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.


47 comments so far

  1. kirsten rose on

    Excellent article, I just love the way you put your thoughts into words.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Kirsten, appreciate hearing that.

  2. Carolyn P. on

    Well said! Having worked with a reactive dog and mistakenly taken her to a CM guru, it caused her behaviour to go “underground”. I had no way of reading her as she hadn’t stopped being fearful, just knew that the way she felt would be “corrected”. She was far more dangerous after using CM methods and I’ll never forgive myself for putting her through it. Thankfully, I’ve since taken courses on ethology and have had great, though definitely not immediate, success.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Score one for education Carolyn! Nice job.

  3. Lizzie on

    It would appear that Mr Millan is visiting the UK at present promoting his forthcoming tour for early next year.
    He agreed to a daytime TV interview which was aired last Wednesday where the host took him to task about his dog ‘training’ methods. This host asked him direct questions about why he kicked and punched dogs, and used electric shock and pronged collars in order to ‘rehabilitate dogs. I almost felt sorry for CM as he struggled to unsuccessfully answer the question, and the host was having non of it!

    The interview was brief but if it helps to convince people in the UK that this man should not be around our dogs, then it was well worth while.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes, that video interview is making the rounds. Finally someone asked him real questions!

  4. Suzy on

    Great blog today!!! I know it’s not much but I was hiding the Cesar Millan books at the bookstore today. Hopefully if they go in looking for Cesar and he’s not there they’ll maybe end up with some Patricia McConnell or Jean Donaldson or even the REAL dog whisperer.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Nice try. Too expensive to keep buying them 😉

  5. Hazel on

    Being an older person and CM’s way was the way everyone did things back then I didn’t know better. After my sweet fearful boy I learned a much better different way. Never going back there again.
    I love your articles and how you speak so plainly that isn’t anything left to be misunderstood. Thank you for helping all of us on our journey.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you for your support and the reminder that when things change, it may be a good idea to change with them.

  6. ritaippolito on

    Huzzah!! well said!

  7. Jen on

    Thank you.

    You, and most of the bloggers that I follow/interact with, are on the science bandwagon, not the “energy” one. I’m not sure I’ve even said CM’s name in full in any of my blog posts; it wasn’t to avoid his sycophants, as I didn’t know he had a social media group of those. I just didn’t want him to have the acknowledgement!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      You mean, he whose name shall not be spoken? 😉

  8. Leslie on

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. As always, thank you for standing up for fearful dogs and for standing up to the dangers CM poses for them. I am so tired of hearing the excuses of why he ‘has’ to do what he does to ‘save’ these aggressive dogs. He’s hurt far more dogs than he’s ever helped.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks for your support Leslie. The more I learn the angrier I get about people like him. What they are doing just isn’t right.

  9. Judith on

    Thank you for your excellent blog. I’m still working with my previously chained 6-year old fearful dog after he and I successfully attended an 8-session “reactive dog” class that taught me how to use positive reinforcement. No CM methods for us …

  10. De Cunningham on

    As always a wonderful post. I share your words in hope that people will see there are better , different ways to train our challengingly dogs.

  11. Judith Ann Gouveia on

    At one time I have to admit I drank the kool aid. Even tried walking with my dog on a short leash so she could not go in front of me. We were both miserable. We came to an agreement that my dog would let me pretend I was in charge as I make her food and drive the car. She in return would continue to be the best dog she could. On walks we use a long leash and she is in front of me sniffing and enjoying the walk. I call her and she comes usually wagging her tail excited that I found something to share.

    As I have read and learned more I am almost embarrassed that I did sip the kool aid. Thanks to all those who helped to enlighten me. I do not want to be my dog’s pack leader. I want to be someone she trust and loves. Not someone who dominates and makes her feel fearful. Thanks.

  12. rangerskat on

    Thank you for speaking truth. Media popularity is merely that. Having no clue when we adopted our first dog I followed popular advice and read a couple of his books. I find it interesting how much my own beliefs influenced my perception of what I read. I came away from my reading with the idea that dogs need more exercise than they typically get and that dogs need clear and consistent expectations. I still think those are largely true but the more I saw of how his methods were used by him and by his followers to justify bullying dogs the more I looked for experts who based their training methods on solid science rather than made up philosophies. When we adopted our fear aggressive little bitch my search lead me here, to a resource I have found invaluable. Thank you

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      They say that even a stopped clock is right twice a day! Lucky for your dog you kept up your search for information.

