In Defence of Cesar

This Sunday I had the opportunity to briefly meet and attend a seminar by the Grand Poobah of Dog Training.  The Almighty Alpha.  The Crusader of Calm-Assertive.  The King of Canine Rehabilitation.  His Highness of Hounds.  The Sultan of “Shhhht”.  The Emperor of Energy.  The Patriarch of Pack Leaders.

You get the point – who doesn’t love some hyperbole and alliteration?

I, of course, am referring to the one and only Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, who was in town on his Pack Leader Tour.

My review of the seminar is brief: the guy can entertain.  Enthusiastic and motivating are the descriptors that come to mind first.  Cesar did a good job of highlighting his notion of calm/assertive and illustrating what it means to be pack leader/guardian/resource controller for your dog.  He’s very charismatic on stage and it was interesting to see him in action live in real-time, rather than on TV.

However, and as I’m sure you know, not everyone has a postivie opinion of Mr. Millan.

Shocking, right? It shouldn’t be.

In fact, some of his critics charge Cesar with some pretty serious accusations, and I am going to take this opportunity to discuss some.

There is no such thing as Alpha, and to teach otherwise is ridiculous

Frankly, I somewhat disagree, and I think it has a lot to do with semantics.  The average person doesn’t know about canine biology or behaviour – they just know they had a dog when they were a kid and they have one now.  Domestic dogs are so commonplace that, to their detriment, the average person doesn’t feel the need to do a lot of research.  

So whether or not Cesar literally means “alpha”, the important part is what is heard when he says that. And the average layman listener doesn’t hear facts about wolves. What they think is about responsibility and leadership (I hope). Arguments about alpha and the potential responsibilities of anything like a dog parent, guardian, or “pack leader” is an industry-specific semantic debate which detracts from the pragmatic uses of such terms when it comes to our relationship with our dogs and actually trying to teach them something. People in the pet industry can get all riled up debating the specifics of these terms, but the general, TV-watching public is actually in the dark here, and I think the term might actually retain some valuable use when teaching average dog owners how to interact with their pets.

I interpret that Cesar’s main point is about leadership; “calm and assertive leadership”, as you’ve heard, and I actually don’t think there is anything wrong with that on the face of it. When the focus is relationship-building, bonding, and trust, you build a good foundation in any training regimen. And when he repeats “calm” over and over, I sincerely hope it teaches people not to be angry, but patient, when working through challenges with their dogs.

No, our dogs aren’t furry little soldiers hell bent on world domination, but they will test the boundaries of your household rules and they will not pay attention or respond to cues if you haven’t given them a good reason to trust you or focus on you.  And by “rules”, I mean things as simple as not chewing on shoes, sitting before meals, not jumping on you when you’re all dressed up, and not pulling on the leash during walks.

Basically, you can rant, rave, lecture and roll eyes when someone talks about “alpha”, or you can recognise that it has a meaning and definition that may just convey something useful – especially if you decide to take ownership of these terms rather than blacklist them. Because if it’s just the word you are opposed to, those using it can simply bait-and-switch until your fight is now against the word “guardian”, or whatever else disguises the actual meaning and action you are against.

Cesar’s methods are dangerous

Since Cesar was coming to town, our local news organizations decided to perform their due diligence and interviewed some local critics on this very issue.  One example is Ms. Kirsten Rose, who was quoted by CTV saying the following: “you know a child flipping a dog on its back is going to get nipped.”

For Ms. Rose’s sake, I certainly hope this was a sound bite taken completely out of context, because this accusation is – I’m sorry – outrageous.  Who in his or her right mind would teach a child to “alpha roll” a dog?  Any dog?  Well, hopefully no one. I mean, c’mon. When critics take arguments in that direction I have trouble taking them seriously.

It’s one thing to draw legitimate complaints, but it’s another to build up an exaggerated straw man to get a news interview.  And it’s hard to legitimately consider a position when the message isn’t logical.  A lot of people out there really like Cesar, and I suspect these kinds of messages just outright alienate rather than educate.  

Have we seen Cesar “alpha-roll” before? You bet. In fact, his latest book, Cesar’s Rules, surveyed Dog Whisperer episodes and showed that in 27% of episodes Cesar has “pinned” a dog.  So approximately 1 in 4. It’s not the end-all tool for dog whispering, but it does happen often enough. It is something he does himself, but you also don’t see him look at the camera, smile with his pearly whites, and tell us “feel free to try this at home, folks”. 

