Archive for the ‘cesar millan’ Tag

Ducks Don’t Need Quacks Either

cartoon of surgeon with chain sawThere is a science to behavior change in animals. That most pet owners are unaware of that is not surprising. That there are dog trainers out there who are unaware of it is disastrous.

I know just enough about my car and computer to turn them on and use them, when all is going according to plan. When problems arise, even if my cursing and kicking of tires seems to provide a temporary solution, I know enough to know I should contact a professional who understands the way car engines and computers work. Put the wrong fluid in the wrong compartment, delete the wrong file, and I may be in trouble that will be expensive to fix. Use the wrong approach to training a dog and the price just might be the dog’s life.

As you might imagine I hear from many people trying to sort out how to help their fearful dogs. Yesterday I got a call from a pet owner and had there been a board monitoring the ethics of dog trainers, I would have contacted them. But there isn’t so I am left writing to writing blog posts. The dog, acknowledged as fearful by the owners (and one would assume by the trainer) had started to display increasingly aggressive behavior, including biting the owners. This is bad news. Even worse news was that I was not being contacted for training help, the owners were looking for help to rehome their dog. When I mentioned training, from the owner’s perspective, they HAD been training, and since it wasn’t helping (indeed it appeared to making matters worse) they were done with it.

I was not familiar with the trainer they were using but it didn’t take long for me to find the self-described whisperer’s website. Dog whispering ala Millan (as opposed to Paul Owen’s earlier use of the term) is akin to practicing medicine in a barber’s chair. It should be outlawed. That enough people survived bleeding cures is not enough to continue the practice. Should the patient die, the disease can always be blamed.

Fearful and aggressive dogs need competent training by educated, skilled professionals. They exist, but in the historical muddle of dog training information, they may be hard to pick out among the quacks. The topic of competency in dog training will be addressed in this webinar with Jean Donaldson. It may be too late for some dogs but it’s about time we talked about this for the rest.

Save Your Breath

Every now and then a Cesar Millan fan will find my blog and do their darndest to convince me of the error of my ways and assessment of his. I have to give them credit for their efforts. They are right to accuse me of moderating many of their comments. I didn’t always but I decided that he has gotten enough airtime without my blog giving him more. My blog, my choice.

The arguments presented by these folks are at once amusing and stomach churning. One commenter suggested that I edify myself by visiting the websites of trainers who were open-minded and informed trainers (and who of course agreed with his methods). I got as far on one webpage to where the trainer states they used both “rewards and consequences” to train, when I had to just stop. This is akin to someone saying, “I speaks english real good.” Ummm….no you don’t. Rewards ARE consequences. I know what they are trying to say, but their inability to say it properly belies their lack of understanding of learning theory. Oh and in regard to “learning theory,” I was told I could keep my “science psycho babble.” Honestly.

There seems to be the misunderstanding among these people who call themselves trainers that anyone who actually bothers to learn about animal behavior and training, cannot provide practical advice for pet owners. They misrepresent rewards-based training as “purely positive” and that what they do is “balanced.” Again this only indicates how little the trainer understands about….well about “learning theory,” oh here I go again, muddying the waters with scientific psycho babble. Meanwhile they go on about “dog psychology.” Sorry. I give up.

One of the aspects about dog training that I love so much has been the opening up of worlds I didn’t realize existed. There’s the history of Skinner and Pavlov, the practical application of skills by Bob Bailey, the insights of trainers who I don’t even dare try to list for fear of leaving someone deserving out. I am tickled pink that I am able to rub shoulders with and learn from people with more education, skill and empathy than I can hope to attain in whatever time I have left on this planet.

I have come to terms with the fact that having a conversation about dog training with someone who quotes Cesar Millan is like trying to discuss civil rights with someone who recites passages of the bible. Don’t bother.

Force-Free Trainers! Just Keep Talking!

There are plenty of professionals who are routinely frustrated by the beliefs held by their clients or potential clients. Researchers studying climate change are likely among them. Humans are complicated creatures. On one hand we seem to be capable of stunning thoughts. Whether in the arts or sciences, we can come up with remarkable ideas. On the other hand, we are also bound by a brain that seems to have a mind of its own.

