Sam Malatesta wanted a German shepherd all his life. But only after he had his first two for six years did he finally learn how to understand them.

His father, who came from four generations of dog trainers, showed him that it is less about what you say, and all about how you act.

“You don’t speak with your mouth,” Malatesta said. “You speak with your body.”

That was almost 25 years ago, and since then, Malatesta has become a renowned dog trainer throughout the United States and Canada. He doesn’t follow the typical techniques or training norms — he follows his experience with dogs, and other animals, and his innate ability to see dogs for what they are and give them what they need.

“I put people back in the perspective of understanding that dogs are dogs,” he said. “We tend to treat dogs as humans.

“Owners must learn how their dogs see things, not how [the owners] see things.”

Malatesta’s training seminars and intensive 10-month camps retrain dog owners as much if not more than training the dog. A lot of people simply fail to connect with dogs, and it is all about interconnection, he said.

Malatesta focuses much of his work on helping problem dogs, which often get euthanized at animal shelters because people don’t know how to handle them. He began working with animal rescues and shelters in the Midwest in 2001.

And he’s no Cesar Milan. While the California-based Dog Whisperer manages to stay spot-free, when Malatesta trains dogs “he’s got fur and slobber all over him,” said Lauren Howard, with the Animal Protection Association in Jeffersonville. “He gets down and dirty.”

Howard first met Malatesta while working at Rosa’s Animal Rescue outside of Cincinnati. She had a dog that was “an absolute neurotic mess,” she said. She had tried everything to develop a relationship with the dog, but nothing worked, Howard said.

Rosa’s Animal Rescue brought Malatesta to Cincinnati for a seminar and a co-worker encouraged her to go.

“It changed my life in that one weekend,” Howard said. “My dog absolutely did not trust me and I never realized that.

“It is just naturally his thing — some people have a gift. That’s what he has.”

Malatesta bases his training technique on what he learned working with wolves and also how a female dog teaches her puppies to obey her unconditionally without ever saying a word.

He said genetics don’t play the major role in a dog’s behavior that most people think — not all pit bulls are aggressive and not all German shepherds are neurotic.

“What I want to show people is dogs are individuals like people and they shouldn’t be categorized,” Malatesta said. “The method is about building relationships the same way with dogs as with other people.

“Your dog will look at you when you’re worth looking at.”

Malatesta’s seminar next weekend in Clarksville is bringing all kinds of dogs and all kinds of owners together to fix some problems and maybe prevent new ones from arising.

Pet owners from around Indiana and Kentucky are bringing food-aggressive and dog-aggressive dogs, a deaf dog, a very shy dog and a feral dog to the seminar to hopefully find a way to solve their problems.

“We have a wide variety of dog issues,” Howard said.

All 15 “dog” spots are full, but she said people are encouraged to come without their dogs. There will be dog breeders, dog owners, shelter staff and rescue groups there to learn from Malatesta, too.

“He’s never met these dogs before in his life,” Howard said. “But he sees what it takes to become their friend.”

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