Kim Brophey, owner of The Dog Door, talks about her new book «Meet Your Dog» that hopes to change the way people view their dogs.
In the introduction to her new book, «Meet Your Dog,» dog trainer and author Kim Brophey details a mystery a client was enduring with her pooch that cuts right to the heart of America’s problems with its dogs.
In this case, a woman named Rebecca had bought a Wheaten Terrier as a puppy and experienced two years of pet-owner bliss. Then she moved to a mountain cabin, and the dog, named Dexter, starting acting crazy — up for days at a time, eschewing walks, not eating and opting instead to patrol the border of the rooms, «literally spending his entire day barking and scratching» at the walls, as the owner said.
She had actually gone to the veterinarian, asking about Prozac for the animal. The vet called Brophey, who went to investigate. She watched Dexter closely and came up with a completely non-medical diagnosis.
«I think you have mice in your walls,» Brophey told her. «If I’m right, he’s just working very hard to do his terrier job. And he’s getting really frustrated because he can’t reach the little buggers.»
The walls were teeming with mice, and once the exterminator eliminated them, Dexter returned to his normal behavior. The episode demonstrated that Dexter, like most terriers, could not overcome centuries of breeding designed to create a canine that would eliminate varmints from barns, houses and whole villages.
The episode is important to Brophey because it illustrates just how easily modern humans can forget their dogs were bred for actual jobs, which they’re internally driven to do. It’s only been about 60 years or so that dogs have really been brought inside to live lives of leisure — or sometimes near imprisonment with little stimulation — instead of being outside retrieving recently shot ducks or guarding the master’s property.
“The thoughts that have taken over people’s minds are so unrealistic it’s not even funny,” Brophey said, sitting inside her pet behavior business, The Dog Door, in downtown Asheville. «It’s a reality checkbook, which is why I love it, because I like things that are market disruptors in a truthful way.”
Americans, like much of the world, have gone dog crazy in recent decades. Brophey notes that in 2016, Americans spent over $62 billion on their pets. The Insurance Information Institute estimates more than 60 million American households own a dog, compared to 47 million households with cats.
While many pet owners consider their dogs family members, and sometimes treat them like little people, Brophey wants to remind them that despite putting the bows in their fur and cladding them in matching winter jackets, their dogs are still dogs, and largely driven by their DNA.
For the past 10 years, Brophey has been «geeking out» hard on genetics and other science — heavy-duty stuff like evolutionary biology, neurology and neuroethology.
Brophey admits she got bogged down in scientific minutiae in the early going. She has a degree in applied ethology, the study of the relationship between human and animal behavior in captive or domesticated animals.
Her self-imposed mission was to consider the science, translate it into language regular dog owners could understand, all while retaining the scientific nuggets that could change the way people view their dogs.
“The way I learned how to write this book was really digging in and listening to my clients and what made sense to them, and what their voice was,” Brophey said, adding that the first draft was way too heavy-handed with scientific geekiness.
The second run had one foot in each world “and that had to go in the garbage, too,” she said with a laugh.
The third draft was the charm and became «Meet Your Dog,» a 249-page, color-coded tome published by Chronicle Books, based in San Francisco. The book flatly states the current dog «training» system is broken and introduces readers to Brophey’s LEGS system, which stands for Learning, Environment, Genetics and Self. All are factors that make up the dog’s identity, from age and sex to nutrition and disabilities.
“It is a fun, easy, understandable read that is just stuffed with science,” Brophey said. «But you don’t feel like you’re being fed a medicine. You feel like it’s this yummy, delicious, practical sustenance.”
Humane Society on board with LEGS
Tracy Elliott, executive director of the Asheville Humane Society, considers Brophey’s book a true «game-changer» because it will allow people to consider the «full nature of an animal» before adopting dogs that might not be a good fit.
The Humane Society is going to implement Brophey’s LEGS program not only in matching animals with adopters but also in advising people who are having trouble with their animals’ behavior, Elliott said.
«Just like all my interactions with Kim I’ve had since I’ve gotten here, I find it’s extremely compelling,» said Elliott, who read an advance copy of the book. «It completely changes the way I think about what are appropriate interactions with dogs.»