Ask a roomful of people if dogs need pack leaders and I’m going to guess you’ll see more hands raised than not. Why is this? Chances are that the only reason they believe this to be true is because they’ve heard it before. It turns out that we are inclined to believe a statement is true because we’ve heard it before, regardless of whether it is true.

Brain scientists call it the illusion of truth effect. In some cases it may be absolutely benign, believing that when you die you go to heaven doesn’t hurt anyone and likely provides comfort to many. Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter (except of course once you’re dead). The problems arise when someone is repeatedly exposed to slogans or edicts which are not true, or should be questioned.

The ray of hope that force-free trainers should see from this is that so long as we keep talking, keep putting information out there about how animals, even snarling, aggressive ones, can be trained without persistent punishment or coercion, people will start to believe it. So don’t despair, just keep talking. We’ve got more than illusion to back us up.

It’s My Party, No Need To Bring Your Own Kool-Aid

don't drink the kool-aid crossed out image of drink jugA 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.

Stockholm Syndrome?

I was reading a post in The Crossover Trainer Blog and was struck by the implications of this comment made about her observation of Cesar Millan at his ‘Dog Psychology Center’.

“……..He walked in with me and one could definitely sense he had an effect on the dogs. I concede he does have “something” about him that effects the dogs. “

Not sure why there is an implied apology in ‘conceding’ he has an effect on dogs. There is no doubt he does and the Orwellian irony of what it is seems lost on many, including him, with his talk about ‘unstable’ pack leaders.

Dogs, even dogs with behavioral challenges are not stupid. Many are hypervigilant and extra sensitive to anything they perceive threatens their safety. Anyone, man or beast, who comes into their environment is immediately assessed for their potential threat to the dog’s safety. Even if a particular dog was not physically restrained, alpha rolled, choked, shocked or poked (all main techniques of Mr. Millan’s ‘rehabilitation’ repertoire) they will respond to his ‘presence’ and the reaction of those dogs who have been ‘dominated’ by him. It’s not unlike sitting on a subway and having a young thug get on the car and giving you one of those, ‘I WILL kick your ass bitch’ stares. They too will have an ‘effect’ on the pack of riders.

The Stockholm Syndrome is a real and well documented psychological response to fearing for your life. One need not even be submitted to constant abuse in order to ‘give up’ trying to fight or flee. The random threats of violence are enough to keep kidnap victims sitting in cars while their abductor runs into the gas station for a cup of coffee. Some victims even fall in love with their captors. Take away a dog’s control, an easy thing to do with choke chains, muzzles, shocks and prongs, and it’s easy to get the same kind of ‘compliance’.

cesar millan taking away choice and control from a dog

What choice does this dog have?

A dog subjected to repeated acts of ‘dominance’ by their handler, acts which likely seem as random and unreasonable as those portrayed in movies by the bad guy who pistol whips the hero for looking at his shoe laces, can also be adversely effected by this treatment. That Cesar Millan repeatedly misreads signals and cues from dogs is no secret. That he, and trainers of his ilk manage to convince pet owners that their mythologies of dog ‘psychology’ are accurate and justify their abusive treatment- the more upset and needing special attention the dog, the more abused they are- is no surprise. But I will leave it to the therapists to determine if there is a form of pathology in it and our willingness to watch and pay for it.

One day when our consciousness evolves there may be a tribunal and people who abuse animals, in the name of training or rehabilitation, will be called to task for it. And seats should be saved for the TV producers who seek these people out to make a profit off of the recorded and televised abuse of dogs.

A Rose By Any Other Name?

Is this a dominance hierarchy or bunk bed?

They say a rose by any other name is still a rose, unless if you’re naming it ‘tulip’ I won’t know what you are describing. We may both understand that you are talking about a flower, but if you are ordering a dozen roses and ask for tulips you’ll be in for a big surprise when they arrive.

We look at animals and come up with ways to describe and define what we observe. It’s important and helpful work. When we look at wolves and then at dogs we come to conclusions about what is going on among them. The terms we use and the conclusions we come to may be right on, or not. We may be talking about behavior between animals, but if we label something ‘dominance’ and it’s actually ‘fear’ our response to the animal’s behavior may get us a result that surprises us. Or worse, angers us.

