Interview with dog trainer and radio personality Nando Brown
By Laure-Anne Visele, written Dec 2012.
About Nando Brown
Nando is a rather dashing (sorry, Donna) muscles-a-rippin’, arms-a-tattoin’ ex-Royal Marine on a crusade for evidence-based dog training.
From his sunny retreat in Spain’s Costa del Sol, Nando and his other half, Donna Saunders (sorry, ladies), run a booming dog business promoting the humane treatment of dogs.
A dog business in Spain
L-A: Hey Nando. Nice to turn the tables and grill you this time! Let’s start with the business. Can you tell me a little about “In The Dog House“?
Nando: Sure. Donna and I provide four types of services:
- Pet Lodge (kennels and a cattery);
- Grooming salon (Donna is a qualified groomer);
- One-to-one behaviour consults; and
- Dog training classes (scattered over the Costa del Sol).
L-A: Is it more boring-old-routine or a-surprise-a-day?
Nando: Oh every day is new. I could be…
- training at the Centre; or
- providing stimulation for the dogs staying with us, or
- on behaviour consultations, or
- running training classes, or
- running a puppy party at the local vet’s, etc.
We’ve been hammered and hammered and hammered… Me and Donna have just taken our first day off in… TWO years.
L-A: About Donna, I guess I don’t need to ask but… Is she OK with your dog obsession?
Nando: I’d say she’s 75% as much of a dog nut as I am!
L-A: There’s ‘dog nut’ and ‘dog nut’. How bad is the Brown – Saunders home? What’s the latest count?
Nando: [laughs] We have… seven (of our own) dogs:
- 1 staffie
- 1 pitbull
- 1 dobermann
- 3 labradoodles, and…
- 1 sausage dog, Pablo. [laughs] He’s a good lad!
They’re cracking dogs. I did say to myself before we left: “We’re not getting any more dogs.”
L-A: Famous last words, hey?
Nando: It was inevitable. There are so many abandoned dogs here…
L-A: So how bad is the welfare problem in the region?
Nando: The dominance thing was still all over when we got here: shock and prong collars, etc.
But also, a lot of dogs are outside alone all day. They’re not seen as pets. They’re just things that bark at passersby. A dog living inside with his family is already a step forward for me.
L-A: Have you learnt to keep your mouth shut, or do you still get in trouble a lot?
Nando: If I see an animal being –what I would call abused or mishandled– I say something. There’s no two ways about it.
But sadly, I am getting desensitized to the strays. It was horrendous to start with, but it’s such commonplace that if I stopped for every stray, I wouldn’t ever get off the mountain. That’s how overwhelming the problem is.
I used to stop and feed them and give them water – which is now illegal in Spain – and take them to rescue centres. But the Centres are so packed that the dogs can kill each other there. So it can be more cruel to take them there if they’re doing OK in the wild. It’s like putting them in prison.
Behaviourist or dog trainer?
L-A: Do you see yourself as a behaviourist or as a dog trainer?
Nando: My job title is ‘Head Trainer’. I do behaviour work because the alternative here is the dominance guys.
But I also don’t think you should do training without knowing the minimum about behaviour, and vice and versa.
So, to go back to your question, I don’t call myself a behaviourist. That means ‘clinical behaviourist’ to me, and I don’t have a degree in it. I haven’t got the the grey matter for a life at University.
I think that if the dog is progressing, the client is happy and we’re doing it in an ethical manner, we need to keep doing what we’re doing. Back in the UK, where there were lots of behaviourists, I could refer on cases that felt too much. But I don’t have that back-up here. The closest person I can refer to is… eight hours away.
L-A: And if you get stuck?
Nando: I haven’t so far, touch wood. I have had long-winded cases, but they are moving forward. Back in the UK, I didn’t need the confidence to keep working on difficult cases, but now I do.
L-A: Oh, with these groups, you can bend the ear of very impressive people. The Pet Professional Guild is a tightly vetted, closed-membership groups and they take responsible practice seriously, like you do.
L-A: Do you have a role model? Mine’s Jean Donaldson. She grasps the science and spreads the word like no one else.
Nando: I worship the ground she walks on! And she’s very approachable too. Her and Cesar Millan…
Nando: Only joking. But Jean Donaldson is really down to earth. She is on the back of my choke chain video! I can’t believe she said yes. She’s definitely my number one.
Keeping on top of progress
L-A: How do you keep up with the huge body of knowledge on dog training and behaviour?
Nando: The field is constantly moving forward, isn’t it?
At one of the first places I worked, the trainers thought they’d got there, and they stopped learning. That held them back. Whereas I am a course-aholic.
I have had amazing ones, and horrendous ones. Some courses were so bad I left in a blazing row. I went to this one about working trials that was just brutal. There was this poor Malinois, who didn’t have a clue what we wanted from him, and the instructor just slapped a shock collar on him!
L-A: So, how did you get the radio show off the ground?
Nando: It was a bit of a fluke. I was on a one-to-one with a customer, and this lady walks by and says: “The dog is picking it up, but you’re not saying anything”. (I was using a clicker) “That’s interesting! Would you come and talk about this on the radio”?
So I did it and it went really smoothly. As I walked out, the station’s boss said: “I don’t even have dogs and I found the interview fascinating! Would you come onto my show?”. So I did that too, and it also went well. After that one, the boss just said: “We want a pet show, and we want you to host it“. I loved (and still love) it.
With the show, I get to talk to people I look up to about stuff I find fascinating. It’s a great opportunity. I’ll never look back.
