Relationship Capital

When I was in my 20’s I worked as a guide on the Wanganui River in NZ. One day during a hike, one of the participants on the trip, a woman in her 60’s commented to me that she thought I “weighed too much for a girl my age” and went on to give me dietary advice which consisted primarily of switching from butter to margarine on my toast. She boasted about being a “straight shooter” a speaker of the truth which was suppose to absolve her of responsibility for how her comments made me feel. It was as though the value of her advice to me, far outweighed (sorry for the pun) how bad it made me feel.

We spent five days together paddling down the river and from that time the only conversation I remember having with her was this one. I can recall it, not because her dietary advice to me changed my eating habits and my life was inexplicably improved beyond measure, no, it was because it made me feel bad, really bad. There is no doubt in mind that were I to meet her again, almost 30 years later, I would remember this conversation and feel bad again. But this time my bad feelings would be directed toward her, not my thighs.

When people talk about using punishment with their dogs, the problem is not that it can’t work, though it often doesn’t, one serious concern is how the dog can end up feeling about the person doling out the punishment. Most pet owners want to have a good relationship with their dogs.

cocker spaniel looking at woman eating

It’s up to you. Their options are limited.

We want them to wake us up if there’s a fire and save our lives. We hope that if we were stuck in a well they’d go for help. Few mentally sound people want their dogs to be afraid of them. Maybe I could risk it and say no mentally sound person wants this.

The ease which the general population has let the nonsense of trainers like Cesar Millan slide down their gullets is a source of great interest to me. Is it because it gives people permission to be powerful, to assume the role of dictator in their private, small universe? It might be for some, but I suspect for others it’s because they do not comprehend the impact compulsion and punishment have on their relationship with their dog. They are told it will command respect, inspire their dog to follow them to the ends of the earth. That it’s the “natural order” of things. But professional trainers, animal behaviorists and real psychologists know better. Though there are pathologies that exist which cause some people to enjoy being pushed around and treated harshly, most animals will choose, at often huge cost to themselves, to avoid it.

The earlier and more often in a relationship one proves to be willing to do something that scares or makes their dog feel bad, the more difficult it will be to establish trust within that relationship. Training becomes more challenging as stress and uncertainty taint the dog’s ability to experiment with behaviors. If you for one minute believe that proving your dominance over a dog convinces them to respect you, watch your step. If you find yourself in a well, you may be there for awhile.

25 comments so far

  1. Mary on

    Hear hear! Well said!

  2. Catherine McBrien on

    Very poignant post.

    But I don’t view leadership as making your dog afraid of you and being nasty like that vile woman who was a bully in NZ. On the contrary, I feel leadership makes your dog feel more confident, rather than cowed and bullied. When my dogs are fearful or concerned they look up to me as the parent who will make ths situation less scary and are much more confident because they view me as the protector.


      I think that’s what the writer is saying…

    • Debbie on

      Thanks for your comment. You obviously have a good relationship with your dog.

      The word “leader” can be defined in different ways by anyone who chooses to use it. It’s not always or necessarily a bad thing.

  3. Bob Ryder on

    Terrific post – thanks! As you can, let that comment from the Kiwi fade away. You were as beautiful then as you are now. =-)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Bob. Young women are subjected to those kinds of comments all the time, we never quite measure up, which unfortunately consumes a lot of time, energy and money that might be better spent on things of more consequence in the world. It happens to boys as well, but not to the degree that girls are bombarded with it. I was lucky that I was maturing during the height of the feminist movement. I think it helped me to think about questioning what I was being told was the way to do things or be. It has certainly carried over into my work with dogs. Just cause some guy on television says something, it doesn’t mean it’s true.

      • Natasha on

        To supplement my comment below, during my adolescent years, my dad sent me to the doctor to have a pink mole removed that was next to my nose. (It looked like a wart). What remained was a scar twice as big. And my dad said, “there, do you feel better about yourself now?” … So many people have to struggle with issues created by other people, how could we expect dogs to deal with it, and why would we want them to?

  4. Melissa Breau on

    I felt compelled to comment — I agree with most of what you’ve said but also feel the need to stand up and defend a Ceasar here. Most trainers don’t realize they’ve had an impact on him.

    He’s changed his brand in recent years. While MANY of his early shows were EXACTLY what good trainers denounce he’s actually taken a serious departure from that behavior.

    First, he makes it clear and has flat out said on the show that he’s not a trainer. His techniques are not for teaching dogs to do things; they are ONLY for use in extreme cases where the dog has a broken relationship with people and need rehabilitating.

    Second, his methods are no longer nearly as harsh as they once were. He may not use clicker training or treat training, but dogs that are past a certain point of arousal stop responding to food anyway.

