Cesar Milan: Is his bark worse than his bite?

cesar-millan-with-friendsI’ve always thought Cesar Milan was a bit of a phoney; a self-styled expert in ‘dog psychology’ whose talk of ‘energy’ and his ‘touch’ and ‘tssk’ noise was a bit of a joke while his confrontational methods are far from it and are frankly dangerous. And then I watched his show.

I still disagree with his methods. His machismo and ‘new age’ hippie language still set my teeth on edge. I still wouldn’t want him to train my dog and I still think it’s high time the ‘alpha dog’ philosophy went and curled up quietly in the corner.

But watching his show made me ponder Cesar’s ‘pack leader’ persona.  This has become his brand, his unique selling point and is part of what keeps people watching his shows and buying his books. Consequently this persona is hammed up and exaggerated by TV producers, publicists and publishers. I wondered if this persona was actually detracting from his ability as a dog, and more importantly, people trainer?

It’s high time the ‘alpha dog’ philosophy went and curled up quietly in the corner.

The show is TV after all, and it has to entertain. The more I thought about this the more I noticed the clever editing to make the ‘dominant’ dogs look more dangerous, the dramatic voice overs and the ‘canned’ growling that gets added in whenever a dog gets more than a bit annoyed. In the episodes I watched (of the 2013 series) he also didn’t seem to be using his own methods, or at least not the more extreme ones. Whether it’s because he’s realised they aren’t that effective or because of the negative publicity they generate, I’m not sure but there were only about two alpha rolls in the whole series.

You see someone who has a very intuitive understanding of dog behaviour

Putting Cesar’s reputation aside, I started to pay attention to the way he interacted with his ‘clients’ and realised that if you look beyond the macho posturing and psycho babble (and ignore some of his more dubious methods) you see someone who has a very intuitive understanding of dog behaviour and an even better understanding of where people go wrong in ‘raising’ their dogs.

Cesar does use a lot of language which evokes the ‘alpha dog’ theory of dog training, teaching people to be the ‘pack leader’ and labelling almost every unruly dog as ‘dominant’ when most people would describe it as not having any manners. But actually the ‘calm assertive’ state he asks people to adopt doesn’t need to have anything to do with dominance and there are lots of positive messages that we can take away from the Dog Whisperer without needing to ‘assert dominance’ through alpha roles, choke chains and shock collars.

Learning to Speak Dog

What Dogs HearCesar recognises that, as humans, we are verbal and rational so we attempt to use verbal, rational methods to communicate with our dogs. What Cesar makes clear is that dogs are not verbal or rational, they are actually expert communicators in body language, the language of the physical. The owners Cesar works with often think their dogs know what they want and know the rules when actually the dogs are blissfully unaware they are being asked to change their behaviour. If you’re saying ‘No!’ but your voice and your body language are saying ‘oh well, I’m not really, sure that’s a very good idea’ the dog isn’t going to get the message and will just carry on with the unwanted behaviour.

Cesar teaches people to think like and speak like a dog, teaches them to say ‘Don’t do that’ with their bodies and their tone of voice, in a way that their dogs can understand. He teaches them to understand what their dogs are trying to tell them through their body language and behaviour. He teaches them that dogs ‘live in the moment’, that they don’t rationalise, don’t think about what they’re doing they just do it, and they definitely don’t ‘know they shouldn’t do (insert undesired behavior)’ unless you tell them its wrong every single time.

Direction not Dominance

Dog Shaming GarbageThe ‘dominance theory’ which supposedly backs up Cesar’s ‘philosophy’ has been widely discredited; the original theory applied to wolves not dogs and recently it has been shown that it isn’t even a correct theory of wolf behavior anyway. So I don’t agree with the notion that our pet dogs are plotting a takeover of our households or that they’re constantly trying to be ‘top dog’, it just seems a little far-fetched, doesn’t it? But I have no doubt that the people Cesar works with do feel as if their dogs have taken control of their lives. The problem is, if there are no rules, or the dog doesn’t understand the rules, then dogs make their own rules and do whatever takes their fancy.

What Cesar calls ‘dominance’ looks a lot like a dog who doesn’t have any respect for it’s owners and a total disregard for the house rules (usually because, as far as the dog is concerned, there aren’t any). What an amazing number of people don’t seem to understand is that dog’s aren’t born knowing how to behave in human society – it’s up to us to teach them. This is why Cesar’s mantra of ‘rules, boundaries and limitations’ is so important: if you don’t teach your dog how to behave, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t.

You’re Probably Making it Worse

Out of control ownerThe good news is that you don’t need a magic ‘touch’ or to constantly force your dog into an ‘alpha role’ in order to change his behaviour. In a lot of cases owners inadvertantly teach their dogs bad behaviour in the first place and once they realise this and change their own behaviour, the dogs behaviour can quickly change.

As much as Cesar’s psycho-babble and talk about ‘energy’ may set my teeth on edge he makes the point that dogs’ sense are so finely tuned that they can easily pick up on our moods and feelings, creating what is usually a negative feedback loop because people don’t realise it exists or that they can turn it to their advantage. Imagine that your dog is misbehaving on a walk, maybe he won’t walk properly and is trying to chase squirrels or battle with other dogs. As an owner this makes you feel anxious, frustrated and a little bit hopeless. Your body language, tone of voice, way you’re holding the lead and maybe even your scent transmit this tension to your dog, who then gets more jumpy, edgy and unruly.

Dogs need to Walk

cooped up dogThe other thing that always amazes me is the number of people who get dogs and seem to have no idea that they need exercixe. Quite often a dog appears on Cesar’s show who supposedly has ‘behavioural issues’ and it’s immediately apparent that the dog is just one boistrous ball of pent up energy and frustration in desperate need of exercise and mental stimulation. Then Cesar talks to the owners who admit that the dogs hasn’t had a walk in SIX MONTHS (or is only walked at the weekends, or never gets to run off lead , or whatever). Then Cesar’s rollerblades come out, the dog gets the first proper run it’s had in weeks and is suddenly more relaxed; it’s not exactly rocket science.

If I’d hardly been out of the house for a week I’d be climbing the walls and after several months of this I’d be totally neurotic, obsessive and pretty unpredictable. Why would it be any different for my dog? You can’t expect a calm, well behaved, ‘balanced’ dog if you aren’t prepared to fullfil it’s basic needs which Cesar neatly sums up as ‘excercise, disipline, then affection’. Dogs may not be wolves constantly trying to be the alpha or pact leader but they also aren’t living teddy bears who can simply be showered with affection and never given any excercise or disipline (actually, BlindDog kind of is like that, but I’m sure she’s the exception that prooves the rule!).

The Message behind the Methods

Dog PsychologyLots of Cesar’s methods are uneccessarily harsh, and therefore unhelpful, and I fundamentally disagree with his ‘dominance’ theory and the publicity he is giving it. Ultimiately I think it’s unfortunate that Cesar has created this ‘alpha dog’ persona which he now has to live up to when his understanding of dogs, his basic messages to owners and yes, his ‘dog psychology’ could actually help a lot of owners regain confidence, regain control over their dogs (and maybe their lives) and begin building the bond with their dogs which they both desperately need.

What’s your opinion of Cesar Milan? Is there any merit to his training style? Are his shows a force for good or bad? Let me know what you think in the comments or vote below.