In high school, Cugno’s wild behavior inspired the nickname “Cujo,” in reference to Stephen King’s infamous rabid dog. The moniker was perfect. Unsocial, he was an outcast—fiercely independent, emotional and insecure.
For the last 15 years, he’s mostly lived with dogs. They’ve saved him—and he continues to save them at David Cugno’s Canine Center in King of Prussia. “I get as much out of them as they do from me,” he says. “With those [early] dogs, I found something I could control. But it wasn’t about control, and I didn’t have to dominate, be mean or bully any of them into obedience. I used to be like these dogs—anxious and insecure. I’ve mellowed, so I owe them so much.”
Humans are also pack animals, Cugno says, because people, like dogs, can adjust. Philosophically, the 39-year-old Cugno is different from most trainers. Anyone can teach a dog to sit. He’s more fascinated by “how that action relates to behavior.”
That in mind, Cugno always has one request for visitors—that they ignore his six dogs. “They need to be seen as they are: insignificant and inferior to humans,” he says. “You need to ignore them so they don’t try to dominate. They know all adults are above them, and you can’t ever make them feel that you’re weaker than them.”
When Cugno says “down,” all six do so simultaneously. They remain there until he releases them with the word “free.” “Most people think that, to get dogs to do this, you have to be mean,” says Cugno.
Spending every day with large groups of dogs, Cugno has high expectations. But he never rewards dogs with treats. He’s convinced that he has tapped into their nature, their natural willingness to please. He believes that he’s come to understand the deep psychological components of dogs. None of it, says Cugno, can ever be read—or written into—a book.
Cugno used to operate Perfect Pooch at the same King of Prussia location. It continues at a different KOP locale, but without Cugno. He broke away more than a year ago to go it on his own, giving away the established name only to re-brand with his own.
“Before, I was Dave from Perfect Pooch,” he says. “Now, I’m just Dave. I didn’t see it as a risk because I know what I can do. There are so many kennels, and they all compete. I don’t compete, and we haven’t even recognized that there’s a recession.”
As his philosophy and expertise evolved, Cugno wanted less to do with boarding, attracting additional clients and expansion, and more to do with better behavioral results among fewer dogs. “I gave up a $1 million business,” he admits.
His dream is a facility in the Poconos open to only the “worst of the worst dogs.” He’d like to spend his life rehabilitating them, and maybe conducting seminars and producing DVDs. He might even get married one day.
Right now, though, Cugno says he owes his life to his dogs. Even when he goes on vacation, he always brings his six along. All but one—Bean, a Bichon Frise show dog he’s had since she was a puppy—are adopted. At one time, three in his pack had been targeted for euthanization. Two had frustrated owners who could no longer provide the necessary care.
The black toy poodle, Frodo, arrived an aggressive mess. Tag, a black-and-white toy fox terrier, pooped and peed in the house. Amber, his shepherd mix, was aggressively insecure. Buster, the large boxer, was so mean that the state would’ve intervened if there were any more attacks. Diesel, an unusually passive American Staffordshire terrier, joined the pack when his owner decided that Cugno could provide a more stable life for him.
Cugno spent every waking minute forging bonds among the pack. Now, he feeds them by dumping food in a pile on the floor.
“In order for them to eat this way, they have to be bonded,” he says. “They’re very happy dogs. They’re also my best friends.And as long as they all look at me as No. 1, viewing me as the leader, there’s no reason to fight. If the food runs out, they know I’ll give them more. I’ve learned to meet their needs.”
As for peace on Cugno’s leased four-acre property, it helps that only dogs trained by him are permitted to board. It’s a trained community and that familiarity breeds security. In the yard, there can be as many as 150 dogs, and they’re all happy because of leader-follower protocol.
Cugno works to relieve every dog’s anxiety, doing the worrying for them. “What I’m telling them is this: ‘I wouldn’t put you [in the social yard] if you had anything to worry about,’” he says. “Dogs want to be here because of the stability of the yard. The stability is based on deep trust.”
Dave Cugno could say that he’s aligned with TV celebrity dog master Cesar Millan. But a rather confident Cugno says Millan is actually aligned with him. “He learned, like me, from years and years of being around dogs,” he says. “He’s the only other one of us who actually understands the psychological part.”
Cugno doesn’t accept every potential client, and money alone won’t guarantee his services. He carefully screens owners.
Narberth clients Beth and James Schuster own four dogs. Diamond, their 5-year-old pitbull, is the best. An adoptee, he arrived already Cugno-trained. There’s also a 10-year-old Springer Spaniel, a 5-year-old pug and an adopted three-year-old pitbull-shepherd mix.
Cugno also helped with the recent loss of a fifth Schuster pet, an American bulldog named Hope. “Whenever we get a new dog, we call Dave,” she says. “We’ve always looked to him. He’s the ‘dog whisperer’ of the Main Line, so I know they’ll come back better dogs. It’s just his presence. You watch him in that yard, and all the dogs respect him. There’s no whip. It’s just whatever energy he gives off.”
They first went to Cugno 10 years ago, looking for help with their energetic Springer Spaniel. When the Schusters’ three children were young, the dog would pull them down in the yard; they always had holes in their clothes. “We knew we had to get our hands around this dog, and Dave had an eye for things I was doing,” Beth says.
When Hope continued to go after a German Shepherd in Cugno’s yard, he sternly explained that Hope wouldn’t be allowed back. “I felt like I was being called into the principal’s office,” she says.
At home, Hope would bark at the Schusters’ neighbors, so Cugno paid a house call. The dog didn’t bark once. “After that, I asked Dave if we could get a blown-up picture of him,” jokes Beth. “Obviously he has a gift. We’ve just been fortunate that he’s been part of our lives.”
Clients agree to leave their dogs for one week to train with Cugno. He evaluates and works with them on basic commands. After that, it’s weekly one-on-one classes where he teaches the owner the process. The owner, then, is required to practice at home.
“Most dogs are confused,” Cugno says. “They’re basic. They see everything in black and white, and that’s what’s hardest for humans to do—to think in those terms. And they end up confusing dogs.”
Then, sometimes, the worst decision follows. Take Luke, an 11-week-old yellow Labrador when Cugno first met him. The dog was a snapper. A seasoned veterinarian and animal behavioral specialist advised the owners to euthanize him. “That’s when it’s not cool,” says Cugno.
He begged the owners to give him a week with the dog. They did. It worked.
“It’s feel,” he says. “It’s knowing what’s going on in a dog’s head. It’s clinical training. I know because I’ve done it with a thousand dogs a thousand times.”
To learn more, visit cugnoscaninecenter.com.