Those working with dogs in any capacity recognize that potentially getting bit can be a hazard of the job (ask the groomers about this one). Sure, measures are taken to avoid such an occurrence, but it can still happen. As Cesar said in his seminar on the weekend, a dog who bites a human is actually a dog who is “correcting” that human.  He’s not wrong, and close observation of the dog’s actions and body language are the best preventative measures. But things still happen – and they make for “good TV”, thus, if it happens you can bet we will see it on The Dog Whisperer.

And despite putting himself in varying degrees of danger from time to time, Cesar does not advocate attempting these types of techniques at home on your own.  Simple common sense dictates that if you’re dealing with a potentially dangerous dog issue, you should seek professional assistance. 

But you know what they say: common sense isn’t. I’d just have trouble blaming Rachael Ray if I burnt down my house in a horrible flambé accident, that’s all.

Cesar sets the world of dog training back several decades

This brings me to a statement made in the Calgary Herald by Barbara Walmer, head of the behavior department at the Calgary Humane Society, wherein she describes Cesar’s methods as “punishment-based”, as opposed to the training programs at the Humane Society that focus on “positive reinforcement”.  This is when the critics call Cesar “old-fashioned”, subscribing to a “traditional” form of training.

Before you get excited (more excited?), I’m not about to say Cesar doesn’t use punishment. He sure does. Sometimes. Sometimes he teaches dogs that certain actions have negative consequences. Dogs teach each other this very thing with body language, barking, growling, nipping, and even escalate to biting if the situation requires.

However, I feel that calling Cesar Millan (in particular) “punishment-based” pigeon-holes him unnecessarily.  And perhaps unfairly. 

If we look at the aforementioned Dog Whisperer episode statistics, Cesar advocates leadership in 98% of Dog Whisperer episodes, and uses positive reinforcement in 67% of episodes. (See pages 93-94 of Cesar’s Rules.)  Remember the episode with Jody, the feces-eating dog?  He redirected that behaviour by enticing her with bananas. No alpha rolls whatsoever. Cesar’s even been known to use a clicker if he thinks it’s the appropriate tool.

Cesar uses a variety of techniques, acknowledging that one thing isn’t going to work on every dog or for every owner. It’s case-by-case, and he uses the method he deems necessary for that particular dog and environment.  His latest publication also does a good job of detailing how he prefers to take a “balanced approach”, redirecting and interrupting undesired behaviour and rewarding good behaviour.  And his most-used interruption?  The “shhht”, of course, is found in 57% of Dog Whisperer episodes.

For Cesar, reward doesn’t simply mean providing dog treats, either. Especially considering the case of severely stressed or focused dogs, where the nose and appetite are not engaged and a treat – no matter how delicious – will not be enough to get the dog’s attention. Instead, rewards can be in the form of food certainly, but Cesar also uses affection (petting, massage), toys, activities the dog enjoys (play time), or even something as simple as reduced pressure in terms of a more relaxed body language (taking away something they don’t like or that is uncomfortable – “negative reward (R-)” for those in-the-know).

In fact, one of the best things I took from his seminar here was the sentiment “be the cookie”.  Allow me to explain.  Upon spending time exercising and working with your dog, you are building a bond of leadership, trust, respect, and affection.  As your dog bonds with you, time spent with you (working, walking, and just hanging out or receiving affection) becomes a reward in itself.  So the idea is to “be the cookie”, or become the reward ourselves.

So no, I suppose I am not one of those “postive-only” people. In fact, I hazard a guess that while “positive trainers” proudly tout that label and use food treats or clickers regularly, I sincerely doubt they’ve never used any form of punishment – ever.  

Confession time:  I work with my dog using both punishment and reward.  And by punishment I don’t mean brutal beatings or alpha rolls.  I mean a stern verbal “No!” or increased body pressure or ignoring them.  And yes, a leash correction on a martingale collar – though I admit I don’t remember the last time I needed to use one, because they are just not required anymore. Those are punishments because my dog doesn’t like them. And by reward I don’t mean treats (usually); I mean praise in the form of petting or massage most of the time, and occassionally toys and play time, as well.

