I mentioned in my last post that if you ask 10 different people what dog training is, you’ll get 10 different answers. I’d like to revise that statement.
I suspect a majority would say dog training is what Cesar Millan does on his National Geographic Channel show, The Dog Whisperer.
Earlier this week, a friend — let’s call her Susan — emailed me with congratulations on my new book, Am I Boring My Dog. She added, “I saw in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that the Dog Whisperer is coming out with his own mag, Cesar’s Way,” and suggested — because she’s a good, supportive friend — that the publication “would need your talent and wit.”
I replied that the Dog Whisperer isn’t exactly popular among the dog experts I respect, and that “I would be shunned if I were to write for him.”
Susan was surprised.”We happened to catch his show this summer at a hotel,” she said, “and liked it. Mostly the dog owners were so stupid and timid it was nice to see to see a disciplinarian, kinda like the vicarious thrill of the watching that nanny show.”
My friend, who is herself talented and witty, hit the nail on the head about Cesar Millan’s appeal. Unfortunately, in spite of the “don’t do this at home” warnings that scroll across the TV screen, the “thrill” the Dog Whisperer’s show provides is not always vicarious, as the nanny show’s thrills tend to be.
Susan, for example, is an excellent mother with a terrific kid, Jonas. She wouldn’t need a nanny to clean up any emotional messes in her household. She also wouldn’t dream of giving Jonas a quick smack — not to inflict pain, mind you, but just to get his attention and show him who’s boss — because she saw it done on a TV show. But most people don’t feel as comfortable following their instincts about dogs as they do about children. And if you substitute “quick chain jerk” for “smack,” you’ve got Cesar’s Way with dogs, one that many people follow — often to their dogs’ detriment and to their own.
And I’m not even getting into the infamous Alpha Roll (where the dog is forced into a submissive position on its back) and flooding (exposing a dog to something it fears and not allowing it to escape) — both of which, it is claimed, are only used in extreme circumstances.
Cesar Millan is doubtless an empathetic man who wants to do right by dogs; he supports a lot of shelters and rescue work and he often works with dogs that are very difficult. But there are other ways than Cesar’s Way to live successfully with dogs, ways that are less potentially dangerous to owners and more conducive to creating the type of relationship with a dog that Susan has with her son: Loving and fun, but by no means undisciplined.
And yes, alternative methods, whether positive training alone — I’ll explain more about that in another post — or, in some cases, in combination with medication, work even for difficult dogs. And not only are these methods safe, but they’re also based on more accurate, up-to-date science than Cesar’s Way is.
To use my friend and her son as an example again: Susan wouldn’t dream of sending Jonas to a school whose teaching philosophy had been proved outdated by all the top child psychologists — say, a place that still believes you “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Yet many are happy to follow a dog training method that’s based on wolf pack studies that not only used a flawed sample group, but have been demonstrated not to apply to dogs.
“The Dominance Controversy and Cesar Millan,” by Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and animal behavorist, lays out the science in a very clear, accessible way .
One scientist isn’t enough? The entire American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) put out a position paper against the wolf dominance theories that buttress Cesar’s Way.
Some may argue that even Cesar Millan says his way isn’t the only way, right there on the TV. Sure, but after watching him send out his “calm, assertive energy” for the entire segment, it’s obvious that the other ways are the idiot ways, the wussy ways of the weak, inconsistent, and hapless dog owners who sought out his help.
So, while I suspect that Millan’s new magazine will be a bit hit, I won’t be looking to write for it.