Sorry about the bad movie pun — it’s been a long, though terrific weekend. My first book signing/talk for Am I Boring My Dog, at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, was a great success. Lots of people and their dogs turned up and a good time was had by all. As I noted on Facebook, I had never before addressed an audience that included actual dogs, and I discovered the occasional bark was a terrific tension breaker. As my friend Eric Van Meter — who couldn’t make it, but provided me with the best comment regarding a canine audience — noted, at least I didn’t have anyone barking out, “YOU LIE!”

Anyway, I just wanted to finish up — or is that open up again? — the discussion I started in an earlier post about why I object to Cesar Millan’s methods. It’s not that I started out with a bone to pick, as it were. When I first got Frankie, I took him to S., a trainer highly recommended by two dog-loving friends. She was nice, smart, and clearly fond of dogs, but the first purchase S. required in preparation for the small dog class was a choke chain. The Frankie-size version was teeny, a wisp of a metal string, but it made me queasy. I ventured a few questions about the more positive techniques I’d heard about, but S. pooh-poohed them. And, after all, I was paying — and paying well — for her expertise. I figured I should defer to it.

Those bandannas cover up the choke chains!
Those bandannas cover up the choke chains!

In the end, waste of money notwithstanding, I was lucky. Frankie was too stressed out by the presence of the other small dogs — a snooty clique of Yorkies and Dachshunds — to learn much of anything, but neither did he learn to fear me. And — calling Dr. Freud — I kept losing the choke chain until I finally gave up on replacing it, so Frankie’s trachea wasn’t injured (yes, that’s a common effect of using choke chains, particularly on small dogs).

And although I failed Chain Jerking 101, I discovered that my instincts about how to treat my new friend were sound.

The more I read and the more I talked to people I respected, the more I realized that the whole domination thing was a bunch of hooey.  Frankie weighs 9 pounds, for heavens sake. How is he going to dominate me? As for having Frankie walk by my side in lockstep — the purpose of the choke chain — why on earth would I want him to? It’s his walk, designed so he can enjoy exploring and sniffing, rather than my main source of exercise (he’s a good trotter but those short legs don’t lend themselves to keeping up with me at a run or even a speed walk).

Several people who supported my anti-Cesar Millan stance in the comments section had similar personal examples to offer. And let me say it again because it bears repeating: Cesar Millan is not the only person who saves end-of-the-line dogs. Positive trainers do so too — and without harming other dogs.

Finally, let me pose a question. Millan has millions of fans. Why do his supporters need to proselytize about his methods on a blog like mine? Millan’s advocates can say nothing to convince me, or the people who agree with me, on the value of his techniques. And vice versa. I guess some people — say, Michael Vick —  just enjoy a dogfight.

4 thoughts on “Dr. DogLove, or How I Learned to Start Worrying & Loathe Cesar Millan”

  1. Hi, Edie. I didn’t respond to your earlier blog about Cesar Millan, but after this one was linked on Twitter about a dozen times, I wanted to give your blog another read. And this time, my response is a question — at what point did using a choke chain (or any other type of collar) become the symbol of dominance training theory? At what point did its sole use become to teach a dog to heel (which is what I assume you mean by ‘walk at my side in lockstep.’)

    There are a lot of different ways to train a dog. Dominance training theory has little to do with tools and everything to do with attitude and approach. The tools are just instruments; it’s the attitude that drives the theory.

    Yes, some small dogs have had tracheal damage after an improper use of a slip collar. Some larger dogs have suffered the same damage. But many, many more owners use slip collars quite safely. The risk of damage from a slip collar used correctly is similar to the risk of being burned by hot coffee from the McD’s drive-thru … yes, it can happen, but a little caution and some common sense prevent most accidents. And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen the same types of tracheal damage in dogs who’ve never worn any type of collar but a simple buckle number (or one with rhinestones…) designed to do nothing more intense than hold the dog’s ID tags. The injury is a result of a tracheal defect in the dog combined with inappropriately timed or weighted pressure — and no single method or collar is the culprit.

    Back to the walking at side (heeling) — it’s a skill I’ve taught to my own and to hundreds of other owners’ dogs over almost 30 years. It does have value, even if you don’t see the need for you and Frankie. For instance, it’s a lot easier to safely through crowds with a dog who walks close to you without tripping you up. The techniques I use are adjusted to the people and to the dogs — and all of them were developed long before CM got a TV show. They’re actually mostly positive methods…but it’s important to remember that in training, ‘positive’ is not, as it’s so often misinterpreted, something that’s always enjoyable and makes the owner feel warm and fuzzy. ‘Positive’ is best described as a stimulus applied to a situation, something that affects the behavior to either increase or decrease it.

    There’s a lot of current fuss in some dog training circles about CM’s methods. But I do wonder why his methods, which aren’t new, are such a big deal to other trainers that they feel the need to use words like ‘loathe’ to describe his methods. I know that dog trainers have argued about which method(s) are best for decades, but at some point we really do need to just knock it off. There are still training circles where Ian Dunbar’s approaches aren’t respected. And in the 80s, Barbara Woodhouse, genteel lady that she appeared to be on PBS in the 80s, was said to be a real pistol whose detractors were as vocal as her fans. I suppose expecting us to have evolved as trainers to the point where we can at least refrain from reviling those with whom we don’t agree is still expecting too much training maturity.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You make many reasonable points.

