Archive for the ‘cesar milan’ Tag
A year or two back I posted a blog about Cesar Millan and discovered that there is a group of Dog Whisperer Ambassadors. They are either a fan club or a social media marketing arm of somebody invested in Mr. Millan’s success. They sniff out comments and articles criticizing him and go to work explaining why those who have not jumped on the whispering bandwagon are missing the point, a point, some point, his point I guess. There are also the devotees who participate in these attempts to enlighten the disbelieving masses for reasons of their own.
I created this blog to help people and the dogs they were struggling to live with or find homes for. This is a blog about helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges. Cesar Millan’s methods, whether a gift from god or a well-thought out strategy, are some of the most dangerous when it comes to provoking dogs to behave aggressively. This behavior leads to the death of dogs. Few want to live with dogs who bite people. Creating dogs who bite people is wrong. Fearful dogs are among the most susceptible to behaving aggressively when pressured.
I did not create this blog to provide a forum for fans of his or his methods to further his popularity, defend him or attempt to enlighten me about him. The idea that dogs learn differently or that there are differing opinions on how dogs do learn, is moot to me. Dogs are dogs. They learn the way other mammals and most other organisms learn, through the consequences of their behaviors. Do dogs learn not to perform certain behaviors because they are punished for those behaviors? They sure as heck do. Does that mean we should punish the heck out of them to get behaviors we want? Not as a matter of course we shouldn’t.
Using the excuse that a dog is in the redzone or a death row dog is just that, an excuse. That dogs end up on CM’s doorstep because an owner was unable or unwilling to find or follow the advice of a real trainer or behaviorists who knows how to change behavior without hurting a dog is not the dog’s fault, nor is it reason to champion CM’s methods. That he may not find fault with other trainers is not an indication that he is more magnanimous than the people pointing out the errors of his ways. That he doesn’t find fault with the trainers who eschew his methods is likely because it’s a discussion he doesn’t wants to be part of. Instead he employs the different strokes defense. It saves him from having to defend an indefensible position AND he scores brownie points by appearing to be tolerant of other points of view. It’s smoke and mirrors.
Writing and speaking about fear based behavior challenges is what I am motivated to do. Others are working on closing down puppymills where many of these fearful dogs are being produced. Still more people in rescue are making sure that unwitting adopters do not end up with a dog that is going to be more project than pet. The ranks of trainers who understand enough about animal behavior to implement protocols for helping owners with fearful dogs are growing.
We get to choose (how much choice we really have is a subject for a neuroscience blog) which fountain we are going to drink from. I am sipping my beverage from the same one that brought us vaccines for polio, heart transplants, space travel, digital cameras, and microwave ovens. That the first attempts at any of these were not unconditionally successful is only more reason why I’m at this fountain. Seeing fallout and failure for what it is is key to the scientific process and progress. We know from the failures of punishment how to train more effectively, more humanely.
I am not blindly gulping away. No, I am not. I pop the cork, pour out a taste, swirl it around, hold it up to the light, let the aroma waft into my brain, roll it around on my tongue and then decide whether or not to buy a case. So far what I’ve seen of CM has me spitting into a glass and waving the waiter over to take the bottle away.
In a blog about fearful dogs you wouldn’t think that I’d pay so much attention to this whole dominance virus that has infected the health of our relationships with our dogs, but it’s major. I run an in-home boarding business for dogs. It’s a nice set-up for the dogs and the owners that use my services are conscientious pet owners. It’s not a scene that every dog would appreciate, but for those that do, it’s not only a nice way to spend a few days, it helps them brush up on rusty social skills since most live as solo dogs.
A potential client and I had an email exchange recently about her dog. She described him as a friendly, good natured dog that had some issues with select dogs when he first meets them. He barks at them. She went on to say that she never had an ‘alpha’ dog before and was learning how to deal with it. Certainly a dog that sees other dogs and barks at them must be trying to dominate them right? Ah…no.
Confident dogs, or dogs that are intent on being the big dog on the block rarely spend a lot of time barking at other dogs, far from it. They get their point across with their bodies and their eyes. Well socialized dogs, even in situations in which they are establishing their place in the playground hierarchy, rarely even fight. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a group of socially adept dogs determine ‘who I am to you’. With looks, stances, paw & head placements, the messages are conveyed and then the games can begin.
So what difference does it make if someone mistakenly believes that their dog is trying to be ‘alpha’? It matters because our responses are usually based on what we think is going on, AND how we feel about it. The results of our responses to our dog’s behavior may or may not be what we were after, and if our responses don’t make things better, they can make what we see as a problem, worse. It is probably not far off track to assume that most of the behavior problems seen in dogs relinquished to shelters or by trainers, have been caused by inappropriate responses to their behaviors, by their owners.
