Saturday, May 23, 2009

Answering a Blog Criticizing the Dog Whisperer

This is my comment to an article called "Methods Schmethods" appearing on the Smart Dog University website:

I hate to re-cover old ground, but the subject comes up often enough that I feel an obligation to respond -- and this is both about learned helplessness and Cesar Millan.
First, besides being an admirer of Cesar Millan, I am also a great fan of Dr. Temple Grandin, the autistic professor of animal science who is the author of Animals in Translation and several other books about either her own highly functional form of autism or about the relationship between the autistic mindset and the mindset of animals. Regardless of what you believe, please please read Animals in Translation, which is a remarkable book in and of itself for its observations on animals and on our autistic brothers and sisters.
Grandin has watched, by her own admission in an interview with Traci Hotchner (I think), most of the DW episodes on DVD. She has also read Cesar's books. While she does not think he does a good job with fearful or anxious animals, she does say that he does have a good handle on how to work with aggressive dogs. This is someone who is an animal scientist and who both agrees and disagrees with parts of Cesar's methods. I find her comments much more accurate than those who throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss Cesar entirely.
Five years ago, before I heard of Cesar, we rescued an emaciated Plott hound who, because of her starved condition, developed severe food aggression and resource guarding. A woman we were staying with because we were between houses used her knowledge and her 3-dog pack to help us socialize Eve using a combination of corrections and rewards. Then we discovered Cesar's show and realized that we were doing what he was demonstrating. Today, Eve is a well-balanced, albeit somewhat stubborn and crafty 60 pound Plott Hound who has no food aggression issues and gets along with our five cats, who she considers her pack. (My blog is called Eve and the Cat Pack.)
Positive, reward-based training works well if you have the considerable time it takes to change an animal's behavior. When the life or death of that animal is on the line, however, sometimes corrections work best. And I also think that people confuse corrections and punishment. Leash pops do not equal beating a dog and they don't cause a dog to shut down. Cesar uses them to redirect a dog's attention -- and I have found the idea of redirection a good thing. (It doesn't work too well with cats, though... but then, neither does positive reinforcement because cats learn to take control of the situation all too easily!)
Cesar has saved the lives of dogs on the brink of euthanasia. With more and more shelters and counties and states committing to a "no-euthanasia of healthy animals" policy (my county of Buncombe in North Carolina being one of them), many different ways are needed to work with dogs that might otherwise be euthanized because of behavioral problems. Positive reinforcement helps to teach desirable behavior to dogs, but sometimes corrections are needed to unteach serious behavioral problems. This is where Cesar shines.
More than that, his philosophy of calm assertiveness has been a Godsend to me, helping me overcome my low self esteem and get beyond my depression to become an active volunteer for my local animal shelter (which uses +R training, by the way).
His message that animals live in the moment is one we, as beings with instincts, could follow. It would save us a lot of unnecessary worry and anxiety. To say that a dog lives in the moment does not mean that a dog forgets -- it means that a dog moves on. Cesar teaches us not to insult our animals by treating them as babies or dress-up dolls; he teaches us to respect them as a species different from us with whom we choose to co-exist. If we then decide to baby them or dress them up because it's fun for THEM, then it's a different situation.
I also suggest that learned helplessness is a negatively connotative term for one of the ways we have developed in order to co-exist with animals in our society. We don't teach animals to be helpless, but to respect authority -- whether that of a pack leader or of a parent. When we pet a cat, we are acting as that animal's mother did when she washed her kittens on the head with her tongue. We encourage our cats to return to kittenhood (through petting and play) so that they will not run through our houses as the wild predators they are. With dogs, it is the same. Detractors call it learned helplessness, but I see teaching a dog to respond to a pack leader or a parent-dog as how we socialize dogs so that they can exist in a human world that imposes certain conditions on animals.
In a perfect world, we would all be wild and free. The world is not perfect and we choose to share our imperfect world with the animals we bring into it. So we must somehow help them conform to our world. Cesar has some very good ways of helping problem animals do that.
I just with I could find a way to successfully adapt some of his methods to cats! :)


Part of my commitment to my endorsement of Cesar Millan's philosophy and methods consists of answering blogs that criticize him. This is one of my attempts.