By Cate Terwilliger, Special to The Denver Post

Post / Lyn Alweis
Sylvia Wilson, Bark Busters founder, with Mini.

Article Published: Sunday, June 22, 2003 - 12:00:00 AM MST

Tammy and Mike Houde had a pack of trouble and too many veterinary bills after their Siberian husky and three wolf hybrids began working out dominance issues - on each other.

Alicia Leech was pooped after a year of dealing with her little dog's habitual soiling of the family's new home.

Jo Teubner had a giant schnauzer with a giant problem: a propensity for taking a nip here and there - at the ankles of frightened visitors. The Colorado Springs dog owners say they were played out with pooch problems, rapidly nearing the end of their leash.

That's when they fell for the leader of the pack: Bark Busters, an Australian-born company that established American headquarters in Denver three years ago. The world's largest dog training business - known throughout Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom - Bark Busters now is opening offices in the United States, Japan and Canada.

Its success is based on keen understanding of canine psychology, plenty of people smarts and an assurance that makes the $375 price tag palatable to even confirmed skeptics: a life-of-the-dog guarantee.

The company's premise is simple.

As pack animals, canines require a certain hierarchy, Wilson says. Lacking leadership from humans, they'll assume the role of top dog, even if they're not the alpha type. That can lead to anxious, destructive behaviors - chronic barking, chewing, jumping on people, aggression, house-soiling - that may earn them the label of dog delinquent and a trip to the nearest animal shelter.

Behavior problems top the list of reasons for pet relinquishment, according to the Humane Society of the United States. That's what prompted Wilson, a veteran dog-trainer who worked for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to start Bark Busters. "She was sick of seeing dogs put to sleep (for behavior problems)," explains husband and Bark Busters co-founder Danny Wilson.

The couple, who live in Sydney, recently visited Denver to meet with American franchisees, including Pete and Kathy Beinetti, who, in January 2002, became Bark Busters "therapists" in Colorado Springs. The Beinettis have since worked with more than 300 dogs and are considering splitting the franchise because they can't keep up with demand.

The Bark Busters approach begins with a phone consultation, followed by home visits.

Expressions of top-dog behavior may surprise humans who don't understand canine psychology. For instance, dogs dominate passively by "asking" to be petted or jumping into a human lap or bed - behavior owners often encourage, Beinetti says.

Bark Busters puts people in control through gestures that articulate "alpha" in the canine world - notably, standing at full height and issuing a deep-throated "bah" that resembles a growl. Like treats-and-praise training systems, the techniques teach who's in charge; unlike treats and praise, Bark Busters mimics the pack hierarchy and gets quick results, Beinetti says.

By contrast, Beinetti says he's able to resolve 60 to 80 percent of canine conflicts with a single home visit.

Temperamental differences between married co-owners frequently complicate the equation.

Jo Teubner's troubles began after her high-strung giant schnauzer, Cher, was startled by one of Teubner's friends and began behaving aggressively toward visitors. After six sessions with a trainer, the dog showed little improvement.

But when Beinetti first visited in early May, he had Cher under control within three hours, says Teubner.

The de-muzzled dog has since stopped lunging at visitors, she says, "but you need to remain in charge at all times. Staying on top of it is the hardest part as an owner."

Beinetti also worked with Addie, who abandoned her toilet training when her family moved to a new home. Despite trips to a trainer, the little dog continued to defecate whenever she had free run of the house, prompting owner Alicia Leech to keep her constantly on a leash indoors, confined to an area she would not soil.

Since late April, when Beinetti recommended a strict feeding schedule and the Bark Busters approach, the house-soiling has stopped, Leech says.

The Houde household - with three wolf hybrids and a Siberian husky - presented Beinetti a tougher challenge. The animals' in-fighting and general rowdiness were driving Tammy and Mike Houde to distraction - and it wasn't doing much for their marriage, either. Her husband was bitten by a dog when he was young, Tammy says; then he got nipped again while trying to separate the pack during a fracas.

A four-hour initial visit from Beinetti, with monthly follow-ups and regular phone calls, has helped turn the tide.