Meet Jose Livingston, known to many as Wausau’s dog whisperer
Livingston says aggressive dog behavior can be the result of pent up energy—mental and physical.
The Bublik family fell in love with their German Shepherd puppy when he arrived to their home over four years ago. Misha soon grew into a 70 pound adult dog, and that’s when they began having problems. “We loved having him around but my family felt like he was the reason why we couldn’t have anyone visit. He was like a wild beast,” says dad Jan Bublik. “If somebody came to the house, Misha would bark and jump, scaring them.”
Misha became harder and harder to control. “We were getting different advice on what to do, what not to do, like if the dog was a machine that wasn’t working properly,” Jan says. While he could handle Misha better than the rest of his family, Misha still acted overly protective and barked a lot.
“He was aggressive when we would meet a dog, he would snarl, his hackles would be up,” says Anita Bublik. Neutering Misha didn’t change his behavior. They built a fence on their property so he could run outside. Nothing seemed to work.
One day Anita was talking with a neighbor whose own dog was trained by a man her friend described as “the dog whisperer”: Jose Livingston. He and his kennel and training business Newdogday have come to be revered by many local dog owners in just the two years since opening.
After a home visit, Livingston recommended that Misha be “re-educated” in a pack setting. The Bubliks sent Misha to Livingston’s on-site, intensive 30-day rehabilitation training program and he came back a completely different dog, says Jan Bublik.
The family’s approach to Misha also changed. “He has a job to do and a schedule, he needs the exercise to burn the excess energy,” Jan explains. The Bubliks know how to introduce Misha to other people and dogs, and they better understand what their furry family member needs. “He’s no longer dominant in the house,” Jan says. “He still barks at the neighbor’s dog, but my kids and Anita can easily control him… He is very friendly with people in the house and doesn’t try to kill the FedEx guy anymore.”
Welcome to the pack method
Dogs need mental as well as physical exercise, Livingston stresses. At Newdogday, he takes dogs on unleashed runs through the property with a snowmobile in winter.
Misha has continued to train with Livingston and the Newdogday pack twice a week for the past nine months. He’s there on the day I make a visit a few weeks ago.
“No talk. No touch. No eye contact,” Livingston says to me as he opens the metal fence leading into the large dog run at Newdogday. The daily pack averages around 20 individuals: Livingston’s own shelter dogs, regular visitors that come a few days a week, and some new “students” there for intensive training. On this day there are about 12 dogs ranging in all shapes and sizes, from a small terrier named Sonny to the fiercely regal alpha, Misha. None of the dogs are barking but all eyes are definitely on me.
“This is what’s going to happen,” says Livingston calmly as he leads me slowly through the first gate. The first dog to approach me will be the beta (second in command) Kevin, a German Shepherd husky mix, he says. “No matter what you see, no matter what happens, keep moving forward.”
As if on cue, Kevin stands directly in front of me as we enter, his body tense, tail curled high above his back, guard hairs bristling along his topline and neck.
When I take my first few steps forward, Kevin brings his head up to high mast, and begins a series of low deep barks as he rakes the ground. The pack has two sounds: high pitch excitement indicating prey or play, and low notes indicating danger, Livingston tells me later. While the rest of the pack respects Kevin’s display and keeps their distance, they maneuver into position around and behind me.
It’s a bit unnerving. I focus on not overreacting as we walk through the enclosure. Halfway through, the dogs turn silent. A few steps later, Kevin has circled behind me and then grazes his body against me. I ignore it as Livingston told me to do. Kevin then comes to face me, panting. I still don’t make eye contact and act as chill as possible.
I’ve just been tested, Livingston says. “He’s looking for a reaction but also communicating to the pack that he doesn’t fear you.” Livingston adds that this brief introduction is not dissimilar to human group behavior. “To face the unknown, to touch a possible enemy, has been adopted by some human cultures as the very pinnacle of bravery.”
Only by keeping a cool head and holding shoulders up and my frame open, eyes steady and looking ahead, had I begun earning the pack’s respect. “Paradoxically, in that moment, the most important dog in the pack is the one you didn’t see: Misha, the pack’s alpha,” he says. “He didn’t bark, he didn’t flex, he didn’t even move, he doesn’t have to.”