Fearful dogs that never bit anyone in their life can be provoked into biting by a handler assuming that the dog’s behavior is a challenge or attempt to dominate the situation. Physical intimidation, promoted by National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, is exactly the stuff that can make this happen. Remember that one does not need to hit or touch a dog to scare or intimidate them. I remember cringing through one episode in which a dog that was afraid of the bathtub was man-handled until it finally bit Millan. His response to this bite was along the lines of ‘good, he was just having a tantrum’. Someone like Millan who doesn’t seem to mind the occassional bite can intimidate a dog enough so that it does not learn that biting works to keep scary things away. But for most of us the prospect of being bitten makes us back off, which is what the dog has been trying to communicate all along by cowering, growling, lowering its head, rolling over, etc. Now an owner has effectively taught their dog that biting works, that the dog basically needs to shout since the owner has proved themselves hard of hearing.
The dog whose owner believed it is trying to be an ‘alpha’ dog is one of the lucky ones. This owner is not into harsh or intimidating techniques of managing her dog. But what of the other scared dogs that are not so fortunate? Many defenders of trainers like Cesar Millan will say that it’s not his fault if people do not use his training techniques appropriately (even used as directed they can have disasterous results). I disagree. He is promoting the domination of dogs and is responsible for the outcome from that. Supporters seem to be willing to give him credit when the outcome is positive but not when it isn’t. When a leader of a country says publically that AIDS is not a sexually transmitted disease (as has happened) and therefore people do not need to take the appropriate precautions to prevent contracting the disease, I believe that he is responsible for the potentially deadly results of his actions.
The results of the belief that dogs need to be dominated can be deadly, especially with fearful dogs.
I found a copy of one of William Koehler’s training books in a local used bookstore. He was a trainer that worked in Hollywood, training dogs for films that I watched as a child. Had I known his training techniques then I probably would have cried before the dog got caught in a well or suffered some other fate that was geared to jerking the tears out of a 9 year old’s eyes.
The list of training aids prescribed by Mr. Koehler includes a variety of choke chains and should an owner be inclined to molly-coddle their dog, he clearly advises the use of a piece of hose or switch over a folded up newspaper. I suppose the newspaper idea caught on as the kinder corrective measure. But lest I forget, there’s the leather strap or belt, used to hit a dog, hard, and I kid you not.
Koehler’s willingness to use brute force to manage dogs is matched by his contempt for anyone that disagreed with his methods, the ‘wincers’ as he called them, a tid-bit tossing group of naive dog handlers. But as can be possible in anything, there are grains of truth and reason in his initial assertion in the book that in order to train a dog you need to get its attention. Koehler’s method of training gets a dog’s attention through a series of exercises that teach the dog that not paying attention hurts.
While training has changed over the decades, and since this is the only book of Koehler’s that I’ve read, he died in 1993, I don’t know if he, like the author of the first Monks of New Skete training book, recanted on any of his beliefs about how best to handle a dog. But what has not changed over the decades for many trainers is the attitude about the relationship people have with their dogs.
Koehler describes a dog that avoids his owner’s attempts to get a hold of him as, ‘competitive’, as opposed to say, untrained, playful, or even scared. There is no recognition that dogs may have rich and varied interests that don’t always coincide with their owner’s goals, a very different way of looking at inappropriate behaviors. A dog that is behaving aggressively because of fear is asking for something very different than a dog that is behaving aggressively and is not afraid, and your feelings about the behavior should reflect this difference. A child crying at the check-out counter at the grocery store because they can’t have a pack of bubble gum is very different from a child crying because their finger is caught in the door. Hopefully your impatience with the behavior is reserved for the former.
The beauty of using positive reinforcement when training a dog is that it does not matter why the dog is behaving aggressively, the training is not likely to make the behavior worse by scaring a fearful dog, or making an already confident angry dog more upset. It reminds me of the theme common in films, the protagonist’s motives are misunderstood, they are punished, but at the end they are redeemed, seen for the hero they truly are. If only a fearful dog’s story could be condensed into 90 minutes.
Today there are popular trainers who persist in simplifying our relationship with our dogs into that of leader and follower. All behavioral indiscretions on the part of our dogs are the result of a lack of leadership by owners or sloppy leadership, the dogs grateful when their owners step up to the plate and start taking charge. Advocates of the ‘pack leader’ theory of dog training will point to results, much the same way that William Koehler does in his training book. The ends justify the means as they say. But does it? Getting a scared dog to behave a certain way because it is too frightened to do otherwise hardly sounds like a success to me.
