Pat Whitacre

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.

ameliapatPat 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.

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  • Thank you for sharing this wonderful tribute. I imagine Mr. Whitacre might be pleased to know that even now, he is still teaching people about dogs (me for one, after reading this post).

  • Oh no I met Pat at Best Friends in 2009! Rest in peace Pat and thanks John for this tribute. I can’t believe he passed. 

  • We also shared a good laugh when I was at Best Friends with him as he said his first dog was named Trudy:) 

  • Thanks, John, for putting into words so many of us who knew and loved Pat cannot.  I had forgotten that he always said the reward was all to often what we thought it should be, and that we had to understand what the dog truly wanted.  I know that Pat had a huge welcoming committee when he arrived and that he is strolling through the beautiful place called heaven, surrounded by the souls he has shown such gentle patience and love. 

  • Very nicely said.  Hell of a guy he was.

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  • Connie Chambers

    I met Pat several years ago when I was volunteering at Best Friends.  He sought me out because he heard I lived with 14 cats and marveled at my patience.  I was touched by his sincerity, his gentle manner, his humor, his kindness… I could go on and on.  I wish I had gotten to know him better.  I was stunned and deeply saddened to learn of his death.  I will never forget him.

  • So true and warmly said.

  • Pat was a man without measure, a true North Star for all.

  • A beautiful tribute to a special person.  I met Pat briefly when I visited Best Friends for the first time.  I watched as he and Tamara conducted a temperament test on one of the new dogs at the sanctuary.  I was struck then — and every time I saw him — by his gentle spirit and easy, respectful way with the dogs.  I did not know him except from afar, but his quiet way could fill a room.  The fields over the Bridge are surely crowded with his many friends who were there to welcome him.   

  • Beautiful tribute, I really enjoyed reading this and believe I learned something about dogs just in reading this so his legacy is continuing to live on!

  • CaryDickey

    Pat was the best canine behaviorist that I have had the privilege to work with. I used his basic training techniques to train the dogs at Pets Alive. They were simple and they produced positive results. He was always there for me when I had a particular problem training a specific dog. In my opinion, he is the best teacher of simple and basic dog training techniques that I have ever had! He taught me that training methods need not be complicated to train dogs and get positive results. His most important message was to think about the dog’s needs, not mine, when training a dog. I will miss him!

  • We are so sorry for the loss of such a great and special man. Although  I have not personally had the privledge of meeting Pat but I have watched some of the great things he has done. Please know that he is with lost loved ones and running with the dogs thru beatuful meadow.  Sincerely  Janet

  • Mary Kathan

    This was a very nice memorial to Pat.

    I only knew him from a class I took at Best Friends, but I remember how amazed I was at how he was with the dogs.

    I believe he was one of those gifted people who was doing the exact work that he was created to do.

    I really liked your stories about his training.