Livingston tells me that Misha can hear my heart and breathing, he can smell adrenaline and fear hormones. “And his eyes, that thousand-yard stare, peel back a lifetime of veneer.”
What happens next in my pack introduction is up to Misha. As we reach the far edge of the enclosure, Livingston and I turn to face the pack, and I realize there’s now a sense of peace. Kevin has moved away, most of the other dogs are walking around slowly. Livingston points to my right. Misha has silently approached. He stands with me facing the pack. “It’s done,” Livingston whispers. “You’re part of the pack now.”
Livingston’s connection to and understanding of dogs is spellbinding. Each dog has its own psychology and he’s their psychotherapist. His wife and business partner, Shannon, says what he does can be boiled down to being a translator between humans and dogs.
How does he do it? Part of understanding how dogs behave and react is about understanding how dogs feel and respect energy, says Livingston. That can be conveyed by how you walk into a room, how you sit down, how you shake someone’s hand and deliver eye contact. What a dog owner needs to convey is, “You’re the queen, you own all of this, it’s all yours. That’s the energy we need. That’s the energy that dogs respect,” he says.
Conversely, “Shrinking, coming down to them, speaking in baby talk, reaching out— those are all types of things that excite dogs,” which might not be the behavior you’re hoping for. “High pitched is prey excitement, like ‘I see a rabbit’, so when we talk that way and baby speak to them, they go from zero to 10,” he says. “So when we talk to dogs we like to use bass notes.”
Finding his dog whisper
Training can be on-going. Several clients bring in their dogs a few times a week to join the pack for daycare.
Livingston came to the Wausau area by way of Madison 15 years ago, as a firefighter and EMT in the Town of Wausau. That led to a fire/medic position and later as a medic in the emergency room of Aspirus and then to the Medevac team. “I’ve since retired and this is now full-time,” he says about Newdogday, which he started in January 2018. Their non-profit dog rescue program named Newdogday Forever, dedicated to rescue, rehab and public education began last summer.
“We are a no-kill shelter so that the dogs that we accept have a forever home here, unless they’re lucky enough to find a new family.” Currently Newdogday Forever has five dogs in that program. Several clients bring their dogs to Livingston a few days a week for daycare. Other dogs are there for training or rehabilitation.
Livingston’s foray into dog training started several years ago with owning an overly energetic German Shepherd puppy. After learning to work with his own dog, he advanced to military and police dog training. That success led to the idea of his own training business. “I said, ‘okay, okay this is something that I don’t just think I’m good at, this is something I can really do and help dogs in the process.’”
Newdogday offers boarding along with daycare and long-term training. But the place different. There are no kennels, runs or isolation areas. “Whether you’re five months or 15 years old, you exist in a pack setting here,” Livingston says.
He uses that pack philosophy, not typically the norm for canine facilities, as the basis for all that goes on at Newdogday. “The question was, would our philosophy be accepted by the community,” he says. “Pack orientation is our passion. It’s what drives the healing process for the dog, and it’s job number one.”
Newdogday emphasizes the importance of work — as in, a dog needs a job to do — in the mental and physical health of the dogs. During their day, the dogs are taken out for unleashed guided runs on the expansive property just east of Wausau on Land Art Road. “It’s just like us, you feel badly if you’re just laying in bed all day,” Livingston says. A lack of physical exercise can create boredom and sometimes lead to destructiveness at home. “Consider how energy can build up in a dog and, at times, become toxic.”
Buildup of mental energy can also result in compulsive behaviors such as chronic barking, digging, herding, or neurotic behavior like hyperactivity and aggression. In extreme cases, this pent up energy can result in the dog biting a person or even family member, says Livingston.
“What we often overlook is the same need to provide our dog with mental exercise, such as obedience or agility training,” he says.
