dogs can be helped?
MATT: I’ve never seen what we do not work—every single dog we’ve met has been helped.
I’ve seen dogs need more time, and I’ve seen owners not put the work in, and I’ve seen not great fits of owners and dogs, but our baseline is, if you can calm yourself down, you can make better choices—we can provide that for dogs.
It’s really important for me to demonstrate the ability and willingness to meet people where they’re at. What’s the thing I don’t know here that would make me of better service to the animal?
I don’t care about what your criminal or political history is, etc.—just want to focus on how to help the dog.
I can look at the situation of a dog on death row and analyze, based on science and experience, and say whether I think a dog is safe to go into a home–I know what that can mean [having to put them down or send them somewhere else], and I don’t take it lightly.
Don’t just take my word for it—do your own research—but there’s plenty of dogs for whom that [home life] didn’t work and can still find happy life somewhere else.
Where Does It All Go Next?
AMANDA: This work you do sounds like it would be a perfect fit with shelters. Do you have a partnership with any?
MATT: I’m really interested in doing work with shelters—we are exploring it. One of the benefits of having the show is it gives us different visibility and reach. We’ve started conversations with some groups we’d like to have partnership with.
We’d like to help dogs within the shelter system, before they even go home and need help after being home.
There are so many pivotal points for the dog in the arc of their life. If we can reach them at those stages, we can do something we’ve never done before—change the conversation and see the dogs and each other in a different way.
AMANDA: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing these amazing principles and experiences. Is there anything you’d like to add before we go?
MATT: I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not here to end the conversation, but I’m here to start it.
I think there’s no such thing as a bad dog, that every dog can improve. I think every dog deserves a second chance, and I’m here to help.