The Pound Pups TV star is labelled an animal behaviourist but says that changing human behaviour is the hard part of his work.
For some dim-witted reason, it hadn't occurred to me that obviously Mark Vette, the animal behaviourist and star of TV show Purina Pound Pups to Dog Stars, would have more than one or, say, two dogs.
I don't like dogs. They bite and bark and pong. I am frightened of dogs. But what could go wrong when you are going to see the man who trained the famous car-driving dogs seen on Campbell Live? "100 million tweets!" he said. He also trained the Bugger dog. "I think he did 140 ads and about 40 movies!" The Bugger dog (real name, Hercules; now, sadly, deceased) must have been very rich! "He was quite rich." What did he spend the money on? Bones, presumably. Ha, ha. "Ha, ha. He actually spent it on a zoo. We had a rescue zoo at the time."
How good is Mark Vette? An animal shrink is really a human shrink. "Changing human behaviour is probably the biggest part of my work. We obviously have to change animal behaviour. But that's the easy part; it's the human behaviour that's the hard part."
The photographer (thanks, buddy) told him that my cat had problems. I said: "My cat's problems are nothing to do with me!"
The animal behaviourist looked at me, very kindly and calmly, and said: "Of course not! How long have you got?" He is very kind and calm and the best-known animal trainer in the country so nothing could go wrong. My number one idea of something going wrong, had I thought about it, might have been that a dog would sit on my lap.
When we arrived at his 4ha block at Waimauku there were signs: "Dangerous Dogs. Do Not Walk Down Driveway." I wasn't getting out of the car, I told the photographer. The photographer may have looked at a cluck of chickens before looking at me. A big hairy dog wandered out and ignored us. I stayed in the car until Kim, who is Vette's fiancee, came out of the house. (They are getting married next year. Would there be dog bridesmaids? I asked him later. "There will," he said "be a reasonable animal influence, I'm sure.")
We went into the house. The big hairy dog came in too. This made four dogs in the house and another four safely contained on the back porch - until the animal behaviourist opened the glass doors so that I could meet those ones too. As I say, he is very kind. His house is what you might politely call dog-friendly. There is a dog's water bowl in the loo. And, ahem, a small puddle on the lounge floor. I did point this out because, really, that is funny. He said it wasn't one of his dogs; his son had let the clinic dogs in the house (there were 10 or so more in the clinic, which is, thankfully, around the back of the house) when he knows he's not allowed to. He pretended to be mildly cross about this and failed utterly.
We would repair, he said, to the Zen training space, with cups of tea, for a bit of peace and quiet. The four house dogs came with us. There was Monty, the hairy driving dog; and Tommy, the little white dog; and Blue (I think; it all got a bit confusing) also hairy; and Ricky, the one-eyed, brindle dog. A bit of peace and quiet? He's a very funny man. The interview was punctuated with whistles (he is an accomplished whistler of the ear-splitting variety) and: "Hey! Come. Good boy! Oi! Leave it Tom. Good boy!" and so on. Monty had to be put on his chain. He likes attention. His response to being put on the chain was to beat his very large tail very loudly against the wall. I said: "I have to say, Mark, these dogs are not very well-behaved!" He said: "Ha, ha. This one here. All he is is a love machine! You just want to be loved, don't you, eh?"
I said: "Do you need dogs to love you? Have you thought about that?" Never try to out-shrink a shrink. He gave me a look as piercing as his whistle and said: "I love dogs." This may have been one of his Zen answers.
How good is he? I don't like dogs. I'm frightened of dogs. I appear to have a one-eyed dog sitting on my lap. It appears to be looking at the questions on my notepad with great interest. It wouldn't entirely surprise me to learn that his owner has taught him how to read. He did after all train dogs to drive and he has said he was thinking about training dogs to fly a plane. This makes my whimsy - getting the dog to conduct the interview - seem almost sane. I said: "Ask your dad a question: Do you still do kung fu, dad?" He does still do a bit of kung fu (he is a black belt in it) but mostly these days he meditates which he does twice a day, in the forest, for an hour in the morning and for 40 minutes at night. The one-eyed dog licked my face. His owner laughed like anything and said: "We're going to change every cat person to a one-eyed dog person, aren't we Ricky? He's such a smooch, that boy."
