Animals offer hope for special-needs families

Animals offer hope for special-needs families

Dog whispering changes people's lives, too

Janice Wolfe – a canine behaviorist and New Jersey’s Dog Whisperer (as certified by America’s Dog Whisperers Academy) – explains that “a whisperer, unlike a trainer, changes people in order to change the dog’s behavior.” To ensure consistency, whisperers work with the entire family, as well as with anyone (such as a dog walker) who interacts with the dog.

“We teach dogs the rules of the house,” said Wolfe, a longtime Bergen County resident, especially “rules about what they’re not allowed to do.”

For example, she said, a dog whisperer does not necessarily care whether a dog is sitting or standing as long as the animal understands that it should not jump on people.

While trainers generally teach certain behaviors or substitute one behavior for another, a whisperer changes a behavior completely, she said. “We turn the tables so that dogs fit into the people’s lives.”

Wolfe and her business partner, Mark German – a fellow canine behavior specialist dubbed “America’s Dog Whisperer” – travel around the country educating dog owners and visiting humane societies and shelters to teach people how to have stable relationships with their dogs.

“Each year we save tens of thousands of dogs who would be euthanized for behavioral reasons,” said Wolfe, who also rehabilitates dogs so they can be adopted into good homes.

“Not every family is a candidate for a dog,” she points out, whether because they’re not “dog people” or are not able to perform the four required tasks of a dog owner: take the dog for walks, set rules, provide proper nutrition, and display leadership.

“The dog needs to understand that the people are pack leaders,” she said.

Wolfe noted that Rhodesian Ridgebacks like Emmy are particularly suitable as service dogs.

“She was shy and reserved when I found her,” said Wolfe, “with the right temperament – stable and balanced but not overly friendly.”

Wolfe’s goal, through the nonprofit Merlin’s Kids, is to rehabilitate dogs like Emmy and give them – for free – to families like the Nittis. So far, she has absorbed most of the costs herself, but she is working to obtain donations.

“What we really need is a facility,” she said, explaining that she can train only a few service dogs at a time. “We need someone with a farm,” she suggested, noting that she gets many requests for service animals but can’t meet the need.

Wolfe, a cancer survivor, said that “while I always wanted to help solve the world’s problems,” she started Merlin’s Kids to make sense of the fact that she had survived while so many other “great people” did not.

The group is named after a 1,300-pound white Lipizzan stallion Wolfe had owned and loved.

“He was wonderful with children,” she explained. “His compassion for those in fear or in pain made him a truly unique horse. People who never rode before felt safe [with him],” she said.

According to its Website, the goal of Merlin’s Kids is “to ensure that service, therapy, or companion animals are available to everyone, regardless of financial circumstance.”

Autism service dogs, therapy dogs and horses, and companion dogs are rescued from all over the United States and the animals are trained to address specific disabilities.

For further information, visit, call Janice Wolfe at (201) 788-3882, or e-mail

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