On November 16 dog trainer Ami Moore, who advertises herself as Chicago’s Dog Whisperer, was acquitted in misdemeanor court of two counts of animal cruelty. She was arrested in July 2006, after witnesses told police they’d seen her using electronic collars on a bichon frise and a Newfoundland in ways that made the dogs pant, tremble, and yelp. .
Her arrest was big news in the city’s tight-knit dog community, made up of not only dog owners but also the busy industry they support—it seems like there’s a trainer for every third dog. I wrote about Moore in the Reader last spring, when she was awaiting trial (“Who Should You Trust to Train Your Dog?,” April 6). After the story ran, the Reader got more than 50 letters, many critical of electronic-collar training.
One reason for the high interest in Moore’s case is the larger issue it speaks to. No state or city license is required to become a trainer. Trainers who don’t board animals need only a standard business license, and they’re largely free to make up a regimen without proving to anyone that it works. Moore’s Web site claims that she has “pioneered the use of electric dog training equipment as positive reinforcement” and refers to a “system of touch and tone, or ‘TNT’ to connect with the dog, and to override and realign the dog’s erratic and unbalanced brain waves and energy meridians.” It continues, “Sounds like voodoo, looks like voodoo, works like voodoo; which means it works really, really well, and science can’t explain how. Science does not yet have the technology to reveal the how’s and why’s, but they are getting closer every day.”
Trainers who practice positive-reinforcement methods, which are usually based on animal behavior science, reward the dog for good behavior rather than punishing it for bad. Most of them seem to be of two minds about regulation. They generally favor the idea, but there’s no consensus on the standards licensing would be expected to defend. “There are so many ways of training, who’s going to say what works and what doesn’t?” says agility trainer Stacey Hawk, who cochairs the Dog Advisory Work Group, a citywide dog advocacy group. “How would you get everyone to agree? It would be way too hard to set this up.”
DAWG sent a representative to nearly every hearing in Moore’s case. A half dozen witnesses to Moore’s handling of dogs eventually spoke to investigators; they got to know one another and became somewhat organized, and they also had someone present at almost every court date. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals submitted a letter to the assistant state’s attorney prosecuting the case, urging him to push for jail time.
Moore’s aquittal doesn’t clarify the debate over how dogs should be trained nor the one over whether trainers should be regulated. But Cynthia Bathurst, executive director of DAWG, says the case has made many owners more selective about the trainers they hire. “Everyone was following this case,” she says. “I got lots of e-mails and calls from owners and trainers. The fact that someone was arrested and brought to trial has significant implications. Trainers need to understand how their techniques work because now people will be asking about them.”
By and large, members of the positive-reinforcement camp are unhappy with the trial’s outcome. “There’s extreme disappointment in the community,” says Hawk.
In September, more than two months before her trial, Moore filed a defamation suit against her neighbor Diane Opresnik, who’d spoken to police, to Channel Two reporter Pam Zekman (who aired a story about the case in August), and to me. The suit, which also names PETA as a defendant, cites statements Opresnik made to Zekman and me about seeing the bichon frise—a tiny dog—wearing two electronic collars, one around its neck and one around its waist as though to shock its genital area. Moore, who has denied using the second collar this way, is asking for $21 million.
According to the police report, witnesses complained that Moore’s electronic collar caused the Newfoundland to “cry out in pain, pant in distress and scratch at the collar in an attempt to stop the shocking sensation.” One of those witnesses, John O’Malley, testified at the trial that the dog “made squeals and howls” and “reared forward... kind of like a jump almost when the shocks were administered.”
In court, Moore gave her own accounts of how she trained the Newfoundland and the bichon. She admitted to strapping a collar around the Newfoundland’s neck and she recalled the dog emitting an “excited prey type yell.” But she said she never activated the collar. To support Moore, the defense put on the Newfoundland’s owner, who wasn’t present at the scene that witnesses reported to the police.
Roberta Karlton, an obstetrician, testified that when she got Alfred at nine weeks he panted excessively, tore at shirtsleeves, and strained at his leash hard enough to pull her off her feet. Moore worked with Alfred in hour-long sessions over nearly two years, sometimes with Karlton watching, and once he stayed with her for “boot camp” training. Since then, Karlton testified, he’d “improved remarkably,” and she saw no evidence of torment or abuse when he came home.
As for the bichon frise, witness Mary Jo de Paolo, a pharmacist who was walking her own bichon, said she chatted with Moore in Skinner Park on June 1, 2006, while Moore was working. She said Moore’s bichon was “jerking” and “kind of disoriented” and that she told Moore the dog “seems to be having some kind of seizures.” She saw two collars on the dog, one around the neck and one “where the dog’s genitals would be.”
Moore, who had just watched de Paolo testify, said she had no recollection of seeing her in the park that day, though she did recall a woman screaming racial epithets at her. (Moore, who’s black, has claimed the accusations against her are racially motivated.) She testified that the use of two collars on the bichon was an “advanced technique” and that the second collar’s receiver was “directly on the lower back... in front of the hips.” The receiver is the part of the collar that transmits an electric current; Moore said she used the collar to “give a little tickle to make the dog sit.”
At the close of the bench trial—no jury—Judge Patrick O’Brien said he faced “a lack of information as to what exactly is transmitted [by the collar] and to what degree.” The defense had offered as an expert witness David Dodd, a trainer asked to investigate Moore’s case by Radio Systems, an electronic-collar manufacturer Moore has bought equipment from. But when the judge found out Dodd had no background in electronics he cut off his testimony. “I am sure he has a great deal of experience in using [the electronic collar],” O’Brien told the defense, “but what I am more interested in is anatomically and electronically what exactly is going on.”
The state rounded up two expert witnesses of its own, but submitted their names to the court so late in the pretrial process that the judge refused to let them testify. I was able to talk to one of them—John Ciribassi, a veterinarian at Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants who’s also board certified in animal behavior by the American College of Veterinary Behavior. “Most veterinary behaviorists are not comfortable with use of electronic collars in training,” he said. “You’re causing the animal to suffer through an amount of pain and discomfort until it figures out what you want it to do. It may never figure that out. And you could easily apply the punishment too late, at the wrong intensities, or out of anger.”
Incorrect use of the collar can cause fear, anxiety, and pain in the dog, he said, leading to problems with aggression. “Most good trainers and the vast majority of behaviorists don’t rely on punishment at all to train.”
Announcing his verdict, O’Brien said that to find Moore guilty he’d have needed to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that she “inflicted consequences which can be considered cruel” on the dogs she trained. He went on: “Based on lack of information as to what exactly is transmitted, and to what degree, and how that may affect the dog, and based upon absence of evidence... that there were consequences to the dog upon this training which resulted in effects that were not present before, and which could be considered by a reasonable person to be cruel, I find the absence of this information prevents me from doing anything but finding the defendant not guilty.”
I e-mailed Moore asking for comment on the outcome of her case, but she didn’t respond. She did, however, e-mail Reader editor Alison True with news of the acquittal, asking for a retraction of our previous story and writing, “Everything that your reporter published was unfounded, unsubstantiated and a complete fabrication.”v