Supporting Dog Trainer Sanzone Helping Veterans, Is It a Mistake?

Supporting Dog Trainer Sanzone Helping Veterans, Is It a Mistake?
Toriano Sanzone

I’m sad, personally hurt that after nearly two decades of enthusiastically and single-mindedly supporting what’s been now coined “positive training techniques” and not being afraid to speak out about aversive and I believe archaic techniques – that according to some – overnight I’ve transformed.

There are many examples just Google. What isn’t ‘Googleable’ is how I personally stood up to the National Geographic Channel and Cesar Millan’s production people, even when they threatened to sue me.

Talk about public pressure – I received more hate mail – even from my “fans.” There could be no denying Cesar Millan’s popularity, especially several years back. With all that, I never wavered.

Millan aside….I’ve always been a supporter of clicker training, and any methods which benefits the human/animal bond. I’ve pointed out publicly that aggression begets further aggression, etc.

One legendary behaviorist once called me the behind-the-scenes catalyst of positive training….while others communicated to the professionals about positive techniques, I was out there interpreting to the general public – over and over again, year after year, and starting before the concept was politically embraced. Indeed I was made fun of (some the parodies quite funny).

Of course, I wasn’t alone. Many have been communicating to the public about positive techniques for a very long time, much longer than I’ve been around.

What is true is that over the past 18 years – since I’ve been writing my national pet columns and through a variety of other venues, including radio shows, and even TV appearances, and this blog – I’ve reached more pet owners than anyone else in the media overall.

All that said – overnight, I’ve apparently transformed into a “bad guy” because I’m supporting an event held by a Chicago dog trainer seeking to assist U.S. Veterans. And all sorts of assumptions are being made….One note written to me by a trainer said that she that will no longer be recommending my columns. So my columns that were yesterday accurate no longer are? But that’s what I’m getting and worse!

I’ve received hate mail about all this – by “professionals” – or people who say they are – but don’t sign their names. Yet, maintain in their diatribes they are positive trainers. Do you possibly see the contradiction here? Whoa – these folks may be positive with dogs, but they certainly aren’t with people.

Well, with absolute transparency – here’s what happened. And in all honesty, I am not sure about what to do about it.

Several months ago I received a phone call from an animal rescuer, who has a great track record of doing good work. With good intent, she told me about a trainer named Toriano Sanzone, who then needed some PR to help out U.S. Veterans.

I didn’t know Toriano. In fact, I had never heard of him. But the idea certainly appealed to me. I said I would speak to him, and I did.

I will say after going to his website, noting that he calls himself “the Wolfkeeper” (a choice which conjures an image which is inaccurate and a very different image of how I think of dogs), and watching a Toriano made video of a dog sitting uncomfortably on a fire hydrant (that dog’s signaling was clear – he  wasn’t thrilled about sitting there), I wasn’t comfortable either. I asked Toriano lots of questions. He answered, acceptably.

Was Toriano was telling me what he guessed I wanted to hear, or the truth – to be truthful with you. I now don’t know.

But anyone who knows me, knows I like promoting events which save lives, and support the human/animal bond. His event, called 14 DDV – is about taking Pit Bull type dogs, demonstrating they can be trained, and then giving these dogs (free) to deserving U.S. Veterans. He assured me – and I did ask, about how the dogs would be trained. Indeed, they are being trained in a very public way. Would I be there to watch him train? No. But I believed him.

So, I went ahead and interviewed him in a WGN Radio Petcast. LISTEN HERE, and judge for yourself.

You can tell, I had “issues” with some of what he said….but then I don’t agree with everything that everyone says, how many of us do?

Many weeks went by….and Toriano began to train the 14 dogs. I mentioned 14DDV in a recent blog post; and that I plan to broadcast live this coming Saturday (July 14) and that is when word began to spread on lists and Facebook pages. Old videos of Toriano’s began to surface and simultaneously current videos, and I became – in some places – the object of attacks (even more than Toriano, which is interesting).

In Toriano’s defense – how many trainers have old videos (if there were YouTube back then) that would make you cringe?

