Last night I watched the first 8 episodes of Cesar Millan’s show, The Dog Whisperer. He has caused quite a storm in the dog world and as a public figure I’d say he is the American version of Barbara Woodhouse. In other words, he is influencing an entire generation of dog owners with his training ideology. There is furious debate about whether or not that ideology is sound, particularly in terms of its stress on dominance and submission.
I had to see for myself. And this is what I have to say about him….
1. At core he is working from a deep understanding of dog/human relations and it is the SAME one that ALL good trainers understand... Primary: dogs are not furry people* and many people are more focused on projections of their own needs for affection than the dog’s needs for a secure and happy life. They need constructive stimulation and trust in their owner’s leadership skills. In a dog’s world SOMEBODY has to be in charge. They want leadership more than they want “freedom.”
*Patricia McConnell talks about it this way in both of her excellent books**: People behave like monkeys and dogs behave like dogs. Communication is not a given, as we operate from different readings of body language. IE: We see hugs as signs of affection, and direct approach as respectful: they experience hugs as strangeness to be tolerated and direct approach as aggression.
**The Other End of the Leash
**For Love of a Dog
2. His approach to that understanding is very male. It is direct, get the job done with no f***ing around. He doesn’t care that the dog he just taught how to walk respectfully on a leash is frightened and stressed. Signs: tail between legs, drooling, licking of lips. I think he figures they’ll get over it. Where he barrels through a dog’s stress and discomfort, others might slow down, be more sensitive to what the dog is saying and offer more encouragement and positive reinforcement. It is a matter of leadership styles, positive vs. negative reinforcement, “male” and female” styles. (Not men vs. woman…plenty of women lead in a “male way”)
3. It also relies heavily on a vocabulary that needs examination. Dominance and Submission are very tainted words in our culture…we tend to see the submissive as OPPRESSED by the dominant. Master/Slave. Majority/Minority. Men/Women.
If we were to substitute the words Leadership for Dominance and Trust for Submission… we might see his work more clearly.
4. There was only one out of nine episodes where I saw him adapt and soften in regards to the dog’s needs. That was the visit with the Shih Tzu who refused to walk on a leash. He was firm, gentle and upbeat…and I heard him praise the dog. Praise is RARELY heard on the episodes I saw…He uses negative reinforcement to achieve balance…”When you submit, I will stop doing this uncomfortable thing.”
5. I am grateful. Yes, GRATEFUL, that he is so popular. I have never been able to walk my own dogs as comfortably, because I think a lot of people are taking his advice and controlling their own dogs out in the world. (Well…a lot MORE people).
6. More dogs are given up and destroyed from a lack of leadership, guidance and stimulation than from “cruelty” or “lack of freedom.” The dog relegated to the backyard and ignored is the dog who was not taught how to behave properly in the house, with the family. These are the cases we see him confront. I believe he has probably saved many many lives.
It is a mixed response. I think he does more good than harm. Still, I prefer the conversation that trainer Suzanne Clothier initiates with dogs...I wish SHE had a TV show! For now, her book, Bones will Rain From the Sky, will have to suffice.
I love that in the title sequence of his show Millan says he wants to "share the knowledge he was born with." Maybe he was. Born with it. I'm still learning how to be that leader my dogs need. It is one of my life goals....