  13. Cybele on

    Brava! Your last two paragraphs are genius.
    I watched the British interview, too. What struck me was how CM looked to the audience for support when he felt especially threatened by the questions asked of him. I saw a scared dog looking for some positive reenforcement. A crumb. Anything. Funny he can’t see (or ignores) that same look in the eyes of the poor dogs brought to him and can’t make the connection as another living creature.
    Celebrity, though is the bottom line. It’s so ironic that the original “whisperer”, the “horse whisperer” came to his calling to prove harsh treatment and violence weren’t the way to get a horse to trust and learn.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Genius. Now I could get used to the sound of that. But don’t worry, I won’t! When your view is skewed by the assumption of dominance, or some out there energy explanation for behavior, you can justify your actions as necessary to put natural order back in place. It’s nuts. But people buy it.

  14. Frances on

    I have bookmarked this one so that I can refer all those who talk about how he “saves” dogs who would otherwise not survive straight to it. I have read so many posts on so many forums from people wondering why their dog seems to be getting more aggressive, rather than less so, when they are diligently employing alpha rolls and fierce stares…

  15. Doggy's Style on

    Nicely written!

  16. Stacy Braslau-Schneck on

    Very nicely written! May the fountain of science continue to flow, and may it nourish and refresh many dogs and their trainers as we work together!

  17. Kim and Ash on

    Thank you, Debbie, for all you do. This is a well written, well reasoned piece.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Kim. I hope you and yours are doing well.

  18. Theresa Liddle on

    I never got into CM and don’t know too much about him because of it. I think what kept me from watching him was the first time I sat down to see what all the fuss was about, the very beginning of the show had a disclaimer that read something like this “To be done by a professional, do not attempt at home”. I was very uncomfortable that he would be doing something to a living creature that “we should not attempt at home”. When I’m approached by someone who idolizes or “loves the show” I ask about that wondering why they too aren’t uncomfortable with it. It blows my mind to be honest. I cringe thinking what fright he would have put into my old guy who was the most timid, trusting and loving soul there ever could be and I shutter thinking what damage he would do to my fearful young dog Ozi.

    Thank you for the wealth of information you put here. I never respond but I am always reading and learning. I never realized what a true “fearful” dog entailed and what came with it until Ozi came along so I am so appreciative of any and all the information that comes across here.


    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks for taking the time to respond Theresa, nice to know you’re out there and are enjoying the blog. Good luck with Ozi and if you haven’t checked out there’s lots of info there as well.

  19. thelittlebeardogblog on

    Well said! In my ignorance, when Little Bear was a pup I tried to follow the CM way. He was on TV, therefore I thought he was the expert. It did nothing short of ruin my relationship with my pup and I made myself miserable in the process. Goes without saying, his behaviour became ten times worse and he added the bullying of other pups and submissive dogs to his repertoire.

    Three years later, a tonne of real dog books (and great blogs like this one!) two dog behaviour courses and a great socialisation class for dogs who lack confidence and he’s a different dog.

    Today we got pounced on by just the type of submissive dog he loves to bully. But today he chose to think about it first and settled for pulling himself up to his full 20 inch height and just sniffing before coming back when called. I nearly burst with pride!

    In my ignorance and to my shame, I’ve tried both ways (if very half-heartedly) but I can say hand on heart I know now what works. The best bit? We have an amazing relationship and although he’s still not an easy dog, I’m grateful for him each and every day and I enjoy him.

    If CM was a DIY ‘expert’ telling people to wire an electrical plug the wrong way he’d be banned from our screens on safety grounds and yet his methods are dangerous. It’s about time we let science lead and kick the charlatans well and truly to the curb.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Very good point about giving out misleading information and being held accountable. I’ve often thought that there’s a lawyer out there somewhere, if they haven’t already done it, who could sue him for damages done by his methods. Unfortunately it’s too late for the dogs who end up in shelters and dead because of the rubbish he puts out there.

      • thelittlebeardogblog on

        Wouldn’t it be wonderful? I was so over the moon that our own UK based Alan Titmarsh gave him such a hard time on his TV chat show. It’s about time people challenged him instead of rolling over in the name of PR and TV ratings.
        We can but do our best to present the alternatives; they say the public is twenty years behind the science – a depressing thought, but we can each do what we can to get the word out there that there is another, better way.