On the other hand – maybe he does have the wool pulled over my eyes. I don’t  know.

This video, for example, disturbs me.

I am not going to dissect every detail here….And if you’re a dog trainer you likely know exactly why I am squirming as I watch.

So what do I do?

I never endorsed Toriano, by the way, or his methods….I have endorsed the idea of what this event is supposed to be about. That is all….Toriano listed me on his website as endorsing the event – clearly I should be more careful, when I nonchalantly tell people sure.  I am also nice, and do ask for endorsements often of this or that….I also try to be careful. Perhaps, not careful enough.

I am aware this is a PR gimmick, and that Toriano is out there for media attention….but I also believe that Toriano is sincere about wanting to help veterans and also wanting to help re-brand dogs called Pit Bulls.

Few could argue – pairing dogs with veterans (at no fee) is a great thing, and that Pit Bull looking dogs do require canine ambassadors. And also, for these dogs, they were destined to be euthanized.

By the way, he is not training dogs to be overnight (or in 14 days) service dogs….though that may be the ultimate goal. At least to my knowledge.

And that what will happen more immediately is that dogs can pass an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizens test in 14 days. There many who don’t believe Pit Bull type dogs can do any such thing just because of how they look, and I love the idea that he will demonstrate otherwise.

I don’t spend a lot of time in ‘the hood,’ and I suspect most who are highly critical of me don’t either. Let’s be honest – saying that dog trainers in certain neighborhoods are under-represented is an under-statement. In many neighborhoods, trainers don’t exist – not a single one.

On lists and email to me – people have said this is being done all the time in the inner city for veterans. Really?

Do I have some issues with some of the videos I’ve seen, absolutely?

One issue I am actually concerned about is what we don’t see – these dogs are presumably living in crates in kennels outdoors when not being trained. Well it’s been about 90 to 100 degrees in Chicago for much of those 14 days. I assume, he’s had a method to keep the dogs cool. Are they being brought indoor into air conditioning when they’re not being trained? I don’t know. Are these dogs being watched overnight – I think he said they are – not sure.

Are the dogs – presumably skittish from what I’ve seen - being overtly abused (assuming they’re being kept cool), the answer is no by all accounts. Is there a better way, seems – from what I’ve seen – absolutely!

So, what do I do?

I know that I don’t love everything Toriano is doing.

I received all sorts of email about Toriano using electronic collars, which he says he doesn’t, and colleagues in Chicago confirm. But if it’s on the Internet, it’s gotta be true, right?  That is one example, there are many other reports perpetuated on the Internet, which in Toriano’s defense are likely not true.

I also know that at least he’s there. Even if his methods are hardly considered ‘perfect’ by judgmental people like me – if he wasn’t there, well, then no one would be. Is Toriano – and others like him in other cities open to education and open dialogue. I don’t know. But maybe that should be the first option.

Maybe instead of hollering at me – Toriano can be reached, and agreement made about methods – and energy could be expended about rescuing more dogs.

Back to my question – what do I do from here? I’m not sure to be honest. The only question is whether or not to broadcast from the event on Saturday….where I would at least have opportunity to continue my conversation with Toriano on topics, such as his training methods, and also educate some city officials, such as Alderman Walter Burnett, who is expected to be there. I tend to always like the idea of open dialogue. And praising what I do like....

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  • You do not know Toriano. Ask some people who have trained with him. I have heard a lot of bad word of mouth about Sanzone and thats a fact, and years ago i looked into him. I was told by a good friend who felt stongly that he is a total phony and caused problems with their dog. Toriano also breeds and advertises mixed breed dogs. My opinion is he wants publicity, pure and simple. It's not about is he all positive or not because most of the really good trainers out there do use correction and collars and all, but either they do it properly or not. They have to know how to train a dog very well. So no I would not support toriano.

  • Steve,
    I am just seeing this. I don't know anything about this trainer, but I do know you -- a staunch supporter of positive training techniques. You were promoting humane training long before it was popular! I'm sorry you are feeling judged. It has always saddened me that some people have compassion for only one species. It sounds like you are doing your research on this issue. I know whatever you decide, you'll be following your heart. Which has always, always been in the right place.

