Ever since Patrick Tarpey was a kid, he's had what he calls "an uncanny connection with animals."
"My mom was always finding snakes under my bed and raccoons in the garage," he remembers. "I trained our family dogs when I was growing up by learning their behavior and motivating them with a reward." As a studio trainer for movies, TV and commercials, Tarpey has trained cats, rats, chickens and various other critters, and wrangled snakes, horses, llamas and elephants. But dog whispering is his calling, as is evident to anyone who's heard him talk about canine behavior.
Tarpey now instructs pet owners at Los Angeles academy Hollywood Paws, imparting techniques on everything from basic obedience to advanced tricks of animal acting.
"This is what I tell people: The animals are perfect," he declares. "There's nothing wrong with them. You look at them and say, 'I like it when you do this;
The New Jersey native studied acting in New York, was half of a neo-Vaudevillian duo, traveled the world working on theatrical productions and — after some familial travails — made his way to Los Angeles. It was there that his path found him.
"I needed a job and got one — picking up poop for seven bucks an hour at a kennel on the outskirts of Lancaster [Calif.]," he recalls. "Then something happened; what happened was the dogs." Tending the 70-plus canines of all sizes roaming studio trainer Debbie Pearl's unique property, he was struck by something extraordinary.
"The dogs live in a pack system, roaming free — they're not kenneled unless no one's there," he marvels. "They're happy. Debbie's company, Paws for Effect, is the only one in the industry with a full-time, paid kennel staff." When not occupied by his chores, Tarpey studied the animals in this state of near-nature; in time he rose through the ranks and asked to become a trainer.
"The head trainer told me to pick a project dog and said, 'Here's your first set of behaviors; I'll see you in a week,'" he reports. "I came back and showed her what I did with the dog and she said, 'You're a natural.'"
He subsequently plied his trade in films like Bewitched, on TV series such as Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and House, and in ads for Ford, The Gap, Levi's and other major brands.
"Sets are very hectic, high-energy places," Tarpey notes of working with animal actors. "There's equipment, people, foam-rubber monsters, gunshots, what have you. And you place an animal in the center of it and walk away. He looks around, he's all stressed — and then he locks on to you. And he thinks, 'You love me, you trust me, you'd never put me in harm's way.' That's the key to training: gaining the animal's trust. Once you have it, you need to broaden his horizons through the training. The more you introduce him to, the sturdier he becomes."
It was through Pearl that Tarpey connected with Hollywood Paws; gradually, he made the transition from studio training to full-time instruction.
"I really enjoy watching the students get it with their dogs," he explains. "I tell them that they'll establish a level of communication and a bond with their pets that they couldn't have imagined before." Achieving this requires stripping down the language
"When they come into my class, students use two words with their dogs: the dog's name and 'good.'"between owner and dog to a small repertoire of single-word commands. "When they come into my class, students use two words with their dogs: the dog's name and 'good,'" he notes. Other commands come later, but with the same pattern of simple command and reward. "If you practice enough, it happens," he insists. "If you take me out to a basketball court to shoot hoops every day for a month, I won't be ready for the NBA, but I will learn how to sink a three-pointer. It's the same principle with any repetitive exercise — you train the body so that it becomes automatic."
Trainers use a clicker device to guide the dog, but "click and reward," as it's called, is merely an intermediate step. "That's Pavlovian," Tarpey explains. "It's a conditioned response. We push past that to learned response. It's not just, 'I hear the sound so I get a treat' but rather, 'I hear the sound; that means I did something right and I will get a treat,' even if the treat comes later on."
Tarpey is himself the owner of only one dog at present. Hero, whom he describes as a "Cockerdoodlepoo," was rescued from a dumpster and brought to Tarpey by one of his students. "Normally I prefer bigger breeds, like Labs," he admits. "But Hero kinda picked me."
Within a week of acquiring Hero, Tarpey brought him to class; the three-month-old promptly received a bite on the face from a Jack Russell Terrier. Though the bite didn't inflict any real injury, it was a classic scenario for inspiring a lifelong aversion to other canines. But Tarpey took preemptive measures. "I didn't reinforce his fear at all," he recalls. "Without emotion, I put the leash on him and walked him around the room in front of every other dog. By the time we got to the Jack Russell, he was trembling. But the other dog's owner was now enforcing discipline, so Hero knew the dog who bit him did something wrong, and I was letting him know — like a coach, like a buddy — that he was perfectly fine in this situation. The message was that he had done nothing wrong, that he had every right to be there and not be attacked, and that he was ultimately safe. Now he's not afraid of other dogs. He plays with German Shepherds. If you have no fear of the situation, he'll have no fear. He'll trust you."
"Successful dog owning is about control," Tarpey affirms. "The dog knows you're in control. They need it. If they weren't living in the human world, they could rely on instinct. They wouldn't need control because someone would be established as alpha and then everyone else would fall into place. In the human world, you have to be alpha with them. They take everything from us; their lives are defined by the people they're with."