Musings on Cesar and A Few Other Things

Just read yet another article about the Cesar Milan phenomenon. It seems that wherever he goes, he attracts hundreds if not thousands of people, many of whom believe he can do no wrong. He appears to be the canine messiah to his followers.

I wonder why he strikes such a chord with so many people. Is it because he is the epitome of control? He certainly appears to exude confidence and knowledge, which is probably very heartening to people who’ve been living with a problem dog for some time. Maybe it’s because his mantra is so simple – exercise and pack leadership. He doesn’t spend a lot of time (at least on the programs) discussing the individual dog, just what the dog should learn to do, and what the people should do to teach him or her.

His methods are direct and often quite physical, and that can strike terror into the hearts of many trainers and behavior consultants. We not only worry about the dog, we also worry about what the dog could do to the owner, the owner’s children, or friends. A dog that is physically reprimanded might end up doing some pretty substantial damage. I’ve watched pretty much every episode, and there are several times when I’ve seen Cesar get bitten. That’s fine for him, (well, it probably hurts) but I don’t want my clients bitten by their own dogs because of what I recommended that they do. On the other hand, he is very good at what he does – non-emotional, with exquisite timing. I just worry that others won’t have the timing or the emotional control.

But, more than that, I think there are two sides to behavior and training – the yin and yang, if you’ll allow. Or you can even say the masculine and feminine, although that’s not strictly accurate. Those who espouse one way of training are uncomfortable with the other, and often believe that the other way won’t work. Thus you get compulsive trainers who scoff at what they call “cookie trainers,” and positive reinforcement trainers who are appalled that anyone uses punishment on dogs at all. One type of trainer is interested in results and doesn’t care about the dog’s feelings, while the other type is sometimes more concerned about the dog’s emotional state than about an actual behavior.

But, both types of training can work, and do work, no matter what we want. (I remember at an APDT conference years ago, one trainer trying to suppress the results of a study that showed owners don’t care what method is used to train their dog, they just want their dogs trained. It seemed she wouldn’t let the study be true, even though it was.).

What’s interesting is that it seems many trainers and clients feel that they have to choose one path over the other. I wonder why they feel that way? When you raise kids, you use praise and punishment (and bribery and threats and everything else!), so it makes sense that a cognitive and balanced approach to raising and teaching a dog could incorporate both as well. I know I can’t get through a week without chastising at least one of my dogs for something – even if it’s just the youngster trying to bully one of the other dogs. Thus, I can’t expect my clients to not reprimand their dog. However, I can expect a few other things. I can expect them to understand their dog a little more than they did before they saw me. I can expect them not to put their dog in situations that he or she can’t handle. I can expect them to train their dog to behave, before applying any consequence to misbehavior. I can expect them not to act in anger (at least to try very hard not to act in anger). And I can expect them not to strike their dogs.

Seems to me that most people – especially those with really problematic dogs - are looking for a miracle. Whoever seems to supply it becomes all-powerful. Right now and for some people, that’s Cesar.