My last post on Cesar Millan

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 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

Sunny my fearful dog in the foreground learning about rivers.

Sunny my fearful dog in the foreground learning about rivers.

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,

Debbie Jacobs

9 comments so far

  1. joyce kesling on

    Debbie, what a great and positive piece considering the subject 😎

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks again Joyce. I think there is something in our brains that causes us to latch onto ideas and be reluctant to give them up, especially ideas that have some emotional resonance for us, and if there appears to be ‘evidence’-religion, politics, race & gender issues, dogs…I can understand being convinced of something if faulty facts or lies are employed to do it, but once alternatives are presented it becomes less acceptable to me that anyone swallows whatever it is they’re being sold. Whether it’s a dog trainer or radio pundit. Unfortunately I think that as a nation (I am in the U.S.) we are not supporting or teaching critical thinking, but that’s a whole other blog 😉

  2. Ms. M on

    I am a new reader, with a three-year-old cattle dog mix (with more fears than I’d like). I am not a fan of Cesar Milan, and I am grateful for this post. ‘Nuff said.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to comment about this post. I appreciate it. I hope you are having success (however minor it might seem) with your dog.

  3. Ms. M on

    My dog hates big, loud things like garbage trucks and thunderstorms, lawn mowers, the vacuum, and some neighbors. She’s just kind of an “on alert” at all times girl. I have ideas as to when the fears began, and understand that big, loud things can be scary. But, I don’t think I’ve made much progress in helping her to view these things as “life” things that need to be tolerated. Being a cattle dog, her instinct is to bark and not hide. So, garbage days are always lovely. Yesterday was one of those days.

    Anyway, sorry for such a long comment.

    I do want to say, however, that there was a time early on where I THOUGHT that this dog might have a dominance issue that could escalate. I got kinda scared. Then, I realized that it was FEAR, and the “normal” reaction of a cattle dog. Once I understood my dog, I was able to deal with her the right way, and she almost immediately seemed like this sweet dog, showing lots of “sweet” expressions. With my dog, she acts like a tough girl, but she’s not. It’s hard to treat a dog like that with sweetness, for lack of a better word. But, when you do, they show you this great personality – and it’s their REAL self. My dog is still pushy, and needs to be reminded to be polite, but she’s a good, sweet dog.

    I’m sorry for going on, I just thought that that was a good point to share on this post.

  4. fearfuldogs on

    No apologies necessary! Good points! It is difficult to treat an aggressively dog ‘nicely’ even if you know they are behaving that way due to fear.

    Just a thought for garbage day. Skip her breakfast that day and sit down with a bowl of fabulous treats. As soon as she alerts to the sound of the trucks, toss a treat, regardless of how she is behaving. Just make sure that the treats follow the appearance or sound of the trucks. As soon as the trucks go by put the treats away. Can you see where this is going?

  5. Ms. M on

    Yes, but much like people, when you expect the best of them, the best of them deliver.

    As for garbage day, yes, I have not skipped her breakfast, but I have treated her while the trucks were on our street. It’s difficult to keep her attention, but I have her sit and then treat treat treat, and for the most part, it works. However, the problem is, she has super-dog hearing and so hears the trucks all day long all over the neighborhood. Sometimes I don’t even hear them coming. So, I feel like I have no control over the situation. She doesn’t currently have a crate, so sometimes I put her in my bedroom when they are actually on our street. It’s a bit quieter and she feels pretty safe in there, and that seems to help momentarily. Still, it’s an all-day thing, and I don’t want to just keep her in there all day. I figure it will stop working if extended anyway.

    I try to keep music or TV on, but sometimes she still hears them.

    Any suggestions on that? (I admit, don’t do the treat thing every day.) I do tell her, though, that they are not here to pick up all the dogs on the street. 😉

  6. fearfuldogs on

    If my dog was stressed all day (and he is) I would talk to a vet about some kind of medication that would help lower that stress and anxiety. It seems like a kind thing to do. Constant stress is not healthy and does little to help a dog feel less stressed in the future. Just thoughts.

  7. Ms. M on

    I was planning on trying Bach’s (ordering it this week) because so many people have recommended it. I don’t know if it will work for her, but you don’t know unless you try. I have had other reservations, but I think you are right, that it’s the kind thing to do. Thank you.

    I appreciate comments from those that really love and are working to help their dogs. I know that your comments are not motivated by looking for a “quick fix” for an unpleasant situation.

    If Bach’s doesn’t help at all, I will speak to her vets, as a next step.

    FYI, my dog is currently sleeping peacefully under my chair.

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