“Everybody thinks that dogs need to give us people unconditional love, and I think it’s opposite, that we need to give dogs unconditional love,” says Tamar Geller. With that, she pretty much sums up her philosophy on dog training.

And she certainly knows what she’s talking about. Based in Los Angeles, the former Israeli military intelligence officer has spent the last 30 years working with dogs.

The author of multiple books and dog-whisperer to both regular folk and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Goldie Hawn, Ben Affleck, Ellen, Jon Stewart, Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon and Charlize Theron, Geller is all about improving dog-owner relationships and bettering everyone’s quality of life.

“It’s dog training as a spiritual practice,” she says.

“My message is not about making the dog obedient. My message is based on improving the relationship between you and your dog, so your dog is not obedient to you; your dog is devoted to you,” she explains. “A relationship that is based on obedience is a very low-level relationship that is not sustainable.”

Dog trainer Tamar Geller believes dogs should be devoted, not obedient. Photo: courtesy

Geller says she became a dog expert quite by chance. After serving in the military, she went down to the desert to the Hatzevah field school to do some research on animal behavior. Once there, she had a dream in which she was told explicitly, “You have to work with dogs.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with dogs,” she laughs. “That dream shaped my life.”

That dream began to take shape when she ended up in LA at the end of her after-army trip. She only planned on spending a week or so in the city, but decided to stay on a little longer to catch a Pink Floyd concert. In the meantime she began volunteering at a dog trainer’s, and the rest is history.

Having had no previous experience in dog coaching, she applied the knowledge she gathered from her time in the desert and her interest in psychology – which was what she was originally planning to study at university – and got down to work.

One thing led to another, and she found herself as the resident dog expert for the Today show, coaching dogs belonging to various celebrities, and publishing her first book, The Loved Dog.

“In my method, you’re going to look at yourself and say, ‘Why doesn’t my dog want to come back to me?'” she explains. “You become different.”

“It’s basically really looking at us as people, because I believe the dogs are teachers,” she adds. “They’re never affected by how much money we have or we don’t, if we’re thin or fat, how many likes we have. They truly connect with our hearts and souls and that’s why I believe they’re a gift from God.

“I’m grateful that I get to make a difference to contribute and make a difference to dogs’ lives and to people’s lives.”

Some of Tamar Geller’s four-legged friends. Photo: courtesy

Cherished and celebrated

Over the years, Geller has seen great change in people’s attitudes to dogs – and she’s very pleased about it.

“Oh my God, the attitude is completely different from when I started working with dogs 30 years ago,” she says. “Dogs are now being absolutely cherished and celebrated, and people spend more money on their dogs than on their children.

“In this crazy world of ours, dogs are like a temple of sanity for people,” she adds. “It’s beautiful. I love it and I’m grateful that I get to be a part of it and that I get to change the zeitgeist and the culture when it comes to changing our lives through dogs.”

Photo courtesy of dog trainer Tamar Geller.

Despite the important place that dogs now have in our lives, Geller notes that there are still three major misconceptions about them. These are serious, she says, because they lead to dogs being put down.

“No. 1 is that the dog is trying to be dominant,” she says. “When you see a dog acting aggressively, just know that chances are that 99 percent of the time the dog is actually scared and not trying to be dominant.

“The second is that they’re dominant because they try to run the show.” This, too, she adds, is a misunderstanding, noting that the dogs are just trying to get their core needs met.

“No.3 is that dogs should give unconditional love. Absolutely not. The word ‘love’ and the word ‘should’ should never be in the same sentence,” she says. “It is up to the dog whether it loves you or not.”

Geller herself is the paw-rent (as she calls pet owners) of Oliver, a rescued Golden Retriever; Cricket, a rescued Jack Russell/dachshund; and Katy, a rescued Rhodesian Ridgeback mix. She also loves cats, she says. “But I don’t try to make a cat be a dog. I love a cat for being a cat.”

She has two tips for raising a happy dog: Never say, “Good dog” because you’re not teaching the dog anything with that phrase; and do not say your dog’s name unless you’re talking to your dog. “When you’re talking about your dog, come up with a nickname. Don’t condition the dog to ignore you when you talk about him but not to him.”

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