When my friend Jane told me about Chris Brookin, whom she called ‘the human dog’, I was intrigued. An animal behaviourist with an alternative take on pooch training, Chris doesn’t believe in trying to teach an old dog new tricks – at least not in any conventional manner.
‘Don’t you mean the canine human?’ I asked.
‘No, I mean the human dog,’ she insisted. ‘He gives advice to people like, “Pee on the irrigation pipes so that your dog doesn’t chew them,”’ she said. ‘And he hunts rhino poachers for fun. The guy is crazy.’
Elize was milder in her appraisal, although my curiosity was growing by the minute. ‘When he came to our house, he said, “Throw this dog food away. It’s rubbish!”’ But when I asked her if Chris had helped her, she said he most definitely had. ‘Our dogs kept running out the gate and we live in a busy road. Chris came and threw an object that made a loud noise every time the dogs ran out and they stopped doing it straight away.’
So I attended one of Chris’s dog training sessions to see for myself and heard more tales of his unusual training methods. ‘I was a bit offended when he called my dog a rat,’ said Carol Green, owner of Bella Trix, a cross Labrador-Retriever. ‘But I didn’t like the soft hippy approach I’d seen at another training school. It was too treat-based. Everything your dog did right, you had to give him a treat. Chris is more alpha male. You as the owner are most important, not the dog.’
Chris called the motley group of dog owners and walkers in the park to attention. ‘Right, now we are going to teach our dogs to stay,’ he instructed. ‘When mommy wild dog needs to go hunting, she teaches her pups to stay behind in the den. If they move, she growls at them to go back. That’s what we’re going to do now.’
By leaving their dogs behind under a tree, the owners were able to step forward a few paces – 10m, 20m or even 30m away. Some dogs, like the Border Collie Dexter, waited obediently for their humans’ return. Others needed some cajoling. Chris had to intervene to help an exuberant young Labrador remain behind when his person walked away. Some dogs get attached, I guess.
There is universal praise among Chris’s followers of how his classes have helped them. ‘Every time I left the house, Fergus would set the alarm off,’ said Sphokazi Bangiso. ‘I asked Chris for advice and the problem disappeared almost straight away.’
Georgie’s human, Seamus Wishart, likes coming to the Wednesday morning classes because of the opportunity for social interaction – Georgie’s, that is. ‘Georgie is a bit anxious, so being around other dogs is good for him,’ Seamus said. ‘It teaches him to socialise well.’
All the people I spoke to are happy their dogs can now be taken anywhere – to the park, restaurants, the beach – without creating havoc. Anne Stewart has a reputation among the group because of her beautifully behaved ‘bank’ dogs, Bailey and Bentley. ‘Once my bank card was swallowed by the ATM, so I had to go inside the shopping centre, even though dogs are not strictly allowed,’ she explained. ‘They lay down and stayed put for a whole hour while I sorted the problem out.’
After the training, I chatted to Chris, who somehow seemed less intimidating up close. ‘Some people may not like my firm approach, but it works,’ he said. ‘I have a five-year waiting period for adult dogs to join my classes.’
The problem Chris has with positive reinforcement is that it rewards the wrong kind of behaviour. ‘Fluffy jumps up when guests arrive, so what do you do? You give Fluffy a treat to stop her from doing it again.’ This, according to him, is all wrong.
‘What you need to be doing is setting healthy boundaries for your dog. They need to listen to you and do what you say. I think a lot of the time owners become too clingy to their animals and they’re not able to learn correct behaviour.’
I guessed there might be some military training in Chris’s background from the way he swaggers around the field issuing commands – it turns out I’m right. ‘I’m originally from Manchester (that explains the accent) although I spent a long time in Durban ’n all,’ he joked. ‘I did a two-year stint in the SA Navy and graduated top of my class from the dog unit, so even though I’d always dreamt of becoming a game ranger, I turned to training dogs instead.’
When I asked him how his approach differs from other dog behaviourists, he chuckled. ‘I know what I’m doing.’ He took a stick and threw it to his own dogs. They pounced on it, desperate to chew it. ‘You see, that stick meant nothing to them before I touched it,’ he said. ‘Now that I’ve touched it, they both want it.’
I was about to leave when I spotted Mini, the rescue dog, urinating on my bag. Oh great! ‘Never leave your bag on the ground,’ Chris chided me. ‘If a dog sees your bag, there are three things he’ll do to it: sleep on it, eat it or pee on it. When he pees, he’s just marking his territory.’
I made a mental note and gingerly picked my bag up. One last question before Ieaving: ‘If you could be any animal, what would you be?’
Chris took a long time before answering. ‘My girlfriend’s dog,’ he said with a wry smile.
Chris Brookin holds dog training classes every Wednesday and Saturday from 9am till 11.15am in Cumberland Avenue, Constantia. If you need help with your pooch, call him on 021 761 5236 or 082 664 5383.
This article originally appeared in the khuluma magazine in September 2017.