Tamar Geller’s Operation Heroes & Hounds matches up shelter dogs with wounded marines, and helps the marines recover and transition back into society.
Going to The Dogs
When Tamar Geller opens the door to her home high in the Bel Air hills, all we notice at first are the tanned, super-toned legs peeking out from underneath her short skirt, and the five sweet dogs that surround them. The petite vegetarian (and former model) quickly invites us in as we enjoy a fuzzy welcome from Duke (a yellow lab-German shepherd mix Geller adopted from a shelter after he’d been rescued from an illegal dog-fighting facility).
Geller, a former intelligence officer in the Israeli army, has been “coaching” dogs for a variety of clients for the past 21 years. (Some clients are not so famous, while one is known simply as Oprah.) She’s become an adviser to the Humane Society of the United States; released a book, The Loved Dog: The Playful, Nonaggressive Way to Teach Your Dog Good Behavior, which explains her “Loved Dog” method of training; battled with Los Angeles to open a cage-free doggie day care and kennel; and launched two nonprofit charities: Another Chance for Love, an eight-week program in which juvenile delinquents train shelter dogs, and Operation Heroes & Hounds (OperationHeroesandHounds.org).
The Operation Heroes & Hounds program started in California at Camp Pendleton as a means to aid wounded marines both in their recovery and in their transition back into society. Participants include members of the United States military who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. These “walking wounded” are paired with shelter dogs in need of behavior modification. Using Geller’s teaching method, service members get to coach and live with the dogs, forming a bond of trust while helping to heal each other’s emotional wounds. Geller’s program is highly beneficial to the service members involved (see sidebar), who develop renewed confidence and life skills, and also to the shelter dogs, giving them an increased likelihood of being adopted. It’s a powerful program that heals and empowers its members.
Before you became a trainer, you were an intelligence officer in the Israeli army. What was that like?
It was tons of fun! It was unbelievable to be a female officer. Everyone goes into the army, but to be an intelligence officer in the Air Force and get to work with the Special Forces? That had never happened before. I demanded it. My boyfriend was a CH-53 pilot-those are the big helicopters-and he was working with the Special Forces. Every-one in my neighborhood was either in Special Forces or pilots. At the time you were not supposed to know they existed. But I knew, and I never played by the rules, even in the army.
Why was that your goal?
It meant I would be working with the most brilliant people and doing things I would never get to do in the outside world. It was to know the intelligence of what was going on in the world during the Iraq-Iran war. You know everything. You know when Saddam Hussein sneezes. As a woman, I did not have many options, and that was the most interesting thing I could have done in terms of adventure.
Are you adventurous by nature?
I’m always looking to live life in the most exciting way. I like to have the uncertainty within the certainty. But sometimes it’s tough. One weekend, I went hiking with the guys and they taught me rappelling. Three days later, we had a mission and one of the guys who taught me was killed. Another time my boyfriend was shot down. I knew whoever was going to fly that day would be shot at, but I couldn’t say anything. Everything turned out okay, but those kinds of experiences make you appreciate things differently.
Do any of the skills you learned in the army carry over to what you do now?
It’s all about strategic planning. You have plan A, plan B, plan C, and plan D. That has served me with dog training because it’s not one size fits all. If I want to teach a dog to sit and instead he backs off, I say, “Okay, you give me new behavior, let me move to plan D.”
You developed your training method partially from watching the wolves in one of Israel’s nature preserves. Were you ever scared?
In the beginning I was, and then I realized there is never blood. Every-thing they did was physical contact, including the way they challenged and played with each other. But at the beginning, until I understood, I was scared. The scientists doing the research explained what the behav-iors meant, and I got books and, all of a sudden, I could see so much more. They are so similar to dogs.
You backpacked through Southeast Asia and then ended up living in Los Angeles. How did that happen?
When I was traveling, I also stayed for a couple of months in Japan and did some modeling. They love short, blonde women. When I came here —I was on my way home to start my life, to be a shrink — my Lonely Planet book said that Venice Beach is great and gave me the name of a hostel.
I went there and didn’t understand English, and they were asking if I wanted to rent the room by the hour. I’m like, Why? I want to spend the night! Who sleeps Just for an hour?
It shows you how much being a foreigner is such a trip. I rented it for the night, and, obviously, did not get much sleep from all the commotion going on. The next day, I was on the boardwalk and I saw a poster for Pink Floyd. They were about to play. I was like, I’d better find where to stay because I’m not going back if they’re about to play I called different dog trainers and wanted to apprentice to see how they were training dogs in benevolent America. It surprised me that the Israeli army training and the way they train here were the same. It’s all about breaking the spirit and building it up again in the way you like. Now we know from behavioral science that that is the most backward thing to do.