Perpetuating a dictomy of “punishment” vs. “positive” is unhelpful to the average, confused dog owner who just wants to train his or her dog to come when called, and is devisive and determintal to the training community as a whole, in my opinion.   Are there awful people out there who punish and hurt their dogs? Sure. And they should be reported and punished themselves.  But I don’t see Cesar Millan beating dogs or sticking up for those who do.

Cesar puts dogs in extremely stressful situations

Often cited examples for this argument are the episodes of the Great Dane who was afraid of shiny floors and the St. Bernard who was afraid of going up the stairs. Both dogs had pretty serious phobias, and Cesar was called in to help them get over it.

So what did he do?  Well, effectively he performed exposure therapy on the dogs; he forced them to face their fears.  Did he make them do something they didn’t want to? Yep. Left to their own devices, both dogs would have avoided those obstacles indefinitely, maintaining – or possibly even escalating – their phobia.  Instead, Cesar lead the Dane onto the kitchen floor and the St. Bernard up the stairs. Did they want to go? Nope. They both exhibited many signs of anxiety, and put on the breaks.  But you know what?  It was something like 12 minutes of exposure to stairs and the St. Bernard learned that going up and down the stairs was not a fatal enterprise, and was able to do it on his own without any hesitation.  Problem solved.  Similar results for the Great Dane.  Sure, there was some short-term stress, but the elimination of a phobia and the long-term benefit makes it worth it for both the dog and the owners (in my humble opinion).

This is where the subject of “flooding” comes in.  Flooding is overwhelming the dog with that which it is afraid of, causing undue stress and physical and psychological harm in the process  Instead of flooding, the appropriate technique is to gradually build up exposure to the fear.  Did Cesar use flooding with the Dane and the St. Bernard – pushing them too far too fast?  Many say yes.  Because both of these dogs discussed – yes, while very stressed – overcame their fears in a short amount of time and did not “shut down” (the St. Bernard was going up and down the stairs on his own, stress-free after 12 minutes), I would say neither of these dogs in particular were flooded.  Cesar forced the Great Dane to face its fear of the shiny floor, and once the Dane realised the sky would not fall, the dog was fine. 

Is there a danger that the exact same exercise could flood a different dog?  Absolutely.  Which is why you seek professional help if your dog has a phobia to work through, and who can gauge the appropriate technique to try.

The “don’t try this at home” warning at the beginning of each episode of The Dog Whisperer is telling of both the dangers posed to the people and the dogs when using these methods

That this is a legitimate criticism – posed by many, actually – is both hilarious and ridiculous.  Even minivan commercials have disclaimers about professional drivers on closed courses, so the existence of a TV warning is indicative of nothing but the thoroughness of Cesar’s legal team and the litigiousness of the American public.  I mean, does Windex really need to tell us not to spray it in the eyes?  Does the chainsaw really need to warn you not to stop the chain with your hand?  But you just know that if they didn’t, someone would try to sue for crazy damages from a freak accident/moment of severe stupidity.

And while Cesar is definitely trying to reduce the amount of times he’s named as a defendant because someone thought they could “dog whisper” to a reactive canine, the effect of Cesar’s warning should also be to encourage people to consult a professional when seeking help with their dogs.  

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: common sense isn’t.  It’s hard to blame one person for the stupid actions of others – especially those he’s never even met. 

That’s not to say some have inappropriately or incorrectly interpreted or copied the Dog Whisperer; there are all kinds out there.  And I’m sure Cesar himself would be mortified to see them.

Cesar is “aggressive”

I’m sure you could take a screen shot of every televised dog trainer and put an outrageous caption on it.  I won’t, but check out this Victoria Stilwell clip “Socializing Stains”, where I see leash tension and corrections, physical force, and body pressure all being used – in addition to treats.  Some of those images could also be taken out of context and plastered online.  (I’m just sayin’ – I’m a Victoria Stilwell fan, too, and wish Animal Planet in Canada aired her show.)

Cesar’s version of leadership is all about being calm, deliberate, and confident.  It is not about being physically dominant, intimidating, or aggressive towards dogs, and Cesar emphasizes a calm state of mind whenever possible – keeping yourself from getting nervous, anxious, or angry when working with your dog, and sending the clearest message possible about our rules and expectations of our dogs. This is not bad advice.