Elliott took the job at the Humane Society, which owns and operates the Asheville Humane Society Adoption and Education Center in 2015. The center adopted out 3,431 animals last year and had 1,669 «owner surrenders,» which frequently involve dogs that have developed behavioral problems or are incompatible with the owners’ lifestyles.
The center adjoins the Buncombe County Animal Shelter and works closely with that organization.
The Canine Social Club in downtown Asheville, an «upscale enrichment facility» for dogs, also will implement Brophey’s LEGS program, owner Ginna Reid said. Like Elliott, Reid said she thinks Brophey’s book is going to create ripples throughout the dog landscape, and well beyond Western North Carolina.
«I think it’s going to shake it up and make it better because it puts more emphasis on dogs as the beings they are, rather than what we as humans expect of them as pets,» said Reid, who’s also read an advance copy of the book. «Just the plethora of information you get in the book, not only about dog breeds themselves, but you also learn about the regions where come from, and that makes a huge difference in the understanding of dogs, the different breeds and the behaviors you can expect.»
The Asheville Humane Society, the Canine Social Club and Brophey are teaming up to officially launch the national Dog LEGS Association for pet-related businesses and organizations at an invite-only event May 1 at The Collider in downtown Asheville.
One method Brophey uses to make people think differently about dogs is to put humans in their dogs’ paws.
«The entire book is human analogies to all the behaviors,» Brophey said, noting that humans are loathe to accept that we, too, are animals. «There are really concrete reasons why dogs react the way they do.»
Brophey also has a popular TED Talk out now, «The Problem with Treating a Dog Like a Pet,» in which she details how we’ve forgotten dogs’ origins, and how they have emotions similar to ours in many situations, but they’re very distinctly not human.
Brophey also has a slew of interviews lined up around the country about her book, including several with National Public Radio stations.
Stop the leash greetings!
In the talk and in her book, Brophey goes in detail about one of her pet peeves, the forced nature of «leash greetings,» in which dog owners often insist that their dogs meet other people or dogs, or people just charge up to your dog and start petting it.
«Just stop with the leash greeting business,» Brophey said. «It’s just nonsense.»
She paints a pretty vivid analogy between animals in humans: Imagine being out walking with your toddler and having people approach, oohing and ahhing about your child’s beautiful hair. Would you let the nice couple come up to her and start stroking her hair and saying what a nice girl she is? How would your child react?
Probably not well, right?
“Is there any other species that would let you do that?” Brophey said. “Why did we decide that was a dog’s lot?”
Often, Brophey says, dog owners are made to feel guilty because their pets don’t love everybody and every other dog.
«The truth is, most of us have unrealistic expectations for our dogs’ behavior — far beyond what we would ever expect from any other animal, person or child,» Brophey writes in the «Environment» section of «Meet Your Dog.» «It’s pure fantasy that dogs will be the uniformly friendly, social, outgoing, bombproof, affectionate, tolerant, unopinionated, and complacent creatures we want them to be out in the world.»
Brophey, 41, has lived in Asheville since 1995, and after graduating from Warren Wilson College she became the executive director of a no-kill shelter in 1999, where she developed and implemented a behavior program. She opened The Dog Door in 2001.
She has two children, 11-year-old Sally and 11-year-old Sam. Her husband, Jason Hewitt, was the photographer for «Meet Your Dog.»
Besides dealing with other people’s dogs all day, Brophey lives with three pooches: a border collie/American Eskimo herding dog named Rocky; a rat terrier/Papillon toy terrier named Prim; and a Pyrenees/Newfoundland/Golden retriever mix named Casey. While she chides people for occasionally being over-bearing with their dogs and forgetting they’re animals, Brophey also admits humans, like canines, get a release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin from loving on each other.
“We’re biologically primed to be idiots about our dogs because of oxytocin,” Brophey said with a laugh. «We get that absolute rush of nurturing, yummy, warm and fuzzy that we would get from our parents and our lovers and our kids. We just all ooze oxytocin with our dogs. I do it every day with my dogs. It’s just ridiculous.”
Kim Brophey book signing event
What: Meet Kim Brophey, author of «Meet Your Dog,» and get a signed copy of her new book. There will also be a Q&A session.
Where: Barnes & Noble at Asheville Mall
When: 3-5 p.m., Saturday, April 14.
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