Different cultures perceive things differently. This is most obvious when it comes to food preferences. Offer a Nepali a cup of salty tea made with yak milk and chances are good their brains will register that something good is on its way. Hand a steaming cup to someone from the UK and they’ll be challenged to suppress a grimace at first sip. These differences do not end with food. Brains learn to prefer all kinds of things over other things. There are studies which found that American brains register ideas of ‘dominance’ more rewarding than do the brains of people from Japan. Their brains register concepts of ‘submission’ more rewarding. It’s difficult to read about this and not come up with value judgements about which, dominance or submission, is ‘best’. And the culture you come from is likely to affect that conclusion.

Following is a not so uncommon occurrence in our home:

My most fearful dog Sunny is asleep on the floor, somewhere in the path of where I need to travel. As I approach he merely opens his eyes to follow my movement. He does not make any attempt to move out of my way. I step around him.

Is his behavior an indication that he thinks he is dominant to me and doesn’t have to get out of my way or has he simply learned that he doesn’t have to move because I’ve never stepped on him, tripped on him, kicked him or yelled at him in the past when he’s been lying somewhere and I walk toward him?

What if instead of thinking of the social structures among dogs in ways that cause us to feel threatened, as many do when told that their dog is trying to ‘dominate’ them, we thought about each individual within the group having their own traits and inclinations which cause them to behave particular ways. Some are more willing to assert themselves, others more willing to compromise. Some are afraid and behaving aggressively because of it. Others are so excited about something that the last thing on their mind is that you want to go out the door in front of them.

One of the most damaging concepts to come out of pop dog training is the idea of ‘dominance’ being a primary motivator for dogs. Dogs, like other animals, do what works for them. I’m going to guess that few have the same kinds of dreams of power and influence that some people have. Heaven help the dogs who get in their way.

Join me in Santa Cruz CA on September 9, 2012 for a seminar on helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges.

Breed Specific Legislation & Alpha Dog Myths

2 small dogs looking at cameraAs smart as we humans consider ourselves to be, we can be remarkably short-sighted or inconsiderate of the effects of our beliefs or actions. Antibiotics have saved countless lives and I consider myself among the lucky in history to have lived in an age during which we have access to them. But we have also learned that unless we use them judiciously, the fall out of resistant bacteria is very real and can be deadly. Yet for many, including, surprisingly, doctors, they continue to be misused.

When I meet trainers or dogs owners who believe that dogs need to be dominated in order to be appropriate pets I rarely doubt that they enjoy having dogs in their lives. However the perpetuation of the myth that dogs need to be ‘shown their place’ in the household pack hierarchy may have had serious consequences for breeds of dogs some trainers and advocates have specifically targeted for image improvement. This impact goes beyond the routine effect on a dog who has been ‘dominated’ displaying increased fear and aggression. That alone should be enough to reconsider the practice.

Touting the concept that dogs are inclined to seek a higher status in their relationships with people, including displaying aggression to do it, is scary. Growling, used by dogs to indicate that they want to maintain or increase their personal space, which may include food, locations or toys, is upsetting enough that many pet owners and trainers will punish a dog for it. It scares us. It scares us even more if we believe that it is a rung on the ladder up to domination. ‘Nip it in the bud’ is the tactic employed by many, and can have unintended consequences. Stopping growling does not necessarily stop the preference the dog has for being left alone, anymore than if I was punished for asking the fellow standing next to me on the subway to stop touching me, means I welcome his behavior because I’m afraid to speak up about it.

As sophisticated as humans are we are still ‘animals’ and have retained many of the responses that kept us alive long enough to evolve and achieve our own level of global domination (germs and cockroaches aside). We are as concerned about being attacked as the next fellow mortal regardless of how many limbs they use to walk, or whether they swim or fly. When we incorporated the myth that status seeking in dogs is a powerful enough desire that they are willing to attack and kill humans to get it, red lights started flashing in the parts of our brains that respond to immediate threats which affect our survival. This unfortunately has led to less use of the parts of our brains that are capable of critical thinking.

