We first met Graeme almost two years ago, as we were heading back to the car at the end of one of our regular canal walks near Abergavenny. We saw him from a distance, strolling along the peaceful waterway with his faithful friend Wag, and upon catching up with them, Graeme had approached us in a friendly and inquisitive manner and we stroke up an interesting and thoughtful conversation that stayed with us ever since. He told us that in the past he had been a chef, a soldier, a gardener, a painter, the creative director of an advertising agency and a priest. However, Graeme’s true calling lay in training – and talking to – dogs, and he developed his own system of dog whispering, the Graeme Sims Method, which can be briefly described in three parts, or stages: first comes love, second knowledge, third empathy – a fusion of instinct, love, curiosity, understanding and humility.
Since our random yet unforgettable encounter, Graeme has won the fight against cancer and developed a strong existential and professional partnership with Valentina Teghillo, a passionate dog trainer who recently published her first book. Valentina and Graeme are now following the same path and are jointly running Graeme Sims School, delivering dog training seminars and workshops in Italy and the UK. Their dog training method is all about the dog and its needs and motivations and not about the vanity of simply making an animal do what we, the humans, want it to do. On the other hand, their method is not only about dogs, but also about humans; teaching us a lesson in humbleness, their method encourages us to question our relationship with the world around us and inspires us to move away from the innate belief in our own superiority.
We caught up with Valentina and Grame – and their dogs Wag, Lola and Susie – on a sunny Saturday morning at Goytre Wharf near Abergavenny shortly after their return from Italy, and had an insightful conversation about the manifold threads that connect their personalities, their dog training philosophy and the things they would like to achieve in the near future.
For people who don’t know you, who are Graeme and Valentina. What are your stories?
Valentina: Who are we? Defining ourselves is always hard, especially when there’s not a label that can describe us in a complete way. We are first of all two simple people who love dogs and who made this passion the centre of their life. Dogs are one of the common elements we have between us. In fact, we both like nature in all its forms, we are quite creative individuals who tend to express themselves without filters both in our practical work with dogs and in our writing books. Conveying the message is very important for us, especially as we believe in what we do and say. We come from different backgrounds, different countries and different experiences that in some ways have helped us to find our real purposes. Speaking for myself, I can say that my journey started from Italy, where I dedicated most of my life trying to find my way. After a degree in economics and a master degree in business administration, plus having worked in an administrative office for two years, I realised what was really important to me. Spending my life behind a computer all day, dealing with numbers and bureaucracy was not my cup of tea, as I was not happy at all. For this reason, I decided to change my life, by finally listening to my instinct and follow my real inclinations. So I left a safe and well paid job to dedicate myself to dogs, together with Graeme, with whom I had already collaborated for four years, first as translator then as dog trainer too. Now I feel free to express myself and my creativity in all the forms I like. Last November I finally published my first book, where I could talk about all the things I thought and believed in. It has been a great achievement for me as I had always wanted to write a book about my personal experience with dogs and now I finally did it. Now I am not wasting my days closed in an office but I can enjoy every single moment of my life by doing what I really like and feeling myself fully. I also discovered again the pleasure of taking pictures and creating advertisements for our job.
Graeme: I started in advertising, ended up as a creative director also followed other paths such as painting and drawing animals, lecturing for the WWF on conservation and animals such as the big cats and gorillas. I found a Border Collie on the road and ended my advertising career to become a demonstrator of sheepdog skills at two theme parks, worked eight dogs simultaneously using a different language for each (see Wikipedia). I wrote four books and won a Mother Goose Award for the illustrations in Rufus The Fox plus a best educational project award for a multimedia story about the evolution of the earth with Dr. David Bellamy. In 2008 I wrote my first dog book which became a bestseller in Italy, subsequently often invited to come and conduct seminars all over this country. I was ordained priest in 1999.