In a telling clip of Cesar Millan working with a fearful American Eskimo dog, the caged dog snarls and snaps when approached, a tactic which has probably worked in the past to keep people away from it, which is the point of the behavior. A trapped dog has few choices. Unyielding to the display Cesar approaches the cage and towers over the dog who some would say ‘calms’ down, though I doubt the dog is feeling calm at all, freezing or the lack of movement does not mean that a dog is feeling good about the situation. Once leashed up and outside the cage the dog raises a paw which Cesar describes as a predatory behavior which is an indication that he needs to continue to be wary of the dog.
I don’t disagree on the latter, but paw raises have a multitude of meanings for dogs, many of which we may not fully understand, and while a paw raise may indicate predatory intentions if the dog is stalking the family cat, it is often seen as an appeasement gesture, a sign of indecision, or as Turid Rugaas would describe a ‘calming signal’. Not surprising coming from a dog that has been threatened. Just because physical force is not used on a dog, it is implied when one uses their size and body posturing to subdue them. The fact that the gun pointed at your head is not loaded probably won’t make any difference to you if you’re not aware of the fact or of the wielder’s intent. It’s probably just best to go along with their demands.
Suzanne Clothier writes about the attitudes we have regarding our dogs’ behavior and our relationship with them in her book “If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered Bones Would Rain From the Sky”. I recommend it to anyone who has ever considered what their dog might want when it came to training time, and if you haven’t, read it anyway, it’s a beautifully written book that I can’t seem to keep a hold of, I keep giving it away.
I say this is my last post about Cesar Millan because this blog is not about him, regardless of the benefit of the additional hits it may get me from the Dog Whisperer Ambassadors out there. It is not about trying to convince his loyal converts that he is wrong or bad. I agree with him that many dogs in America have less than stellar lives, as do many people and I’m sure there is a connection. Just giving a dog a life, as he advocates with his focus on exercise is a gift to dogs and owners. I would like to thank all the folks who commented on my last post, your care and concern for the dogs in your lives is obvious. I also appreciate it since the journalist who produced the news clip about Cesar that I included in that post told me that he has received hate mail from many of Cesar’s fans. Your calm assertiveness is appreciated.
In his book, Cesar’s Way, on page 13 Cesar mentions briefly a frightened German Shepherd named Beauty who in “..order to attach a leash to her collar, I have to chase after her, tire her out, and then wait until she submits. I may have to repeat this process a thousand times until she realizes that when I put my hand out, the best solution is for her to come to me.” Now imagine if you will, for just a moment, this scene. The dog is terrified, adrenalin is coursing through her body, she’s running, her body low, tail tucked, ears down and back, glancing behind her as she tries to escape her own personal demon. Then physically exhausted she gives up, perhaps pressing herself to the floor or into a corner as her worst nightmare comes true. Perhaps you can imagine how you’d feel, your mouth going dry, the tightening of your stomach as you experienced fear- heart racing, bowel loosening fear. Or maybe it’s easier to see a dog you care about fleeing in horror, over and over, the act repeated on a daily basis for weeks. This is not humanizing a dog, it is empathizing with the experience of an animal with which we share the same parts of the brain that allows us to feel fear in the same ways.
You may argue that I am taking him too literally that he does not mean 1ooo times. Would you feel better about it if it was only 100 times or a dozen times? But I don’t think it’s off track to take him literally. Dogs do not generalize behaviors easily and fearful dogs are even less proficient at it so his description of needing to repeat this scene a thousand times before the dog learns that her efforts to protect herself are of no use and ‘submits’, is likely accurate. Now I’ll ask you to visit the fearfuldogs.com site and have a look at the videos in which I use targeting to teach Sunny to approach me and other people. It is a simple exercise and what you are seeing is the result of hundreds of opportunities that Sunny had to practice this behavior, maybe even a thousand. Look at him, you can still see his fear, his wariness, his caution but he was never forced to run panicked, until exhaustion, to learn to ‘submit’ to the request to approach my hand. Not once was he forced to ‘submit’ to his demons. Looking at his body language you will still see concern, but you will also see the beginning of a cheerful willingness to be around people.
These behaviors take time and repetition because for many dogs, as Cesar is well aware of, their brains are damaged and for some dogs they will never be repaired, no matter how many time they are chased while they flee in horror, or how many times they are asked to target a hand. And if I were to ask myself the question as to which technique I would choose to test out their learning potential, you probably don’t need me to tell you that I would choose the targeting with positive reinforcement every time.
