Befuddled in Translation?

Beagle walking on leash

I’m in a bit of a funk, so maybe I shouldn’t be posting, especially about this. On the other hand, submitting to the urge to rant might prevent the writer’s block I fell into last October.

There has also been an uptick of comments the past few weeks on some of my old Cesar Millan articles on Dog Spelled Forward, including a few examples of my favorite formula: “It’s only a show!” and “It’s a shame you’re so closed-minded!” — often in the same comment, which I find hilarious. Am I supposed to take the show seriously or not? Pick one!

Well, some people do take it seriously: on Saturday morning I woke up to this link on the Dog’s Best Friend Linkedin Group. (Sorry, for some reason it’s still a closed group, so no link to it.)

Whenever I posted about Cesar Millan in the past I was frequently asked why I was so critical, and why I can’t just take the good with the bad. This article is a great example of what worries me about his show and his books. We have someone who seems to be an “expert” passing on his information secondhand, making it even more of a garbled mess.

The best way to exercise your dog is by walking it on the lead every morning for about an hour. The lead walking should be fast, by your side (not out in front being dragged along) and not on the dog’s terms. Do not let the dog stop at every tree to mark. You must be the leader and the dog must be walking on your terms.

So, in other words, the best way to exercise your dog is a boring hour-long walk with no mental stimulation at all. Because…

You can have some free off the lead time at the end or beginning of the walk to allow your dog to relieve itself but the majority of the time should be used for a fast pace (sic) vigorous walk, with purpose. That purpose being to mimic migration, following a herd of animals before a hunt.

Yes folks, that’s right. We walk dogs on leash to imitate the migratory patterns of wolves. You learn something new every day!

Let’s ignore the fact that any experienced trainer/consultant knows that most people don’t have an hour to walk their dog in the morning, and that the best way to insure noncompliance from a client is to give them something unrealistic for homework. And if you want to be really sure they completely give up two days after your consult, be sure to tell them that the impossible assignment is also the most important one too.

One hour, on leash, walking at a pace that is brisk for a human, with no ability to engage the environment, is not exercise. For dogs that need exercise the most, it’s a special place in hell. Add to it the additional recommendations about how the dog needs to be calm beforehand etc. and this daily ritual becomes a daily chore and a scheduled confrontation.

I’ve pretty much given up on arguing with the “dogs as wolves” crowd. The amount of new science — new meaning the past 10 years — showing us the truly unique behaviors and abilities dogs have in their dealing with humans should really have killed the wolf-in-your-parlor meme ages ago. But the "wolf pack" is over there, trying to figure out how to simultaneously alpha roll their dogs while singing “la-la-la” with their fingers in their ears, and also claiming that it’s not really an alpha roll.

But I think the migration bit really deserves some special attention. Walking a dog on leash simulates a pack of wolves stalking a herd of deer, something that is apparently done daily for about an hour. (I wonder, if they catch a deer early does the pack leader still make them walk?)

Way back, in my first commentary I wondered out loud:

For Cesar, walking the dog seems to be some sort of ritual for establishing dominance over the dog. We’ve coexisted with dogs for at least 10,000 years according to most anthropologists. When did we start walking them on leash? 100 years ago? Maybe 200? How did people handle them before that?

Well, there’s my answer about why it’s so important! 

I have to confess, I honestly don’t what else to say. I guess it is possible to make a claim that is so ridiculous it is almost irrefutable. Did Cesar really say this? I sincerely hope not.

Alas, there’s more.

Most dogs we see receive too much affection and affection at the wrong times. Never ever give your dog affection when it is frightened, anxious or aggressive. Every time you nurture an unstable state of mind you are reinforcing it.

This is, of course, utter crap. It is also possibly the most pernicious untruth that the Dog Whisperer has spread via his show and books. You can’t reinforce emotions and while comforting a frightened or anxious dog is unlikely to fix the problem, the next step from refusing to “nurture an unstable state of mind” (isn’t the way you can just string words together to make them sound insightful cool?) is to force a dog into a frightful situation, as Cesar tends to do on his show. There are much more dog friendly ways to deal with fear, and they also happen to be the ones supported by behavioral science, which matters to some people.

I also find the assertion that “most dogs we see receive too much affection” particularly troubling. I see plenty of dogs that live within no boundaries and that have been rewarded for unruly behavior, but that is not the same thing as “too much affection.” I don’t know what “too much affection” looks like. I know what proper behavior looks like, and that’s what I concern myself with.

As a general rule games that mimic a fight eg (sic) tug of war should be avoided in all dogs but especially in powerful breeds. Playing tug of war games might seem fun when a puppy is eight weeks old and five kilos but is a different matter when your dog is fifty kilos and ripping washing from the line.

Well, I guess if one thinks that the best way to exercise a dog is a boring walk, than being afraid to play with your dog makes sense too. Tug is, of course, a great way to burn up your dog's excess energy, teach your dog to drop things on cue, and just plain have fun with your dog. I can’t imagine how terrible it must be to have a professional tell you to be afraid of her, especially if she is a “powerful breed.” It’s also possible to teach a dog when to tug and when not to tug (such as on washing). You do that by playing with them and teaching them when to stop. It’s called “training.”

There are plenty more gems in there, but I hope you get the gist. As a wise man once said, “With great power there must come great responsibility,” and absolving someone of their responsibility because “It’s just a show” or worse, in the name of being open-minded in the face of conflicting science, can lead to real consequences.