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
Valentina: Oh well, if I think about my childhood I have many different scenes in my mind. First of all, I remember when I learnt to ride the bicycle, as it was a very exciting goal that I had achieved on an autumnal windy afternoon in the square in front of my primary school. I was with my dad and my pink bike, to which he had attached a couple of little wheels at the sides. I can still feel the enthusiasm that I had when I realised I was riding my bike without using the little wheels. Then I remember that I often dreamt to be able to fly just by moving my arms quickly in circle and my legs like in a running style. I also believed to be able to read in English, as I thought that it was only necessary to read Italian words backwards. Another memory is about my dad and I in the countryside while we were escaping from a running cow that was following us. It was really funny and exciting, as in order to be faster, my dad made me stand on his bike behind him, while he was riding his own bike and carrying my little pink bike with us.
Another vivid memory is when my mum used to pick me up from the nursery school on Friday afternoons. I was always looking forward to seeing her arriving at the door as it meant that we would spend the rest of the afternoon together. I also remember when we ate five croissants during the afternoon snack after I finished my school day. It was a super crazy treat that only my mum and I could think to have. Another vivid memory is when I chose my first dog, Daghi, from a litter of many little puppies in a kennel in Turin. He was the only one who tried to hide under a piece of furniture and the one I found very similar to me: shy and frightened. At that time, I was afraid of dogs but also very curious to know them better. I have so many strong memories that it would be impossible to talk about them all. The nice thing is that almost all of them are nice memories and this means that even though there have been some sad and difficult moments, I had a nice childhood, surrounded by love and happiness.
Graeme: Vivid childhood memories… Losing my first dog as an 8 year old child and being horrified by the adults around me who reminded me that it was “only a dog” made me realise realise that I was out of step and resolved mentally that this is where I would stay, as I felt that I could more easily communicate with dogs than humans and that they were far more genuine.
How did you two meet?
Valentina: It was in Milan, when Graeme was there to meet with his publisher. It was not a coincidence, as we had been in contact for many months. Everything started after I had read one of his books, The Dog Whisperer. I could see myself in it, and completely shared the view and the consideration of dogs that he inspiringly communicated throughout the book. I remember thinking “oh, there is somebody who thinks about dogs the same way as I do”. I was really surprised of this affinity but also relieved as I had just lost my Daghi a month before. For this reason, I wanted to contact and thank him for what he had done through his book. Reading it made me realise more than ever that Daghi must not be forgotten and that his 16 years with me had been a life lesson to carry on and make it deeper. Graeme and I have shared the same beliefs and ideas since the beginning and meeting in Milan was a golden opportunity to see each other in real life.
Graeme: How did we meet? In Milan, before meeting the publishers of book number 3. Valentina wrote to me to tell me that she had enjoyed my first book and we arranged to meet in Milan. After a weekend of conversation I realised (we did) that we were compatible and following the same path. We began to work together at seminars with Valentina doing the translation. Now we work as a team.
Tell us a bit about your existential and professional partnership. How do you influence each other and how would you define the threads that connect your personalities?
Valentina: First of all, we are real friends and then two complementary working partners. Our existential partnership is quite funny and exciting, as we share the same interests and passions – this is why we both enjoy the company and the opinions of each other. When we are together we like to spend as much time as possible with our dogs, taking them everywhere with us and going for wonderful walks in the woods together. As our job is our passion and our life, we don’t consider it like “a job” but as our normal everyday life. So it is normal to talk about how to plan our next seminars, why that dog behaves like it does or how to create the next poster. We love what we do, so it is a pleasure to share our ideas and thoughts when we are together. For this reason, the existential partnership and the professional one are pretty mixed together. Whatever we plan or decide is done together in a common agreement. This is a very good thing as we have a different set of skills and characteristics. For instance, Graeme can see very clearly in his mind the development of a plan, so he can suggest the good path to follow in order to reach a specific aim; I’m good at managing and organising practical tasks or jobs. Then his experience in advertising is essential in all we do in terms of publicity and communication. Finally, his way of being exuberant and extrovert combined with my being milder and softer offer a good and complete help to any kind of dogs and people, from super energetic and workaholic to those who are shy and frightened.