There is plenty of information, provided by biologists, ethologists, behaviorists, and writers, far more skilled than I, to include the research done on both wolves and dogs which indicates that both animals interact within a system that promotes cooperation far more than it does conflict, especially conflict which might lead to grievous bodily harm, in this post. I welcome readers to include links to that information in comments. My goal for this post is not to address that, but rather to suggest that when you convince people that dogs need an ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in order to be a safe, ‘balanced’ pet you instill a level of fear in people about dogs which may have led to the increase in breed specific legislation and heightened laws regarding which dogs communities feel safe having in them.

I have rarely doubted that trainers like Cesar Millan and others who follow his ‘premises’ about the relationship between people and dogs, like and love dogs, but the unintended consequences of maintaining the ‘alpha’ and pack leader paradigm, including practices and handling techniques which can increase aggression, may be proving to be deadly to the very dogs they claim to care about.

Creating A Climate For Change

Ready for action!Imagine you have to study for a big exam or are trying to learn to use a new computer program or figure out your taxes. Do you pack up your supplies and go sit in the middle of a busy city intersection? Or perhaps more realistically do you invite the neighbor kids over to play video games in your living room while you replay in your head all the injustices you feel were inflicted on you by your parents and older siblings? Hopefully you don’t do any of the above if you actually want to get something done.

When working with a fearful dog it is important to create a climate both internally and externally that will facilitate, not hinder, learning. We do this by making sure that whatever scares our dogs is not surrounding them in such proximity or quantity that they can focus on nothing else. In order to learn new behaviors and skills a dog needs to be able to process information and think, something they cannot do if they are scared and overwhelmed.

Changing a dog’s internal climate is not as easy or as under our control. Understanding how classical counter conditioning and desensitization ‘work’ is important for every owner of a fearful dog. The use of behavioral medications can also help a dog’s brain be more open and susceptible to new information and learning. The behavioral meds commonly used today are not merely sedatives employed to depress a dog’s reaction to a trigger. By changing the chemistry of a fearful brain, or a depressed brain, it is possible to create a climate in which learning and change becomes easier for a dog.

By controlling and managing what you can in relation to your dog’s experiences you may find that you can help your dog ace the next test that comes their way.

Taking It Slow

More than just tolerating!

More than just tolerating!

Early during my search for information about how to help my fearful dog Sunny, one rescuer of border collies told me that she ‘didn’t have the time that I had to work with her dogs’. Her point was that all the DS/CC I was doing might be nice but just making dogs deal with things worked for her, and was faster. I never doubted her success, though I had to wonder if she was working with dogs as shut down and lacking in skills as Sunny.

I have always wondered if I was taking things too slowly with Sunny, but recent conversations with trainers of fearful dogs seem to support my approach. Too often owners and trainers settle for a dog’s ability to ‘tolerate’ its triggers and move on, rather than continuing to work with them until they get to ‘completely comfortable’ with triggers, or even to ‘loving them’ if that is ultimately possible.

Imagine if when you asked the owner of a large breed, guard dog, if you could pet their dog, and their response was, “Sure, he tolerates people most of the time,” compared to, “Sure, he loves people,” would you feel safe with that dog? When someone asked your partner, spouse, or family member how they felt about you and they replied, “Oh I tolerate her,” are you as pleased as if they had said, “I enjoy nothing better than being with her.”?

Suzanne Clothier commented at a seminar that when working with a scared or reactive dog the process should be like ‘watching toast brown’, so gradual that the improvements are barely perceptible. This is not to say that one won’t ever see leaps in progress with their dog, but most often the kind of changes we want to achieve with our scared dogs occur slowly. It is tempting to get to ‘tolerate’ and want to plunge on ahead, increasing our dogs’ exposure to their triggers.

Only I know Sunny well enough to determine how much he can handle and when tolerating something just isn’t enough (vet visits are usually only tolerated by even the most stable of dogs). When it comes to his feelings about people I will not feel safe unless his emotional response to them is joyful and enthusiastic, anything less than that and we run the risk of set-backs or worse, aggression if I increase the pressure on him to be near them. I continue to see improvements in Sunny’s behavior around people, but each step forward brings new training challenges, but fortunately both of us do much more than tolerate each other and I hope he’s as happy with the company he’s sharing on this journey as I am.

How To Help A Fearful Dog? Stop Scaring Them!

They grew up too quickly!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.

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