I am NOT pointing out these videos to show what a good trainer I am, far from it. I am a novice, a novice who has followed the lead of great trainers, many who are familiar names in the world of dog training and others, not so familiar but no less skilled or insightful. Compared to good trainers I could even be called a hack. I point them out for the owners of fearful dogs who are struggling and searching for ways to help their dogs, ways which do not include the risk of being bitten or continually terrifying their dogs, and to realize that neither do they need to subject themselves to being bitten in order to teach their dog that biting is not the best solution to their problem. This is a technique commonly used by Cesar with small dogs who when they do give up, I suspect are feeling something far from relief at finding a leader, unless you also believe that a deer feels relief when it can finally stop running after the wolves have her by the throat.
I will not try to describe what happens in a dog’s brain when it is so afraid it runs or fights for its life. Not only am I not qualified to do so, if I go down that route it will lead to a conversation about how dogs learn new behaviors and how they change how they feel about the things that scare them. It will lead to how positive reinforcement works, not the bribing or luring with treats the critics of PR often mistakenly believe it to be, or inexperienced handlers practice and call it PR, but operant and classical conditioning. I will not go there because then I will be talking about training and Cesar himself admits he’s not a trainer.
You are welcome to comment and share your admiration for Cesar Milan, it is still, as we like to say and believe, a free country (even if it is ‘my’ blog and we all have something to learn from each other. And like Cesar Milan I also believe that it is the relationship that we have with our dogs that creates the best foundation for any training or rehabilitation success we have with them. I have never been, nor will I ever be the ‘alpha dog’ or ‘pack leader’ I am quite sure that my dogs do not believe me to be a very unfortunate looking dog. I am a human and by virtue of some additional brain matter and thumbs, I control all the resources my dogs need, but do not allow this to lead me to inaccurate interpretations of dominance hierarchies among them.
But I won’t go on any further, I would much prefer to grab my snowshoes and head up the mountain with my dogs, fearful one included. This will occur after they
go out the door first and run up the trail ahead of me, but bless their hearts, whether they keep checking up on my progress because they think I’m the pack leader, because I call them or out of pity because I can’t keep up, it is the indescribable pleasure I get being with them and watching them, my fearful dog Sunny in particular, which will keep me advocating that no one, no one, causes any scared dog to run for any reason other than the sheer joy of it.
Yours in the adoration of dogs,
TV’s The Dog Whisperer has made ‘learned helplessness’ all the rage. There is no question that it is possible to get behaviors from dogs using a variety of different techniques. If you stood over your kid with a mallet and threatened them with violence if they didn’t do their homework, you may get the homework done, but at what cost? It is that cost that has gone unnoticed by Cesar Millan and his many advocates when the threat of punishment, intimidation or pain is used to change behaviors in dogs. Dogs that are bullied into behaving certain ways may behave that way so long as the abuser is present, so a resource guarder may allow dad to take his bones away but junior gets bit. It’s not about being alpha, or being the pack leader, it’s about changing how a dog perceives having its stuff handled by people, and that takes training, not bullying.
Worse then just choosing to selectively comply with particular behavior requests is a dog that no longer makes a choice. This is called ‘learned helplessness’ and the laboratory studies done to define and describe this condition are pretty miserable to read about. Basically a dog was subjected to electrical shocks on the floor while in a room with a low divider that had an area on the other side where no shocks were administered. Some dogs were allowed to jump over the divider to escape the shocks, while others were not. The dogs that were not allowed to jump over the divider after repeatedly being shocked stopped trying to escape the shocks, even when the opportunity for escape was offered to them! They basically gave up trying to help themselves.
So what does this have to do with The Dog Whisperer? Ever watched an episode in which a dog was forced repeatedly to walk on a particular surface, be near something, or otherwise be made to deal with whatever scared it? Eventually the dog stops resisting and complies and everyone smiles and feels warm and fuzzy cause the dog has been ‘cured’. In most cases the dog is not feeling warm and fuzzy and has not ‘learned’ to not be afraid of what is scaring it, it has just learned to stop trying to make the terror go away. This may be enough for many dog owners, but it does nothing to create or maintain a positive, trusting relationship with a dog, and has not given the dog, or owner, any new skills in how to manage challenging situations.
I love watching dogs perform tricks, run agility courses, leap for frisbees, fling themselves off docks to chase a tennis ball or sit in front of a toddler with a paw raised and an expectant look on their face as they mug for a treat. A dog performs these behaviors not only because they were trained to, but because the behaviors are fun and rewarding to them. These behaviors were learned by the dog. Dogs can learn all kinds of new behaviors to replace inappropriate ones, but not if they’ve given up believing that their behavior can effect their experience.
Check out this video. The footage of the dog biting its owner after being shocked is a glaring example of negligence by Mr. Millan.