Why I Love Cesar Milan Fans
It happens about once a month. Some enthusiastic student keeps punctuating my opening remarks to a new class with that “tsst!” sound popularized by Cesar Milan. The dog on the receiving end of this “correction” seldom seems to notice. He has usually learned to tune it out completely. I envy him. That sound travels up my spine like nails on a chalk board. Somehow it taps directly into my frustration over the fact that - in spite of all that we have learned in recent decades – the public face of dog training in the US relies on confrontation and pseudo-mystical ideas about projecting the right energy towards the furry Machiavellis who allegedly spend their lives like Pinky and the Brain, plotting to take over the world. Fortunately, I am able to take a deep breath, ignore the sound, and remind myself that I LOVE it when new clients are Cesar fans. I honestly do, and for many reasons.
My enthusiasm for clients who love TDW is a matter of perspective. I never let myself forget that I view Cesar from a very different angle than my clients. As a professional dog trainer, I’m aware of many alternative approaches to training, I can see the stress and fear in the body language of dogs he forces into frightening situations, and I know enough to reject pack theory. That list just scratches the surface of things I see when I watch TDW that are invisible to most novice dog owners. I don’t hesitate to voice my criticisms of TDW in a forum like DSD, when speaking to vets, or if asked by a reporter. When I’m talking to a new client who loves Cesar, however, I take a different approach. Instead of broadcasting my perception of Milan’s ideas, I focus on how they might appear from my student’s vantage point.
I like what Cesar fandom tells me about a new student. It demonstrates an interest in dog behavior and motivation to learn. I also see a lot to love in what Cesar teaches. Cesar fans generally understand their responsibility to meet their dog’s basic needs. They have thoroughly internalized the notion that training a well-behaved dog requires owners to set clear consistent boundaries. They’ve learned that prolonged or emotional punishments are inappropriate. That might all seem obvious to a pro, but it’s information that puts TDW fans ahead of most of my beginning students.
Cesar fans have, of course, also learned some things that I don’t appreciate. Fortunately, I find it ridiculously easy to convince most students to put those things aside and try it my way. Message delivery is the key. Nobody likes to be told that they’re wrong, but most people will accept a suggestion to try something new if they trust and like the person making that suggestion.
Imagine that you had taken on a difficult new activity and been completely overwhelmed until you found a popular “expert” who made sense of your situation. Think of the respect and admiration you would feel for someone who finally allowed you to make some progress, to feel some hope and pride in your accomplishments after months of struggle, frustration and guilt. Picture yourself so excited that you sign up for a class to build upon this empowering new knowledge and skill. You might even look forward to impressing people with how much you’ve learned from the celebrity’s books and videos.
How would you react if your very first conversation with your new teacher centered on his strong disapproval of the “expert” who had helped you so much? How open would you be to the idea that everything that you have learned so far is completely wrong? Who would you be more prone to believe, the celebrity who has millions flocking to hear his advice or the trainer you just met whose claims belie your own experience?
In order to avoid immediately putting clients on the defensive, I always start any conversation about Cesar with the things that I sincerely like about him. I talk about his focus on calm, consistent boundary setting, his preaching about exercise, and his emphasis on owners’ responsibility to meet dogs’ needs. I might mention his excellent timing, balance, and ability to remain calm even when a dog bites him.
Those are small things, but they establish common ground. I’m acknowledging the value of my client’s opinions. There’s an important subtext there. I’m telling him, “you have good judgment.” If, on the other hand, I open with what I dislike about Cesar, I risk him hearing “what are you, an idiot to listen to that guy?” Even worse, if I emphasize my opinion that Cesar’s methods are too rough, I’m not just calling him an idiot, but an idiot who mistreats his dog. Not a great way to establish a rapport.
Once I’ve established some common ground, I can bring out the criticism that almost everyone relates to. TDW, I’ll remind my students, is a television show. Its producers value entertainment over education. I’ll suggest that they heavily edit the footage to make long processes look instant and to cover up some of the harsher techniques. I might show them how I or my assistant can get their rowdy unruly dog to heel perfectly in about a minute, and ask them if they think their dog is now trained. Sometimes I’ll suggest that Cesar probably doesn’t like all the fancy editing, either, and is just stuck doing it the network’s way. I’m asking them to think differently without making the person they admire the bad guy.
Next I’ll tell them that, while Cesar has impressive physical skills, he’s a bit of a self-taught prodigy who doesn’t even appear to understand why what he does works. I tell them that I wish he spent more time on the importance of timing and teaching people to read the dogs; and speculate that he might not even be thinking consciously about these things that are keys to his success. I’ll mention the professionals who really do understand the whys and their consensus that Cesar’s explanations are mostly nonsense. Again, I’m mixing praise and criticism rather than going for the frontal assault.
Finally, I’ll mention that since Cesar is training for television, he uses difficult techniques with minimal explanation, and that – in spite of his physical skill – he frequently gets bitten. I tell them that I – on the other hand – will be teaching them simple techniques that over the years have proven effective for the real lives of busy families who aren’t looking to become dog training experts. They won’t necessarily be the same techniques I would use, because I can’t teach them to do everything that I’ve learned over many years in a few weeks any more than Cesar can teach them everything he does with a few books and heavily edited videos. I’ll suggest that it’s easier, safer, and more fun to do it my way without ever insisting that they view their attachment to TDW as a mistake.
This approach almost always breaks down any resistance to my training techniques. It’s a very simple spiel. The first and most important step is to sincerely see things through the clients’ eyes and have empathy for their experience. The rest is easy. Establish common ground by starting off with some praise for Cesar, explain that it’s a TV show where you don’t see the whole picture, gently and humbly provide a bit of education about the community of true professionals, and finally reassure your client that you will be teaching them practical real world techniques suitable for families rather than dangerous advanced stuff tailored for maximum TV drama. It’s been a great pitch for me, and I really do find that the people who come into class as big Cesar fans are often my best students.