  20. phebe77 on

    Reblogged this on Dogs, Books, and Science .

  21. James on

    Hi, I agree that CM has had somewhat of a negative impact in terms of people trying out his methods after watching ‘the tv show’. Its kind of like watching nanny911 and then going and doing the same thing on your kid…Get a professional! Anyway, I’m not a big fan of him, but I do agree with some of his more philosophical points and general statements. Mostly in treating dogs how dogs treat each other. I do strongly believe that when learning about other species we should learn from them interacting with each other, not just our own artificial research. Every species has their own way of communicating and we should adapt to their way, not the other way around. I am pro-science and am also a Biologist. Lately I have been looking into various publications on the social organisation of free-ranging dogs. I’ve found there does seem to be some evidence to suggest that both intra and inter-group ‘statuses’ of individuals are partially determined by what they dubbed ‘aggressive encounters’ – which are short and generally limited in injuries but establish a hierarchy, loose and somewhat transient as it may be. I’d be interested in your, and the general positive-reinforcement training world’s views on this. Note – I am a real person, and NO I am not a ‘stealth CM supporter’. I’m a scientist. (I felt it necessary to say this because in the past positive reinforcement-only fans have come across very aggressive and shut off as soon as I mention even the slightest bit of agreement with CM). If you’d like to discuss the papers I’ve mentioned and read them I should be able to supply you with copies or at least abstracts and a link to buy the full papers. I’ll be happy to continue to engage if you respond in the same polite manner that I have.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for joining the conversation James. I am looking forward to attending a seminar being presented by Ray Coppinger about his study of free-ranging village dogs. That dogs are social and form status hierarchies is not in dispute among the trainers I know. However dogs would never have become as successful as they are if they were not flexible in their ability to adjust to changes in status. A dog’s status no longer determines whether they will get to eat or breed.

      We can change behaviors through the use of reinforcement and desensitization and counter conditioning that are often labeled as ‘dominant’. The use of the term ‘dominance’ has come to justify the use of some nasty handling of dogs, and therein lies one of its main problems. It’s a human construct, and as a scientist you can appreciate the risks of using constructs, as opposed to observable events when formulating theories.

      The aggressive encounters seen among dogs represent ritualized aggression which can look and sound horrific sometimes but often leads to little or no physical injury to the parties involved. Dogs learn from these encounters, and are able to learn some very specific lessons. Fluffy might be willing to display agonistic behavior toward another dog who goes near their food bowl, but could care less if they sleep on his bed. By the time we see a full-blown event between dogs that we’d label a ‘fight’ there has likely been an array of other ‘ritualized’ behaviors that communicate to other dogs, “don’t even think about going near my food bowl”. If CM really did interact with dogs they way they interact with each other he wouldn’t be getting bitten as much as he does! Body language and ritualized aggression are ways that dogs avoid conflicts, not create them.

      It’s impossible that we can fully adapt to the way that dogs communicate. I have no tail, I walk on two legs, I use verbal language a lot to get my point across, my ears don’t move. But we don’t have to! Dogs have been domesticated and through that process have ended up with some remarkable skills that help them understand ‘human’. How does one dog get another to “sit” or walk on heel, or fetch a ball for them? I can and I do it without behaving or communicating like a dog at all. I do it by understanding what prompts and keeps behavior happening, not by labeling a dog as ‘dominant’ or defining their ‘energy’.

      • James on

        Nice response thank you. I agree that it is impossible to fully adapt ourselves to communicate ‘as dogs’ as such, but I do believe firstly that we should do our best to (perhaps this is just my personal principle) and secondly that we can to quite a good extent. Of course, human life is so different to a dogs life that they do have to adapt to us to a certain degree. To teach dogs to do things they would not do nor understand if left amongst each other, human engineered training methods are the most ideal solution – positive reinforcement etc.

