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,