The Positive Impact for Pooches

And while I’ve just spent some time defending Cesar (and doubtlessly enraging people), if you’re still with me I’d now like to fill even more space pointing out the aspects of his philosophy and methodology that should be viewed as positive by any dog lover.  Because while fans of the Dog Whisperer believe he does great things for dogs and the dog community, I think there are specific aspects of his work that anyone can and should appreciate.  And I think the “two camp” training dichotomy specifically neglects these points that benefit the dog owning community as a whole.  There are some bonuses to the success of The Dog Whisperer.

1.  He focuses on the people; Cesar draws attention to the human source of a lot of dog behaviours and insecurities.  As he says in every episode, he rehabilitates dogs and trains people. This is accurate and obvious. Anyone with experience helping people with their dogs knows success is directly related to the dedication of the human owners, both in terms of time and mental commitments, as well as their consistency.

2.  He emphasizes that dogs are dogs, not furry little humans. Dogs are animals we’ve brought into our homes, and to treat them as such – as they actually are – is to respect them for what they actually are. As we all know, this is forgotten or ignored by many dog owners, often to the detriment of their canine companions.

3.  Not only are dogs dogs, Cesar also points out that breed is not a good way to characterize or stereotype any individual dog.  He speaks out against the bad, inaccurate reputations of breeds such as Rottweilers and pitbulls, and argues against breed-specific legislation since it is misguided and ineffective.  He is completely correct and is a champion of pitbulls (and to read more on why BSL is wrong and ineffective, check this out: To Ban the Breed?).

4.  He emphasizes the importance of exercise.  This is key, since so many urban dogs are both under-exercised and overweight.  All dogs, regardless of breed, need to be walked daily.  As dog owners, this is our responsibility. 

5.  Cesar will help any dog – any size, any age, any breed. The large-scale acknowledgement that any dog with any “problem” can be helped, and at any stage of life, is great for people who may believe it’s too late for them and their dog.  To encourage these types of cases to seek professional assistance can both salvage a relationship and help keep a dog from being surrendered to a rescue organization – or worse.

6.  In addition to giving optimism to previously hopeless cases, the popularity of the Dog Whisperer has also created a new mainstream interest in seeking training and being a more conscious dog owner. Dogs (or perhaps dog owners) do need training to help them become well-behaved members of our families and representatives of the pet community.

7.  He talks about giving dogs jobs. The variety of dog breeds out there is a result of our selective breeding over the centuries to create dogs best suited certain jobs. Even if it’s just a daily walk, Cesar emphasizes the importance of giving every dog a job to perform to fulfill both his or her physical needs and instincts.  If you spend time training for activities such as agility, tracking, herding, or drafting with your dog, all the better.

8.  He promotes responsible spaying and neutering.  This issue is self-explanatory considering the populations of rescue dogs out there and the number of domestic dogs euthanized each year in Canada and the US.

9.  He promotes rescue organizations, and a proper, thorough consideration of breed, temperament, and energy levels before adding a new dog to the family.  He also deters fans from buying animals from pet stores and other potential puppy mill sources.

10.  He promotes better pet nutrition.  In fact, his current tour is sponsored by Red Moon Custom Petfood, a brand that is grain-, rice-, gluten-, wheat-, and soy-free.  To bring a more main-stream focus on proper pet nutrition for both dogs and cats is great!

So, in conclusion, yes, I’ll say it: On the whole, I’m a Cesar fan. 

While I loathe the idea that anyone can watch the Dog Whisperer and think they can train their dog, I do like the attention it has given to more conscious and responsible dog ownership and training.  If the weekend Dog Whisperer marathons on National Geographic can prompt more people to get training (of any kind) for their canine companions, great! 

I think Cesar’s fame is beneficial to both dogs and owners alike.  And I also think may of his opponents have built up a straw-man version of Cesar to critique, and don’t take a thorough look before crying wolf in many respects.  Or they take a one-dimension take on a season one episode and don’t give the man any opportunity to learn and grow – as everyone does throughout their careers.  

I’m not convinced by those reciting the same old complaints, or those who go so far as to incite physical harm on the guy; though I doubt they are at all swayed by what I’ve just written, either.  But I know angry vitriol doesn’t often change minds or attract people to a position, so I’d really like to see less dichotomy on the issue.

But, really, if I can spur thought-provoking debate, I’m happy.