Since the first time I saw The Dog Whisperer, I have had a slight crush on Cesar Millan. I don’t watch cable and so have only seen a few episodes of his show – in one of them, he subdued a dog with an unfortunate habit of attacking his owners; and in another, he schooled owners in becoming “pack leaders” after their dog became aggressive after their other dog died.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2006 New Yorker article, “What the Dog Saw,” speaks of Millan’s body language in adoring terms. The accompanying photo, in which Millan stands in a superhero pose, tennis ball in fist, surrounded by dogs leaping through what looks like a muddy stream, solidified my crush. By the time I got my cockapoo, Kerfuffle, on August 1, it was no longer necessary to watch Millan’s show to know all about his training methods: Like Seinfeld and Survivor, The Dog Whisperer had so thoroughly infiltrated popular culture that the average non-viewer could love Millan without knowing him.
Some of what I learned from the couple of episodes I watched made a lot of sense. For one thing, Millan reinforced the idea that dogs are fundamentally different from humans in that they don’t want to dominate; rather, they feel more secure when their humans are in charge so that they know what to expect. Like Americans, nearly all of whom (even these days) have bosses and paychecks, dogs want to have a purpose, fulfill it, and be recognized for their efforts. Dogs – carefully bred and raised alongside humans for centuries – would rather develop a strong character than be spoiled for being cute. And, finally and most revelatory for me, I learned that because dogs look to their owners for guidance, many behavior problems can be traced to failures of human leadership.
Unfortunately, however, the show also taught me that “alpha rolling” dogs onto their backs was a good way to establish “pack leadership.” The day after I brought Kerfuffle home, he snapped at the vet when she tried to examine his ears; after muzzling him to complete the exam (both ears were infected), she emphasized the importance of obedience training to discourage further aggression. Later, I discovered that he growled at me, the cats, and a friend when his toys or food were approached, even though otherwise he seemed hesitant, subdued, and shy. I watched a few videos on Millan’s website, carefully rolled Fuff onto his back, and tried to pry toys out of his jaws.
It was immediately clear that Cesar’s methods (even gently applied) were horribly frightening to my dog, who looked up at me with tragic eyes and began to roll over whenever I approached. Fuff seemed to like to go on walks, though, so I took him on a long one while I thought things over. Unlike the off-leash, insouciant dogs I’d grown up with in the age of choke chains and nose-in-the-accident housetraining, my dog withered at the slightest signs of disapproval. When Fuff barked, several people told me to poke him in the ribs and hiss, Tssst! like Cesar does on his show. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I was certain that physical punishment or harsh words weren’t a good idea for my dog. “That’s too much force for my dog,” I said to the neighbors.
Fortunately the Washington Animal Rescue League, where I adopted Fuff, has trainers available to answer questions from new pet owners, and it was there I learned about positive reinforcement training – and thank goodness I did, because it turns out that although Fuff is sweet-natured and quick to learn, his sensitivity and tendency to be fearful make him more challenging than other dogs I’ve known. Consequently, I’ve read and learned more about dog psychology, training, and body language than I thought I would ever need to know, and I’ve handed out so many treats that I feel like a human kibble Pez dispenser with a very sore lower back.
The hardest thing I’ve had to learn, though, is to listen to my dog rather than ill-informed human know-it-alls. Since he is small, I have had to figure out what his body language looks like from overhead, feel it from his movements on the leash, or infer it from the reactions of other dogs we encounter on our walks. I’ve put a yellow ribbon on Fuff’s leash, but most people don’t recognize it as a “Keep Away” sign, so I have had to experiment with pithy ways to ask people to let us keep our distance and come up with quick exit strategies when they ignore my requests. Owners have told me everything is okey dokey because both dogs’ tails are wagging, or that I should push my dog’s chest because his ears are forward and it means he’s aggressive, or that it’s fine for a dog to run off leash on a city sidewalk as long as he’s good with other dogs.
Most obnoxious, though, is when they tell me to do what Cesar says. All the Dog Whisperer videos were checked out from the library, so I borrowed one of his books, Cesar’s Rules: Your Way to Train a Well-Behaved Dog. While I’m sure the book was ghostwritten beyond belief, its tone suggests a more contemplative Millan than what’s evident from his show, and several sections seem very self-conscious about the criticism his methods have received. Organized around meetings with a variety of trainers explaining and demonstrating their techniques, the book serves as a fairly balanced introduction to competing theories about dog training, with Millan taking care to point out where his own methods diverge, but praising the strengths of each approach.
The book gave me an eclectic mix of ideas to try with Fuff, from figuring out what your dog likes to do and using it as a reward to teaching each command’s opposite (for instance teaching “stand” with “sit”). It clearly explained different types of conditioning and how to use them on their dog, and since by then I had started Basic Manners at a positive training school, the book encouraged me to experiment with different reward-based methods to see what worked best for my own dog.
Tomorrow, Kerfuffle and I finish Basic Manners, and the tentative dog I brought home has become a waggy, playful, cuddly, laundry-stealing goofball who only rolls over when he snuggles and who now knows how to watch, target, sit, come, lie down, wait, stay, drop a toy, walk on a loose leash, and dance on his hind legs. He also tends to be anxious in new situations and is going through a phase of reactivity to other dogs, but the combination of classes, practice, Pez dispensing and careful attention are making a huge difference in his comfort level and behavior.
Not long ago, Your Dog’s Friend (where I’ve been taking Kerfuffle for classes) offered a free workshop on dog body language. At the end of the workshop, the trainer showed a few video clips from The Dog Whisperer. I don’t know if the videos were representative of every session with Cesar, but the dogs all showed the obvious signs of fear and confusion I’d seen in Kerfuffle during my (luckily) abortive attempts at dog whispering. By the most recent time a sidewalk blowhard instructed me to hail Cesar, I knew enough to say confidently, “That’s not the model of training I’m following.”
Even so, I think Millan is absolutely correct that owners must also be pack leaders – but in the past couple of months I’ve learned that means being able to ignore the gusts of hot air coming from everyone with vocal cords and a television.
As for that crush? Let’s just say it has gone the way of shock collars and choke chains.