Livingston’s magic happens with the pack. And the pack changes by the hour or day; the dogs have to adapt. “Misha might not be here until nine o’clock and we have a pack starting at seven in the morning. And that’s when you begin to understand the mental part of our workout,” he says. “Their mental workout is navigating a pack of 25 dogs, wondering ‘Where do I stand? Where’s everybody else? What are they doing?’”
Judging by the growing number of dogs he has attending, that pack philosophy is working. Livingston has a loyal following of clients who bring their pets in from one to several days a week. “Our average is about 20 dogs a day and it is increasing,” Livingston says.
The 30 day rehabilitation program is designed to help dogs and their owners work through behavioral issues. Livingston addresses a variety of problems such as hyperactivity and aggression, or obsessive barking and digging.
Typically, after an in-home consultation with the family, the dog is brought to Newdogday for anywhere between 15 and 60 days. During this time, the dog is introduced to the pack, observed, given a treatment plan, and trained. Meanwhile, Livingston involves and consults with the family to build a foundation for the dog’s return home.
“While success of our program has a lot to do with the great humans involved, much of the heavy lifting is actually done by the pack as each dog helps the new dog find their way forward,” he says.
Livingston explains: The alpha relieves the new “student” dog of any desire to lead; this conditions the dog to accept his owner’s lead when returning home. The beta enforces rules, boundaries, and limitations; and this conditions the dog to accept rules at home. The pack’s sentry teaches the dog when and how to appropriately react to stimulus; which conditions the dog to seek its owner’s guidance in appropriately reacting to say, the UPS guy.
Livingston also educates the owners. “I like to say we not only train dogs, we really rehabilitate people.”
Guiding your own pack
It’s hard for people to grasp just how much dogs communicate nonverbally, says Livingston.
Holly Briquelet Miller’s family got their now two year old Portuguese water dog right before her husband, Kevin, unexpectedly had a major surgery. “It was a tough time to give any attention to puppy training, and after a few months, Oliver had grown into a very loving and affectionate, but wild dog,” Holly says. “It was tough to handle him.”
The family met with José Livingston of Newdogday to define goals for Oliver. “Oliver spent two weeks with him and it was an incredible transformation,” Holly says. “He helped find the appropriate activities for the amount of energy that Oliver needs to get out each day and got him acclimated to the pack mentality, and then worked with us — because we needed training, too — to learn how to make it a smooth transition back home.”
Oliver’s transformation felt like a miracle. “Oliver is attentive and follows commands and is still just as affectionate and loving,” she says. “His approach made such a positive difference in how much we are able to enjoy having this furry member of our family around.”
Livingston helped the family understand that Oliver needs to feel like he’s “working” since his breed was bred for helping sailors.
“So Jose taught us his ‘buddy bond’ system of having Oliver connected to us by a leash worn around our waist throughout the day,” Holly says. As Oliver follows them around, he feels like a helper. “On longer walks he wears a weighted vest and he takes the task of carrying his “cargo” very seriously.”
Though each dog has different needs and perhaps challenges, Oliver’s story illustrates three basic tips Livingston offers for us humans:
Become partly dog It’s hard to grasp just how much dogs communicate nonverbally, says Livingston. “Within the pack, a simple tilt of the head, position of the tail, or even the length or intensity of a gaze can communicate volumes,” he says. “To better understand your dog, start by observing and then emulating.” Refrain from using words, treats, or toys. Instead try physical cues: avert your gaze, lower your body, kneel, or sit on the floor. “The fewer words you use, the more you’ll notice your dog tuning into you.”
Mental exercise A dog’s brain has evolved to negotiate a complex social structure, says Livingston. As you interact with your dog, keep in mind their incredible mental capability and include it in your physical exercise, he says. “If your dog knows the verbal command for sit, consider teaching a hand signal.” Or, when out walking, insist that your dog heel for the first ten minutes. A weighted backpack for the dog taps your dog’s “work” brain.
Who’s the boss? Above all, dogs crave a sense of organization, calm and assertive leadership. To establish, or re-establish, your pack’s hierarchy ditch the treats, the toys, the “free-feeding, the praise, and focus on what your dog needs, he says. “When your dog needs a job, take them for a working walk.”