  • I saw some news article about him "training" pits in 14 days for some veterans. Haha. Toriano Sanzone could not train a dog in 14HUNDRED days. He is a joke. His claim to fame is forcing his dog to balance on a rail, oh wow real impressive. He also makes dogs stand on pots, stools, and there's a video of him choking his dog onto a paint can. I went to one of his group classes and it sucked. He sucks. All he can do is yank dogs around and force them into standing on stools. He learned how to "train" dogs from Jim Morgan Canine Academy, look up his reviews, or ask around about him...

    Yep its another PR stunt, the guy is all marketing that is his main thing, hes a marketing person not considered a trainer. PS I like Cesar Millan and would rather work with him than Toriano Sanzone.

  • Toriano will be on WGN Radio about 1:05 AM this morning (Friday morning/Thurs. night) ask him yourselves - call in 312 591 7200.

  • I watched one of the videos and didn't quite understand what was going on. How was the dog supposed to know what was expected of it? Where were the commands? Where were the rewards (I did see him pat its head once)? I don't think using the leash to direct a dog's actions will help in anyway.

    Maybe people should be required to teach cats first before going to dogs. You can't get a cat to do tricks or agility unless you use positive reinforcement. When they see the right way to do and understand why it works then they can move on to dogs :)

    I've only been through organized obedience classes with three of my dogs: one in the late '70s, one in the '90s and the latest just 6 years ago. Every one of them was trained with positive reinforcement (although the first two had choke collars in class - by Blizzard's time they'd done away with them).

    I think your point of view should be present at this event Saturday, Steve.

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    I posted to the positive trainers group: "We" as positive trainers, should be mindful that extremism on either spectrum is not healthy or constructive. Attacking "for the good of whatever" is still an attack and does little to educate, is often unfair and causes defensiveness and destroys credibility. Let's be as ethical and humane with the human end of the leash as we are with the dogs. Attacking Steve Dale without understanding where his heart is, is just sad. I'm embarrassed." Steve - we support your efforts to help dogs everywhere in the most healthy, positive ways possible. You are a loud voice for positive training and we appreciate all you do.

  • thank you so much Carol....as you know a contingent - I doubt large, but certainly vocal took aim at me...as if I was the guy doing the training, or ever endorsed him in the first place (which actually I never did).

    My real friends had my back the moment they saw this - so on a personal level I was able to confirm who they really were - some surprises there.....

    No one appreciates being wrongly attacked, or not - even if you are a public figure.

    I agree it was interesting that a group which prides itself on motivation and being science-based and logical were so quick to jump (and do so harshly) based on assumptions. And to this moment, greatly defend those actions somehow in the name of good.

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    Thank you for being in the public eye and promoting positive methods of training. Keep up the good work. :)

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    Hi Steve! I just wanted to say that I feel you are doing the right thing here and I support you 100%. I think your heart was in the right place in wanting to support this event. I feel your response to learning about this man's training is appropriate, but it's a hard choice.

    I also wanted to let you know that I think it's absolutely wrong that some of the training community has attacked you in the way that they did, and that this is a representation of an extreme view. It saddens and disturbs me on many levels as it is so conflicting with the positive philosophy to be so negative to people.

    I have supported you in the past and will support you in the future. Thank you for all you do to promote humane training methods. I am sorry that these "professionals" lashed out at you in this way. I understand the concern, but it could have been politely and tactfully dealt with instead.

    Just wanted to let you know, that the whole community doesn't think the same way. Kudos to you and keep up the good work.

  • In reply to Sarah Fulcher:

    That's very nice Sarah- thank you!

  • Clearly, your heart is in the right place. Did you make a mistake? Only you can answer that. It's interesting and sad to note how quickly and willingly some people will turn on you when you make a decision they wouldn't make.

    Honestly, the video made me cringe a bit. The dog's discomfort and the handlers inability or unwillingness to ease that discomfort was a bit painful to watch. Having said that, there was nothing in there that I would call intentionally abusive.