Yes, but what about this mad idea of teaching dogs to fly? He said: "I can't talk about that at the moment. Ha, ha." No, because it's never going to happen. "I'm under a NDA. So I can't talk about that but let me say ... there are projects." A NDA is a non-disclosure agreement. That he is doing a six-part documentary on dog cognition is as much as he can say. I think I can safely say that it involves teaching dogs to fly.
He comes from a flying family. He has his pilot's licence, his brother is a pilot and his father, who died last week (his funeral is today at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell) was Captain Gordon Vette, the crusader who worked as a special adviser to Justice Peter Mahon on the reinvestigation of the Erebus crash.
He inherited compassion and empathy and optimism from both his parents, he says. He has to be an optimist, to do what he does. "I do," he said. I think, actually, he is something beyond an optimist, whatever that might be, because if you watch Pound Pups, and see what people are capable of doing to animals, and what he sees they are capable of doing almost every day, most people would be in a state of constant despair. He said: "I'm also a believer that we're responsible for other people's mistakes at some level."
He is a Buddhist and has been since he was 17 and a vegetarian and a practitioner of Naikan, a Japanese method of self-reflection and "mindfulness". This means "being fully present in the moment and focused on what you're doing". This also happens to be what he loves about dogs: That they live in the moment. I said: "You're turning into a dog!" This is not something you could say, without causing offence, to most people, but he was delighted. He said: "Ha, ha. I am turning into a dog! I've probably got a bit of dog in me." What sort of dog would he be? "That's a good question! A bit like Blue maybe. A very relaxed, meditative, loving dog. He's a Beardie." A Beardie is a Bearded Collie and is what a dog that had been a hippie in a former life would look like if he came back as a dog.
He used to be a hippie and had long hair and "those flower pants. Ha, ha". He smoked dope back then but now just meditates. He is still a hippy, really. He is still very good friends with his former wife, Alison, and was at her house the night before, watching the TV show. They have three now grown-up children together, two of whom work with him. He lives with Kim and they work together and so too does his former partner, Rosie, who is also on the show. That might be a little bit hippie, or simply evidence that he is a nice man.
I did have a hippie and doggy sort of story for him. I told him about the artist Max Gimblett, who is also a Buddhist, and who believes he was a beagle in a former life because I thought he'd like that story (and he did) but also by way of asking whether he believes in former lives. He said: "I think the idea of former lives is a way of constructing a story about reality. I'm a scientist at heart. These are all ideas about transformation. I love that little saying: What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. We transform. We have a very human-centric view of the world, so we always talk about whether we go on as a human. Our consciousness goes on. I like to use the image of the ocean and the wave. We are a wave for a while and that's me: I'm Mark, as a wave, and then I go back to the ocean."
He uses Zen methods to train animals (his newest venture is Mark Vette's Dog Zen) and if that sounds a bit barking, think about those driving dogs, is all I can say. (Also that he never needed to smoke dope.)
Still, I did wonder whether he is Zen-talking to the converted. The people who want a good dog and who are good owners are not the people who are going to bring their dog to him for training, and they are unlikely to watch the TV show. I said about Ricky, the one-eyed dog, whose former owner (if that is the right word) got a six-month prison sentence for putting his eye out and breaking his jaw, among other horrific things. He'd never change people like that, I said. Did I mention that he is an optimist? He believes that just as almost all dogs can be turned around, so can people. "There is an inherent goodness in every human being and in every animal."
We looked at his arm. The one which required about 40 stitches after a Doberman had been on the end of it. Surely he was frightened of that dog. What do you think? It was a moment of distraction, he said.
He is an odd sort of telly star, not least because he is exactly the same off screen as he is on - and he doesn't seem to have a showman's ego. He's no doubt mindful of these things. I did wonder whether any of the dogs got a bit starry and big-headed. Did the Bugger dog strut about, thinking: "I'm a TV star!" He said: "They don't care that they're on television!" No, well, they wouldn't know they were on television. I was just being silly. "Well. They might know. But they don't care. But he did know he was number one dog!" He said: "I'm pleased to say I'd rather manage a dog's ego than a human ego, that's for sure."
Quite right too. Now, about me. Could he make me very rich by making my cat famous? I showed him a picture. My cat is a bit fat. He said: "Now, let's get into some of your problems. Shall we talk about this overweight cat? We can work on that." Good, isn't he?