        However I do see that touch (not the CM poking stuff) in general is so important in the way dogs communicate with each other. In fact touch as a sense to a dog I believe is more important than scent. Its the first and most vital sense they use in communicating with the mother and continues to be the one sense that really shapes who they are. Its crucial to my communication with my own and other dogs and they do trust and respect me for that. Only on rare occasions will I use touch to discipline or to disagree with a dog however. Like dogs, I watch mine and their body language very closely and use all other non-physical means of communicating disagreement before using a touch, which I never go above being the equivalent of a sharp tap on the shoulder for us (and I do mean that). Of course, with fearful dogs, touch is out of the question, as is confronting them in any way whatsoever. In-fact on a couple of occasions if a fearful dog has bitten me I have allowed them to do so without retaliating or flinching. They learn I have no fear and I mean no harm very quickly, and I don’t mind getting bitten if its to help a dog in need. This is only in extreme cases and of course from here you build a positive connection to prevent any biting in the future.

        I agree with you on the whole dominance thing. CM tried to make it simple for people to understand but his explanations aren’t scientific. Dominance is a behavior, of course, and dogs do exhibit it in various ways. But its just too simple and inaccurate to explain behaviors just as ‘dominant’. Every individual dog has their own reasons for exhibiting certain behaviors and require individual explanations and solutions.

        To be honest I don’t know how much CM gets bitten so I couldn’t really comment, I don’t watch his show often. I did see that clip recently on youtube where he pokes the retriever and gets surprised when the dog retaliates when he puts his hand to the face (lol). Regarding energy, I think it could be a useful way to help people to watch their emotions and resulting body language, which is of course extremely important. I don’t use the term energy myself, but I don’t see any harm.

        Perhaps this is just principle for me, but I do strongly believe that if we bring a wild animal into our unnatural environment we should adapt to their way of being and communicating as much as we possibly can – by learning from observing them (scientifically!).

        This guy S.K Pal is one of a few scientists that has done some interesting works on free-ranging dogs Though this one is a bit old I have full copies of many recent similar studies through my research institution if you’re interested.

  22. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for sharing the link to the paper James. A sample group of twelve isn’t that big, but still sure to be interesting.

    Dominance is not a behavior. It is a label we apply to a behavior. A behavior would be; growling, running, moving toward, moving away. CM’s attempts to explain dog behavior to people is not just not scientific, it’s usually wrong and more importantly, dangerous.

    Dogs are not wild animals. They haven’t been for a few thousand years. They are domesticated animals and living with humans is not an unnatural environment for them.

    I will never be able to speak dog, or horse or bunny rabbit, but I can teach an animal that by performing a specific behavior a reinforcer will follow. Good trainers can do this without using force or coercion. Wild animals in zoos are often trained without ever being touched. If we can train animals who were not bred to be able to sleep in bed with us, without handling them to get behaviors, surely we can do the same with dogs, who go above and beyond a willingness to engage with us.

    Even a dog who is displaying aggression toward a person is still a dog and not a cougar. Or a wolf.

  23. kdkh on

    I’ve heard such good things about CM, and when I watched him in action, I was absolutely horrified that he would bully dogs the way he did. Thanks for helping me to stick to my guns on this issue, giving me confidence to speak up.

  24. Johnston McNellie Preston on

    Isn’t it Sust A Shame how Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer, is now doing courses – extremely popular and only 4,500 dollars / 5 days / person. Perhaps you could do the same, showing off your own techniques? Or heck, just teaching people how to censure blog comments, you seem good at that.

  25. Johnston McNellie Preston on

    Or how about, You get off your fat arse, SAVE some Food for the starving chilren of Asia/Africa, and actually Walk your dogs instead of sitting her like a Mini-Hitler, pretending that you know something about dogs;

    One Hint: Humans have 2 legs, Dogs have 4… (And they need to be used!!!)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Wow. Quite a comment when you haven’t even seen my arse Johnston. Even at my age I’m still kind of proud of it, thanks to my dogs and the snowshoeing, skiing and swimming adventures we have. But nevermind that, thanks for taking the time to read my blog.

  26. Kate on

    Excuses used to justify what many horse trainers do, as well… oh it was the horse’s last chance; that stallion was locked in a stall with no life before (PP, MR, CA, name your guru) “saved” him; the training is very gentle and kind (no, it isn’t) but you do HAVE to be firm with dangerous horses (no, you don’t); you have to be dominant/gain respect (nope) – and so on and so on. It’s maddening.

    Sorry, ‘m off on my equine tangent again — what I wanted to say was: THANK YOU so much for speaking up for dogs. 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      No apologies necessary Kate. The more people understand about animal behavior the more they realize how we can work with ALL animals with respect without using fear and intimidation to change how they behave.

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