Graeme: We are passionate about the same things and discuss every ingredient of what we do and only action the things we both feel strongly about; certainly a kind of natural fusion exists to the point where neither of us can say “I did this because…” On reflection, we built whatever it was together so neither are determined to own any property as individuals.
What is the most frequent subject of your conversations?
Valentina: I would say that in all our conversations 90% is spent talking about dogs, ours and those of others.
Graeme: Most frequent subject… It has to be why do dogs do this or that?
How would you sum up the Graeme Sims Method?
Valentina: I would start by saying that The Graeme Sims Method is not a method but a way of thinking and considering the dog. It’s a mix of knowledge, instinct, love, curiosity and humility. I don’t think there must be a method to follow in order to deal with dogs, as long as you do it with honesty and consideration for the other animal in front of you. The main focus must always be the dog and this is what we say in our motto: “it’s all about the dog”. Our way of working is based on the concept that it is not the dog that must change but it is the owner who must apply themselves in order to create a strong bond and therefore a relationship based on love, respect and consideration for the dog.
Graeme: How to sum up The Graeme Sims Method... not a method but a philosophy similar to the native American belief that all things are connected. We can see that the dog is different to humankind but “different” does not mean inferior. The dog has many gifts that humans do not have and vice versa.
Do you have any recommendations for people who find it difficult to connect with their own dogs?
Valentina: The difficulty to connect with a dog is often due to the wrong idea that all dogs are the same and that feeding them and giving them a shelter is enough. There’s nothing like a generic dog and there is nothing worse than to think that a dog only needs some food and a bed to feel good. Dogs are individuals and they are unique exactly as we are all different from each other, with our inclinations, preferences, characters and characteristics. To understand and deal with each other and making the other happy to interact with us, we must observe the animal in front of us, trying to understand what it is motivated by and try to make us understood by a clear and simple language, which in our case is mainly the body language and the voice (the whistle is a further step). If our dog seems not to be connected with us it’s because we are not connected with him/her. If we love our dog, we must try to see the situation from his/her point of view and change ourselves to see a real beneficial improvement in our relationship.
Graeme: Recommendations for people who find living with dogs difficult… Believe all things (as a child believes), put the work in, try to see the world as the dog sees it in order to understand why it acts as it does. Stop believing that humans are superior, or more important, or closer to God. Realise that man is just a thread in the weave of life and that much of his believed superiority is propaganda. Treat your dog as an equal. Study its language. Realise that love is vastly more effective than attempts to dominate. Try using a language that your dog uses that is not based on the language of words. Change yourself before you attempt to change your dog. Learn to really look…
As dog trainers and published authors, what do you feel you are most responsible for?
Valentina: I personally feel responsible for making the dog understood and really known by the human kind, who has always had an inner sense of superiority towards any other living being. It’s time to jump down from the pedestal we created for ourselves, in order to see the world from a humbler and less selfish point of view. We, as dog trainers, have the duty to shake humans’ minds and stay on dogs’ side.
How would you respond to the following assertions:
1. Animals are machines.
Valentina: Then I must have some manufacturing defects.
Graeme: Dogs are machines? No, dogs are sentient beings.
2. Animals have no language.
Valentina: All animals have got their language; the only difference is the form they are expressed. We are so used to our voice and to our false superiority that we cannot think about a silent language and this is why we often do not spend time to really listen to the other in front of us.
Graeme: Animals have language and if you learn it and use it you will not perpetually attempt to push water uphill.
3. Animals have no consciousness.
Valentina: Animals are living beings with feelings and thinking abilities. If we think that animals cannot love, hate or recognise these feelings coming from other individuals, then we have never truly observed and loved a dog or another person. A dog can feel when we are not well; it can feel if we are angry or happy; it knows when we are going to work or when we are going to have a wonderful walk together. We have feelings and thinking abilities as well. We can love and hate, we can solve problems and we can do calculations on everything. We can recognise a good action from a bad one and we can suffer from guilt or regret. So, animals do have consciousness!
