A Dog’s Life

At 5 feet 6 inches tall, the youthful, outgoing Clark Pelphrey hardly seems imposing. He moves slowly, speaks softly, and is anything but violent, but the Owensboro, Ky., man looms large over my dog, Lena, who’s trembling in a kitchen corner. The only thing under threat is her alpha-female complex.

As the owner of Bluegrass Dog Psychology, Pelphrey conducts in-home sessions with problem pets: dogs with aggression, phobias, and other behavioral issues. In the case of my 2-year-old, mixed-breed dog, it was a stubborn habit of jumping up to kitchen counters to steal grilled cheese sandwiches, apple slices, fresh-baked muffins, or any tasty treat she could snatch. Despite my attempts to break the habit — and catch her before she scampered away with my lunch — the mischievous Lena refused to behave.

I called Pelphrey, a Mississippi native who grew up around horses, not dogs. But as he studied the quirks of his friends’ pets, he thought, “That makes sense to me. I can fix that.” Pelphrey began reading about dog psychology, a field made famous by “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan, a behavior specialist known for calming the most cantankerous canines. As Pelphrey experimented with new tactics and began to find success, a friend told him, “You could make money doing this.”

Pelphrey, whose career has included stints as an emergency medical technician, a law enforcement officer, and a corporate trainer for Starbucks, founded Bluegrass Dog Psychology in January 2009. He travels to clients around the Tri-State, often accompanied by his affable Boston terrier, Bailey.

Pelphrey begins sessions by asking owners about the dog’s history and the details of its troublesome behavior. Mostly, he watches dogs in their element, observing how owners interact with them. He corrects misbehaving dogs not by shouting or hitting, but by using strong body language and few words. “I channel my law enforcement days,” he says. “What’s imposing is attitude, demeanor, and body language.”

When a curious Lena put her front paws on the kitchen counter, where Pelphrey took notes on a clipboard, he snapped his fingers and stood up, taking slow steps toward her. Lena stared at him, inching away from the counter as he moved forward. “She thinks she controls this space,” Pelphrey told me as he guided a trembling Lena into a passive sitting position. “I’m challenging that.”

Pelphrey admits that when he tells people about his job, the phrase “dog psychology” provokes raised eyebrows and skeptical looks. But as I watched him work — and observed my dog’s noticeably calmer demeanor in the days that followed — it didn’t seem so far-fetched. Pelphrey’s philosophy is simple: “You have a rule, and you have to be able to enforce it,” he says. “You’re not hurting anybody. You’re enforcing the rules.”

Bluegrass Dog Psychology
270-929-9928 • www.bluegrassdogpsychology.com

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