The dog world suffered a tremendous loss with the unexpected passing of Pat Whitacre, Pets Alive’s canine behaviorist. I worked with him at Best Friends and at Pets Alive and although I did not know him well he was one of the most spectacularly talented people I have ever met as well as being kind and modest and utterly brilliant.
Pat helped so many dogs that I would have thought were beyond redemption. He had an incredibly calm and kind manner and seemed to understand them on a basic level that not many of us ever get to. He saw things in a different way, could break complex training into the simplest of steps, and possessed a bottomless well of patience and understanding for animals. He was, to put it simply, a genius with dogs.
He taught me so much about dogs, and he taught me to slow down. Think simple. Move slowly. Be patient. Watch carefully.
I remember a few years ago a dog came into Pets Alive named Amelia. Amelia was literally a junkyard dog, grossly undersocialized and afraid of people. Before she had come to Pets Alive her litter had been mostly killed by junkyard workers and stray dogs and she was highly aggressive to anyone who came near her, protecting her one remaining puppy.
At Pets Alive no one could get near her. No one could touch her. She wouldn’t respond to any offer of kindness, of reward. I and others spent hours at a time trying to figure out something, anything to motivate her. I offered her all sorts of food, deli meats and cheeses. I took naps in her outdoor run on a dog bed hoping that she might become accustomed to my presence. She wouldn’t come near me or let me get near her, and I couldn’t find anything to motivate her.
Pat later came to Pets Alive to work with her. Within a few short days he had her on a leash, then relaxing on a bed and riding in cars and enjoying affection from people. Soon she would bound happily towards a person who came to the door of her pen with a leash and was showing affection to people she knew – and a few months later, she was adopted.
When I saw Pat again I asked him how in the world he first connected with her: what did he have to offer her? What was the reward? What did she want? He explained that what she wanted most when she first met him was for him to go away, so he did. He stuck a paperback book in his pocket and when he wanted to reward her for a behavior, he left and sat outside and read for a few minutes. That’s how he started working with her.
So simple, so brilliant, and never occurred to any of us to try. He also said something (that I would hear him say often) that I try to remember anytime I work with a difficult dog: a reward is something a dog wants, not something we think they should want. I come back to that all the time – sometimes when I’m working with a dog I can almost hear him saying it in my head.
Pat also worked miracles with Cam, one of the only dogs I have ever been mortally terrified of. Cam was so dangerous that when Pat started working with him, Cam had to work for every piece of kibble, which was delivered to him through a large funnel stuck through the side of a chain link kennel for safety. Cam is now a happy-go-lucky guy with many friends including children and a frequent target of a certain volunteer who likes to dress him up in costumes, which he tolerates good-naturedly. He’s incredibly smart and responsive and affectionate and knows many tricks – I taught him to jump up and grab a treat held between my teeth on cue. He is an amazing dog, and were it not for Pat I don’t know that any of us ever would have known it.
Those are just two cases that stick out in my mind of dogs helped by this incredible man. His loss will be felt by all of us that knew him but the pack that now greets him at the bridge will be incredibly large and amazingly grateful.
The announcement of Pat’s passing on the Pets Alive blog has become a gathering place for his friends and if you have a word or a story to share I encourage you to leave a comment there.