      The reason that so many people are up in arms about Cesar Millan is his vast popularity. Of course those methods were used before he came along. But the debate was very much an in fight. When you have millions of people watching a show, its methods — and tools — become an issue to be discussed.

      Choke chains — and flat collars — can be problematic with a pulling dog. That’s why behaviorists like Dr. Nicholas Dodman suggest that they not be used. He advocates a head halter (or collar) instead.

      My main point was that, for me and Frankie, a choke chain was wrong. And Cesar Millan has a lot of people using tools that can be bad for dogs.

      As for my use of “loathe,” it was a rhetorical device based on my movie title pun. Instead of “learned to love the bomb,” I said “learned to loath Cesar Millan.” I don’t loathe him. I just think his popularity inspires people to do things that are dangerous to dogs.

  2. The problem with Cesar, as I see it, is that, as Edie says, he’s extremely popular, and therefore, has enormous influence, and many people are captivated by his charm and charisma. I mean, who can argue? The man is attractive. But, I see him is a BRAND. A media creation. And, not much more. He got lucky. Cesar helped a celebrity, Will Smith, I think, with his dog and the rest is, well, history. He certainly isn’t an expert about dogs. But he seems that way to many people who themselves don’t know much about dogs and dog training, and, no doubt, some who do, and are desperate for a way to “control” their wayward pooches.

    But, none of us would be talking about Cesar and his methods if he weren’t for the fact of his influence which stems from his celebrity. He has had a huge impact in the world of dog training. While I admire his commitment to saving dogs (although not necessarily the way he saves them), he, in my humble opinion, has set dog training back decades. Why? Because he relies primarily on punishment (positive punishment in behaviorist terms). That’s the OLD way of doing things. That’ what Barbara Woodhouse did for the most part as did the Monks of New Skete.

    Not all dog training methods are created equal. And there’s plenty of research documenting the deleterious effect of positive punishment no matter what form it takes–shocks, chokes, staring down, alpha roles, and so on.

    Modern methods of training, which, in truth, are not so modern, but their application to dog training is, relies primarily on positive reinforcement (or rewards–treats, toys, play, praise, belly rubs–whatever the dog likes and motivates her) and negative punishment. What’s negative punishment? it’s technical jargon for taking away something the dog wants. For example, on Friday I was visiting a friend whose yellow Lab puppy was a barking machine. So, every time he barked I marked the behavior by saying “bummer” and led him (on leash) into the bathroom and closed the door. He was in there for about 5 seconds. The next time 10 seconds. We did work up to 30 seconds. No more. After about 10 repetitions, he stopped barking almost completely. I also rewarded him when he didn’t bark in the face of distractions that had been causing him to bark. That’s what so-called positive trainers do as I understand it (I am not a dog trainer by profession. I have learned a bit about training dogs out of necessity–that’s a story for another time.)

    So the primary difference, as I understand it, and it’s a BIG one, is that positive trainers, for lack of a better term, rely primarily on positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Cesar style trainers who were all the rage long before we ever heard of Cesar, rely on positive punishment (choking, shocking, etc.) and what behaviorists call negative reinforcement. An example would be turning on the shock collar, shocking the dog, until the dog does what you want, sit for example, and then the shock would be turned off. Or, if you prefer you could choke the dog until it “sit’s” and then lighten up on the choke chain. Taking away the shock or choking is “negative” in that it is ‘taken away.’

    Are there disagreements among positive trainers? Yes. For example, there are “clicker trainers” and “lure and reward trainers.” Dunbar is a lure and reward trainer. He doesn’t like using mechanical devices of any kind, including clickers. Okay. And, some positive trainers are committed to only using positive reinforcement. Others use both positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Some even use very, very mild positive punishment in the form of, for example, “body blocks” (eg. blocking the door with your body to help the dog “wait” until being cued to go through the door).

    So, although there are disagreements and even arguments among positive trainers about techniques and methods, there isn’t, as far as I know, any disagreement about NOT relying on positive punishment and negative reinforcement, the two methods most employed by Cesar and his ilk.

    That’s one of the reasons for so much fury. Cesar’s way isn’t merely just a different way–like, in my opinion, ‘clicker training’ and ‘lure and reward’ training are just different ways of trainin. Cesar’s way can seriously HARM dogs. It can make problems you’re trying to fix, like aggression, even worse!

    And, as I said earlier, because he’s so popular, and his PR machine is making him ever more ubiquitous, he is having a huge effect on dog training that, as I see it, makes abusive techniques acceptable.

    None of this in anyway discounts his positive impact on helping people to understand that their dogs need exercise (duh!) or that shelter dogs need homes. I just wish he could accomplish those goals while using positive training methods.

    1. Thanks, Deborah, for explaining the various training techniques so comprehensively and clearly. This may seem like an exaggerated example, but to me what’s happening with training is a bit like what happened with the theory of evolution… You pretty much figure the science is accepted and that’s that, and then suddenly schools are teaching — or trying to teach — “alternatives” as though they were equal. Sigh.

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