Meet Hollywood's Top Canine Trainer: "A Life Coach for Dogs and for People"
Tamar Geller, a former Israeli spy, has ushered in a kinder practice. Says Oprah: "She understands they are family, not just pets to be manipulated."
When Jim Gianopulos and his wife, Ann, evacuated their home during the Skirball Fire last December, the couple learned that their newly adopted rescue dog, Homer, had more serious anxiety issues than they thought. Upon the Gianopuloses' arrival at a Santa Monica hotel with their two teenage daughters, the German shepherd refused to budge from the entrance. "He dug in and would not move," says the CEO-chairman of Paramount Pictures.
With the help of his wife, Gianopulos got the "freaked-out" 110-pound dog back in the car and convinced a local animal hospital to board him for the night. "That's when we and Homer started working with Tamar [Geller]," says Gianopulos of the Israeli spy turned top trainer, who had also worked with the family's first dog, a rescue named Taxi who came with a deep-rooted fear of all men (including Jim). Adds Ann: "Already she's made a huge difference in training and helping Homer."
For more than 20 years, Geller has helped top industry execs — such as Ron Meyer, Ted Sarandos and Imagine's Michael Rosenberg — and stars (including Jon Stewart, Ben Affleck, Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron and Ellen DeGeneres) delve into the canine psyche. "First and foremost, she loves dogs and understands that they are family members and not just pets to be manipulated," says client Oprah Winfrey, who was referred to Geller by actress Nicollette Sheridan in 2005. Winfrey tapped the trainer to work with her golden retriever puppies: "She teaches them to be well-behaved with good manners."
Geller, who declines to give her age, cites Winfrey's description of her when she was a guest on her show: "I really am a life coach for dogs and people." The trainer, who has authored two books, including New York Times best-seller The Loved Dog, says, "I don't believe in obedience. I don't believe in commands. I look at a holistic way of getting a dog to be in our society." Client Julianne Hough, whose dogs Lexi and Harley work with Geller, concurs: "Tamar's training methods are driven by love and kindness."
It's an unlikely career path for Geller, who got her start as an intelligence officer with Israel's elite special forces in 1982, where she witnessed "behavior at the highest level of politics and infrastructure." Four years later, Geller retreated to Israel's Arava desert ("I needed a break from people"), where she ended up studying wolves in the wild to understand the complex ways in which the animals communicated with each other.
"A lot of information people were given about dogs is wrong," says Geller, dismissing methods such as the alpha rollover, a controversial technique in which the human forcibly flips a dog onto its back to assert dominance. "Think of the way kids were raised in the 1950s compared to the way they are raised now," says Geller, who trains privately, as well as out of her Westside home, where she resides with her three dogs. "Dogs are like toddlers. If I am not going to give commands and punish kids with a painful method, why should I do it with a dog? All these methods break the bond that we want to build."
Geller's break came in the mid-1980s when, as a dog-training volunteer in Los Angeles, she advised a client about his sock-stealing cocker spaniel. "The owner was so creative and busy with his passion, it was the only way the dog could get his attention," says Geller. She taught the owner how to engage the dog in chasing, wrestling and tug-of-war — basic dog needs that she learned during her time observing wolves. The satisfied client turned out to be saxophonist Kenny G, who referred her to Goldie Hawn, Whoopi Goldberg and Sheridan.
At the start of a session, Geller, who is currently at work on a third book (focused on training and spirituality), tries to understand not only the dog's issue and its root cause, but the owners' value system, too. "If they don't care what the dog's needs are, they're not for me," she says. Gianopulos describes one owner-involved method: "Tamar has her own way of training in which she creates a word [for a situation]." He finds himself chanting "friend, friend," in a reassuring tone to Homer when guests arrive at their home. "It's always attached to positive reinforcement," he adds. (A one-hour private session with Geller starts at $350 with a two-week minimum, and training vacations — for dogs only — out of her home are offered at $350 a day.)
Project Runway exec producer Desiree Gruber and husband Kyle MacLachlan also became fans of Geller after tasking her with helping their Jackapoo (Jack Russell and poodle mix) puppy Elvis socialize and become acclimated to bicoastal travel. "One of my favorite Tamar stories is, if you call your dog and they don't come, it's like someone using caller ID to ignore your calls," says Gruber. "So, we're learning how to have Elvis take our calls every time. It cracked us up to think of Elvis declining our phone calls."
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.