    Those who choose to believe that one single percieved "mis-step" could possibly negate a lifetime spent contributing in a postive way, really ought to take a good hard look at their own lives. They are the ones who have chosen to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution IMO.

    Like others before me, I can only encourage you to keep up the good work. There are many, many of us out there who admire and appreciate what you have done and continue to do.

  • Hi Steve,
    I just read the stream of posts and I’m sorry that you were publicly harangued. You have always been on the side of enhancing the human-hound bond through positive reinforcement training, and have not been afraid to take on a popular TV dog trainer who has made a fortune selling fear: “get them before they get us” as a way of training dogs.

    There’s a saying that the only thing that two dog trainers can agree with is that the third trainer is wrong! And as you know that makes for a hotly contested subject because it seems there are as many opinions on the matter as there are dog trainers, and if that isn’t enough, the general public of “non dog-trainers” also has an opinion!

    My opinion is that one should be willing to use the same method on oneself, which I believe would end a lot of arguments.

    I found it “interesting”, that this dog-trainer, using force and intimidation to train dogs, would think that these now stressed-out animals would make for good and reliable companions for stressed-out war veterans...perhaps a topic for another blog!

    But regardless of whether a trainer uses something nice or nasty in his or her method, the trainer must have good knowledge of the animal, excellent handling skills and precision timing. And if you had all that, why then, would you choose, to hurt the animal unless hurting animals is reinforcing for the trainer...and herein lies the real issue.

    We can try to educate humans to be humane dog trainers, but we can’t make someone want to be a better human...

    Thanks for being an advocate; your humane work is needed now more than ever!

    Fran Berry, CPDT-KA

  • In reply to GofidoGoodFido:

    Thank you so much Frank....and I agree.....

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    Toriano Sanzone is a joke. I was a part of this program. The man that started the program is a former Army Ranger and good friend. I watched this man pour his heart and personal money out of pocket to make this program thrive.
    Then I watched Toriano (or I should say didn’t watch) as he was NEVER THERE. This guy did nothing but tell a couple of 15-18 year olds to walk them and yank the collar when they needed to do something. I watched him "train" a Doberman by stuffing him in a kennel and put the kennel in the back of his SUV... That’s where his training ended. One day after approx 14 hours in a kennel another guy and I had to finally take the dog and care for him, as he was covered in feces and urine. He had not eaten that entire day and no water (all while sitting out in the 100+ degree temps).
    This is a program that has the ability to change a persons and dogs life FOREVER!!! To help change what need to be changed.
    Toriano Sanzone is/was only there to further his own personal image.

    I said and stand by the fact that the guy that started this is the one that needs and deserves the pats on the back. However, he stays humble and asks for nothing.
    I feel bad that he was duped by Toriano, but glad that others were able to see what a joke Toriano is... I wouldn’t trust him to teach a porcelain dog to stay....

  • In reply to Ian Ricci:

    Thank you- I suppose very much confirming what others have said...i should have listened to my gut. Toriano would tell you (if he was honest, and if asked) I really put him through the ringer off-air....something was saying to me 'this isn't right.'

    On another topic there is a bog breed from South America, I believe, actually called the Porcelaine - they're from France originally. I know one person who had one....

  • In reply to Ian Ricci:

    I am going to be seeking legal action against Toriano for animal negligence and for not honoring our contract. If you would like to share your story with me, I would appreciate it.

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    I have been to a few classes with Toriano. I have heard both good and bad things about him, so I have no idea what to believe. At our last class, my boy looked at me like he was scared of me - and that really frightened me. I was not comfortable with the yanking, the pushing, and the lack of communication with the dog. My dog is very smart and very eager to please, so training shouldn't be too difficult. I also have no desire for my dog to stand on a stupid stool and stare at me. I did some research prior to the start of class, but after this event I researched a little more and found this page. I don't think we are going to go back. Would we be better off with classes from PetSmart? Everyone has their own views on dog training and as a new dog mom, I don't know who to believe! Any suggestions would be appreciated.

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