Mark Vette – the dog zen master
Dogs aren’t just Mark Vette’s job, they are his love, his family and his passion.
It’s no wonder then that when we call him, Mark answers the phone with ex-SPCA rescue dog Monty sitting at his feet. Monty, a giant schnauzer cross, is one of the hundreds of dogs Mark has rehabilitated in his 40-year career as an animal behaviourist, zoologist and trainer. Monty’s also famous for learning to drive a car!
A love for dogs from a young age
Mark’s love affair for dogs started when he was just six years old with Scott, his german shepherd dog and best friend. Mark and Scott spent their days exploring the ‘wild forests’ of West Auckland, and every night sleeping on Mark’s bed. But Scott had some behaviour issues.
He would chase chickens, bite people and run away. “I learnt very quickly what it was like to be faced with a dog that caused havoc in your life,” Mark says. Mark swore he would one day find out what made Scott tick, and with the help of his grandfather, a dog trainer in the Second World War, began his journey to become a world-renowned animal behaviourist and trainer.
When Mark went to live amongst and study wolves in North America 40 years ago, his passion for dogs was ignited further. He wondered why dogs showed toned-down wolf behaviours, or why a wolf could never live in a family environment whereas a dog could. Mark learnt about the evolution of dogs, and how and when they began to contribute to our lives.
Eventually he would go on to help thousands of dogs just like Scott, his german shepherd. “I have had the great fortune to spend my life with wolves and dogs,” Mark says. “I have an enormous amount of respect for their intelligence, and for our unique bond with these remarkable beings.”
Transforming dogs with troubled pasts
Over the last 40 years, Mark has truly proved that dogs are smart enough to do almost anything. As well as teaching giant schnauzer Monty to drive a car, Mark has even taught a dog to fly a plane! Labrador cross Reggie was in an animal shelter, suffering from dog to-dog aggression and an unhealthy obsession with toys.
Mark was Reggie’s last chance. Today, Reggie is not only a pilot, but is a muchloved member of Mark’s family. Mark is also well known for his lead in the TV show Purina Pound Pups to Dog Stars, and training animals for TV shows and Hollywood movies such as Lord of the Rings, Narnia and The Last Samurai. But Mark doesn’t just train dogs for the entertainment industry.
His specialty is taking dogs from backgrounds of abuse and neglect and transforming them into happy and healthy family pets. And he’s been on hand to help SPCA staff with dogs who are suffering psychologically. In one high-profile case, SPCA inspectors rescued a large number of dogs from a hoarding situation. They were suffering from extreme anxiety which affected their ability to live a normal life. Mark and his team took seven of these dogs into their care, rehabilitated them, and eventually found them loving homes. “Mark Vette is someone who we depend on a lot for help and advice,” says SPCA animal services manager, Tracy Dunn.
He also runs workshops with SPCA staff and foster parents to help with consistent methods of dog training, animal handling and upskilling. This training and knowledge is then passed onto the new owner of that dog to help them fit into their brand-new life with ease.
The most important tip for dog owners
There’s one thing that Mark consistently refers to when it comes to owning a dog: prevention is better than cure.
This means doing the right thing at the right time during the first four months of your puppy’s life – known as the ‘formative period’. These beginning developmental stages play a key role in teaching the puppy how to adjust to novel environments or situations. When a dog is young, they are in a natural learning state. They are naïve, not yet fearful of the world, and eager to learn.
“Dog owners need to understand how critical this formative period is,” says Mark. “You are responsible for exposing your puppy to novel things, and adjusting them to diversity.” He explains that if you don’t introduce your dog to different people, animals, situations and objects as simple as umbrellas at a young age, fear-based aggression and malsocialisation could develop as a result. On the other hand, if a puppy is consistently socialised during that formative period, Mark says they will become a wellrounded, happy and trustworthy dog.
Alot of dogs Mark has helped at the SPCA have missed out on this critical formative period. However, he stresses there is still hope.
SPCA rescue and driving dog Monty was suffering from many behavioural issues when Mark first met him. “Little did we know that underlying Monty’s mischievous face was a complex bundle of issues masking his real talent,” says Mark. “With love and therapy, he has become an intelligent, fun-loving dog. Joy and love ooze from every pore and his karate-like tail is in constant wag motion.”
In order to solve any behavioural issues that might have formed as a result of missing the formative period, you need to take an adult dog back to the start and re-establish their foundations, Mark says. “This involves understanding what a dog’s learning state is, and how to switch it on. It is very likely that your dog is not in a learning state when they are exhibiting problems.” A ‘learning state’ is when the dog is relaxed, focused and able to learn. They are not in a flight-fright state so are able to process the information you are trying to communicate. Signs that indicate your dog is in a learning state include attention to you, eye contact and – the most easily recognised one – taking training treats. Dogs in a nonlearning state usually have dilated pupils, are panting, show behaviour issues like fearfulness, aggression and hyperactivity, and are outwardly focused or distracted.”
“By understanding when your dog is learning, you will be able to understand the most effective time to quickly teach your dog new behaviours or correct undesirable ones,” says Mark.
Mark’s ‘big idea’
The goal for Mark’s new book, Dog Zen, is to fulfil what he calls his ‘big idea’ – a 10-year vision to eliminate dog behaviour problems in the community. In order to achieve this goal, Mark wants New Zealanders to understand the fundamental importance of the formative period in the puppy’s life and the need for a harmonious bond built on a shared language between dog and owner.
“Dogs have their own culture and ways of communicating; they don’t understand our language until we teach them,” Mark explains. “There are many things in the human world that dogs don’t understand, such as cars are dangerous or aggression is inappropriate. Having a shared language is critical to enable us to articulate to our dogs what it is we want from them, and how we will keep them safe.”
But this shared language also involves understanding how your dog is communicating to you – for example, what their postures and gestures mean, and what it means to both us and them. “It’s our responsibility as the owner to develop this wonderful repertoire with our dog. We need to understand the way they perceive things so we can adjust the way we communicate,” says Mark.
In Dog Zen, Mark says the first and most important stage in building a harmonious bond with a dog is ‘joining up,’ which is one of his primary signature techniques that he has developed over the last 40 years. It’s based on the innate ‘follower response’ where the pup naturally follows the mother and helpers in the pack, and is the basis of establishing this critical bond. It can also help re-establish this harmonious bond in an adult dog that might have missed this in their formative period. “Building a harmonious bond, forming a shared language, and understanding how dogs learn will enable you to communicate with your dog in a way they can understand, and guide them through life as their mentor,” says Mark.
Mark will continue to pursue his big idea of elimintating dog aggression. He continues to work with the SPCA and local councils to help educate the community, assist rescue dogs to adjust from their past, both in the shelter and in their new home, and make sure consistent training methods are being used across the country. “Approximately 80% of aggression stems from lack of socialisation in the formative period. We are trying to get the essence of this big idea out there, and to get everyone invested in it,” says Mark. “To truly love our dogs, we need to understand them.”