It started with a ‘demon incarnate’ of a dog
L-A: How long have you been working with dogs?
Nando: It’s only been about 8-9 years. I’m still just a baby.
But it’s the one thing that has gripped me fully, 100%. I joined the Royal Marines after I left school, and when that didn’t turn out as I was hoping, I didn’t really know where I was going with my life.
I loved dogs, so I got one then. The whole ordeal with that dog is what got me where I am now. I honestly don’t know where I’d be without dogs today.
L-A: I love the ‘ha haaa’ moment when we realize we want to work with dogs.
We all had a career laid out, and every reason to stick it out, but it just didn’t fit. In the end, we’re drawn to it. One way or another, we get there.
So, tell me about the dog?
Nando: He was my second dog. My previous one had been a perfect, happy-go-lucky dog. Of course, she didn’t teach me as much. But my second dog… That was another story. He was a Cane Corso.
It turns out his problem was… me. I made every mistake in the book. I bought…
- … the wrong breed
- … from the wrong breeder –looking back, she was a disgrace
- … and the wrong puppy –I picked the shy one, thinking “I’ll get the quiet one in the corner”. Of course, he was not so much “quiet” as terrified.
Around a year old, he started getting grumpy with other dogs, then with people. The first trainer I contacted gave me a counter-conditioning and de-sensitisation protocol. I didn’t really understand the process, but they just vanished. I threw questions at them by mail, by phone,… But I never heard back.
All the while, my dog’s life was getting more and more stressful. It was breaking me in half, because I loved this dog, but he was demon-possessed when we went out the front door.
After three months of silence from that first trainer, I’d had it. I got in touch with a TV trainer. I thought: “They’re on TV, they must be the best“. And that’s how I ‘went to the dark side’ and turned my back on clicker training. They told me to use choke chains, hang him off his feet… They said that he was a ‘dominant’, that he needed a ‘rank-reduction programme’ so I could be the ‘alpha’.
To a young male, dominance stuff is personal. I was furious… I loved this dog. I had given him warmth and shelter, food and water, and all the love in the world. And yet he was going to take the piss out of me by trying to be the ‘pack leader’.
So I became harder and harder on him… It wasn’t until I learned about body language and learning theory, that I understood that he wasn’t so much pack leader as dead scared. That’s when I started getting results.
But the learning process of crossing back over from dominance training was at the expense of my dog’s life. Due to bad breeding, he died very young.
L-A: Crossing over means changing your mind in light of new facts. There’s no greater virtue than intellectual honesty to me, especially when you need to get away from the seductive concept of ‘pack theory‘ to get there.
Nando: My moment was when I realized that I’d massively let that dog down. I swore I’d never do it again.
L-A: It breaks my heart to hear the guilt from so many people. It was avoidable had the trainers got themselves educated. We live in an insane world where you, the client, feel guilty because you trusted the expert.
Thankfully, you ran away with it, and you made it into something great.
Nando: Having a shaved head and tattoos, people assumed I’d beaten the dog into being like this. You know the tune: “There’s no such thing as a bad dog, only bad owners”.
Looking back, I was misunderstood completely, as was the poor dog.
So it was a learning experience. Now, I am there for people, I support them, I sympathize. Having an aggressive dog is horrendous.
L-A: The first thing I do when people talk through their dog’s problems is to talk that guilt away. I love to see that weight lift right off their shoulders. You see that relief: “Finally, someone is not judging me.” And they open up and tell you the full story, even the stuff they’re potentially ashamed of, because they know you have their back.
Then I gave training classes
L-A: So when did you go pro?
Nando: I had been working at a couple of different clubs and then a London Council hired me through the Woodgreen Animal Shelter to run a free ‘status dog’ class [as staffies and pit bulls are called in the UK] with young fellows whose dogs were getting out of control.
Guys that were going through exactly what I went through. Sure, they wanted the dog for the image. It’s not necessarily acceptable, but when the dog starts kicking off, most of these guys don’t want the dog out of control.
Some of these guys worked really hard and did a great job of training. They listened to me because I had tattoos and a bald head. If you’d put a young woman there, it wouldn’t have happened. But it’s also this: I got where they were coming from in the first place.
L-A: So you’re saying: “OK, am here. Am listening.” And then they know: “You get me”.
Nando: Yes, it’s definitely about listening to the people, not just the dogs.
A man found his calling
L-A: Any regrets about your career choice?
Nando: I am run off my feet, but it’s such fun that it’s not even work. I get to stand here, talking about the things I love. And, being a male, I get to talk about myself. How much of an ego boost is that?
So, I’ll keep going as long as I’m enjoying my life. I’m a very lucky guy.
Contact In The Dog House
In the Dog House dog training, behaviour and grooming centre (Services all along the Costa del Sol, +34 952 110 243)
I love to read your comments.
- Have you also set up your own dog business? Any regrets or loving every day?
- Do you also live in Spain? Do you feel a difference in the local attitude to animal welfare?
- How do you feel about the different schools of thought on dog training? Clicker training, shock collars, dominance?
- Hot dogs – Quick poll about hotly debated dog issues (e.g. leash/no leash, treat/no treat, etc.)
- Dogs, my philosophical position – My position on debated dog issues
- Does your large dog scare people? – Article about more intimidating dog breeds
Dog training and behaviour
- Separation anxiety – a treatment protocol
- Treating dog-dog aggression – some advice
- The perfect recall – fool-proof guide to getting your dog to come back when called