Critics of Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer, say that he has set the field of dog training back 20 years. I have finally gotten all the words together to say exactly why I disagree.
|Say it ain't so!|
After copious, self-directed study of Cesar Millan (okay - I obsessively watched over 100 episodes of his show over a couple months), and reading scholarly articles about ethology and how dogs naturally communicate with each other, I finally found what had been missing in my relationships with my dogs.
I learned how to read their body language and behavior in a way no one else had ever taught me. I learned how they use their ears, eyes, head angles, multiple tail positions, sounds, and much more in an eloquent symphony of communication.
Yes, Peanut, exactly like that.
Everything in my home changed. My dogs became more comfortable with each other. There was less whining and less barking. A huge load of guilt lifted off my shoulders because I finally understood Peanut, my "problem" dog, who'd been severely abused as a puppy.
Previously, I had the intuition about trying to act like a dog or think like a dog in order to better communicate with them. But Cesar (I call him that because he's kinda my imaginary boyfriend) opened up vaults of information for me about understanding and learning to "speak dog".
Previously, I had been a proponent of the non-violent dog training approach. I didn't want to use physical force to make my puppies do anything. I refused to be cruel, the way some trainers were. And when I first saw parts of The Dog Whisperer, I was wary about his use of physicality.
|Who could hurt a mug like this?|
Fortunately I made it through my apprehension and watched enough to understand the wise and deeply soulful messages.
His critics denounce his use of physical touch and "dominance-based" methods as unnecessary and abusive. This is the same mentality I had when I got Nonga as a puppy.
|Think I'm cute now? You shoulda seen me back in the day.|
It assumes is that the best way to train a dog is to use the psychological tool of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning works on every species from cockroaches to humans and has been essential to dog training for many years.
It assumes that we should treat dogs the same way we treat humans. If I walked up to my friend and tapped her firmly on the neck when she did something I disagreed with, I'd:
a) be reprimanded by her and others for my inappropriate behavior; and
b) probably have less friends.
Therefore, I should not do this to my dog.
Finally, (and this was my a-ha moment the other day) this mentality works from a very western model of understanding animals. Culturally, we have a top-down view of our animals. We teach and they learn. We command and they obey. "We continue to treat animals as if they're separate from and external to us," says Charles Bergman. It is the distance we hold between us and them that is our biggest problem. If I really want to be in touch with my dog, I have to change, not him. I have to learn his world. In his beautiful book Horse, Follow Closely, Gawani Pony Boy includes this Cheyenne saying, "Listen! Or your tongue will make you deaf."
|Can you hear me Major Tom???|
I think that understanding and using operant conditioning is an important part of having a good relationship with your dog. But I think it is most important to open our minds up to the different level of communication that is already happening between human and dog, or human and horse, or whatever animal you spend time with. When I talk about dog whispering, or Cesar's methods, or horse whispering, at the core of what I'm saying is:
Listen to your animal. Learn what she has always been trying to tell you. Become aware of her body language and energy. Take responsibility for - and change as needed - your body language, your energy and your frame of mind.
I am happy to be what I call a "pack parent" - halfway between pack leader and dog owner. Dogs want balance and it is my job to see that we have it. I set the rules. I trust them and I respect them. I give them reason to trust and respect me. We have order and reliability in our home. Very occasionally I will tap Peanut or Nonga firmly and briefly on the neck to let them know I disagree with their behavior. They understand this touch because it is what their mothers did with them. It is not abusive or cruel. It is always accompanied by loving compassion. And it is such a small part of the incredible "conversations" we are having every day. I had to change my point of view, and my behavior, so I could communicate with my dogs better. It is the best thing I ever did for them... and for me.