Graeme: I cannot think of any human who would naturally find a place in heaven but most of the dogs I meet could enter without too much difficulty. The line in the Bible about God making man in his own image has much to answer for. If Chimpanzees had a God would He or She would look like a Chimpanzee?
What are some of the most important things that everyone should know about dogs?
Valentina: First of all, that there is not such a thing as a generic dog.
Dogs are our mirror and they often reflect what they see in front of them (…us).
They accept us as we are (we often don’t do that).
They are what you can see. They do not pretend, they simply are. They are real.
Do you believe in any superstitions?
Valentina: I don’t believe in superstitions like the black cat or the salt on the table are signs of bad luck, or never walk under the ladder and so on. Nevertheless, I believe in destiny and in the power of nature in all its kinds. I believe that we are not here for a short while and then nothing of us exists anymore when we are gone. I think we are here for a specific reason and it is up to us to understand what it is and to work in its favour. I also believe that love is a strong weapon and that the more we use it, the more we spread happiness in the world. Love is so strong that it can survive and be felt also through different dimensions. This is why I feel that my Daghi, my aunt and my grandma still here with me.
Graeme: Superstitions no, not really, but folklore… sometimes, yes.
Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worthwhile to you?
Valentina: I do what I do because I love it and I believe in it. What makes it worthwhile is the happiness and the love you can see and feel in a dog who is understood by you. I decided to dedicate myself to dogs because they have always given to me their 100% and they deserve the same from me.
Graeme: Why do I do it? I believe that this is why I am here and that I will carry the torch until such time as someone else carries it. For me it is destiny, a crusade, the meaning of my life.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Valentina: 1. Why does the majority of people still say how cute and nice lambs, calves and rabbits are and then they have no problem to eat their meat? Where is the coherence, the respect for the other living being? Why do we take upon us the right to decide on other animals’ lives just to satisfy our need to make money or our selfishness? How can farmers take care of animals knowing that they will soon send them to death in exchange for money?
2. Why do we always tend to change everything except ourselves?
3. Why do we like to destroy ourselves and the world we live in?
Graeme: 1. How long can I do it?
2. Is there any kind of creative intelligence out there with a long term plan? (If there is, how did it allow man to run away with his own vanity?)
3. Will I meet my dogs again?
What about the future? What dreams and ambitions would you like to pursue?
Valentina: The future is a canvas ready to be painted with dreams that become true, hopes and happiness. We are planning and working towards new promising and exciting aims, such as creating our own headquarters both in Italy and in Wales, so that we can do all the things we love. In Italy we are trying to make my grandma’s house up in the mountains our Italian place, where to work with dogs, ducks and where to give space to our creativity. In fact, we aim to organise creative writing courses as well as painting courses, surrounded by nature’s the magical atmosphere and the peacefulness of that place. We are going to do the same in Wales, maybe with a wider range of activities. In fact, here we would like to do the proper art of sheepdog with sheep and herding dogs, in the endless green fields of this beautiful country. Furthermore, in Wales another prospect is to collaborate with the dog police force in the development of dogs’ training and maybe also to start to breed working Border Collies and working English Springer Spaniels, our beloved breeds. Actually, our aim is to combine all our passions together, in order to make our lives more complete and our final aims more extensive.
Graeme: We are making arrangements to have a school in the Valli Di Lanzo (a house in the mountains) where we plan to teach not only an awareness of animals and their natural world but also human creativity in writing and painting to make people more aware of themselves. To communicate better in order for people to more easily understand. We mostly say something similar to what we really wanted to say (a compromised and approximate version). I would like to be able to say exactly what I intended without any diplomatic attempt at acceptability because the real truth is not a compromise.
And finally, what do you want to be remembered for?
Valentina: I’ve never thought about this. Whatever I do is done with the idea to do some good for me and all the others around me, from dogs to people. If my dogs and all the people important to me will remember me with love and affection, then I will not ask for more.
Graeme: To be remembered for… hmm... difficult! To be remembered by those who loved you for what they saw you were (quality of remembrance, not quantity). To live in the memory of my dogs.