    I’ve seen people on “good” training blogs talk about putting yourself between your dog and a threat to show yourself a leader; he teaches the dog to walk a step behind him so that he is always between them and a threat, etc. Some of this techniques still may not be where any of us want them to be, but I do think it’s important to recognize when someone has taken criticism of their methods into consideration and make conscious efforts to change — not only their own methods but have made that change in a very public way in hopes to influence those who they may have negatively influenced in the past.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you for taking the time to comment Melissa. I hope that he is making the changes you describe, he could with his influence have a huge impact on taking dog training out of the dark ages and into the 21st century. Something that many of us are struggling to do. I can’t say that the distinction between training and rehabilitation flies for me. Both training and rehabilitation change behavior. There is a science to how animals learn and behave. Many of us take the time to study it. Barbers used to practice medicine, and their methods were accepted. Cesar’s methods harken back to the days when bloodletting was an acceptable approach to treating disease.

      I appreciate hearing your perspective, but have to stick to my guns on this one. The methods that he’s introduced back into the pop culture of “dog training” are creating more problems than they are solving. I say this as a dog trainer who is called on to “fix” or rehabilitate dogs who have been subjected to those methods. There are no pack leaders in dog social hierarchies. It’s what we know from evidence collected from the research done on dogs.

  5. Natasha on

    Excellent! Stated so well! This is precicely what cat owners were told decades ago: they won’t connect your scolding with an action, they will be afraid of you. Using a spray bottle only “works” if they think it’s magic, not if they know it’s coming from you. So now that I have finally adopted a dog, I’m in the same mode for dogs, and that’s fine by me.

    Whenever someone did something “wrong” at our house, our dad made sure we knew that we were hopeless, lazy, don’t listen, and good for nothing. We felt shamed, but we hated him.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Cats have fared better in many ways. No one ever expects that they can make a cat like them. I hope you found plenty of ways to feel good about yourself.

      • Natasha on

        Thanks – so may have families that keep issues going, and my point was that “style” comes out on dogs. A published trainer told me, she would see people yelling at their kids (without success) and yell at their dogs the same way.

        BTW, have you all seen those “bad dog” YouTubes? People scolding their dogs just to record the reactions because it’s “funny”? I wish those could be flagged for cruelty.

  6. dlober on

    Thank you so much for this article, I found it very helpful. It makes a lot of sense, especially at a time when so many pets are being transferred from one home to the next, which makes their lives confusing enough as it is.

  7. Mary on

    I totally agree with the post! I just want to point out that ‘bloodletting’ IS an accepted treatment for disease! Namely polycythemia Vera, a blood cancer or myeloproliferative neoplasm where the bone marrow produces too many red cells causing very thick blood. The treatment is called a theraputic phlebotomy. One or two units are withdrawn per week in an attempt to thin out the blood and reduce the viscosity. It is essentially an old fashioned blood letting, leeches optional!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Well there you go. But is it practiced by barbers?;-)

      • Mary on

        Perhaps they practiced that to pay their way thru medical school but today they call themselves hematologists and oncologists. I will suggest a barbers pole be installed the next time I see my doc! I think it might be a nice touch, don’t you? 😉

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        I’d read about the use of leeches. And maggots.

        On Sun, Mar 17, 2013 at 7:05 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  8. Sage on

    A very powerful post and I fully agree with you about Cesar. He may be ‘changing his ways’, but he’s no one I’d ever follow.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I have seen very little to indicate that he’s changing his methods in any meaning ways unfortunately.

  9. Darlene Arden on

    Brava! A wonderful post. As for CM, the last I saw of him was using treats while using an aversive. And since when does the average owner, or their child, sitting in front of the tv, pay attention to the caution not to try this at home? Of course they will. That’s just a disclaimer to try to ward off any potential lawsuits. I’m about to tweet this post and I hope you’ll share the link in my Facebook Group.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Darlene. When you know what you are looking at, it’s very frustrating and often infuriating to watch him handle dogs. But it’s difficult to explain to pet owners who don’t understand how we can poison cues and rewards, that what he does is like a mechanic using a hammer when they need a wrench. If all you care about it getting the bolt off you might think it’s amazing how well the hammer worked.

      • Natasha on

        An AHS trainer told me that dog bite numbers shot up when he started airing.

  10. Julie on

    Wonderful post, Debbie. This sums up so much of it for me: “Few mentally sound people want their dogs to be afraid of them.” I often think about what it says of society and culture that many people are drawn to such ideas. I also find it disheartening and downright depressing to see dogs taught to slog along, head down, one step behind their person. Maybe the dog is not afraid, but joyful? hopeful? alive and engaged? I think not. Dogs can be led without losing their place in the relationship.

    Keep on keepin’ on 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Julie! I’m keeping, no worries about that 😉

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