Friday, October 14, 2011

Cesar is not King

As you may  have noticed, I'm something of a book nerd.

As you also may have noticed, I prefer non-coercive dog training. I do not like slip leads, I do not like physical corrections. I do not like them, Sam I am, and I don't feel that most dogs learn well through them.

So, I see people recommending Mr. Millan's books. I see his ads. I see them retweeting videos from his web site. I see them talking about episodes from his show. And really, I'm sad that he gets that much time from people; that much face time, air time, text time, whatever. I'm kind of sad that I'm addressing it here.

I've read his books, you see; I'm not just saying "Cesar Millan is a meanie-head!" because that's the popular thing to do amongst the clicker-training set. His books, while they give good basic knowledge (exercise your dog, a tired dog is a good dog, be consistent), don't say much otherwise. It's hard to write books that people are meant to learn from while talking about such indistinct things as "the energy you put forth". Oh, he tries to quantify it, with things like "put your shoulders back and stand up straight when you walk your dog", but that isn't enough, I feel. Calm, confident energy can't be taught, but it also isn't magic.  And doesn't require multiple volumes.

I've watched only a few episodes of his show. While I don't doubt that he has genuinely helped some people whose dogs otherwise would have been euthanized, I do feel that calling in Mr. Millan for some of the problems I've seen is akin to using a wooden mallet to change a lightbulb.

My best example: a Great Dane who, as a puppy, wiped out on a linoleum floor and was since afraid to walk on such surfaces. His owner is a teacher, and schools have linoleum floors, and she really missed being able to have him in the classroom. Sad, but not life-threatening.

Millan shows up, puts his ubiquitous slip lead on the Great Dane, who seems completely well-behaved, and they set off for a jog, starting on the school steps. Their loop around the block takes them back to the school, and Millan picks up the pace, and runs as hard as he can through the open door and onto the linoleum, while the dog throws on the brakes. On his slip lead.  So, Millan's momentum takes the dog a couple of steps on the linoleum; Cesar pulls up a chair and waits, while the dog stands with his feet as far apart as they'll go, his head down, drooling copiously.  Drooling, so we're on the same page, is a big ol' red-flag sign of stress. Because the Dane is an otherwise good and well-balanced dog, there seemed to be little danger of this stress pushing him to fear bite, but that's my analysis, not from the TV.

As time passes, Millan pulls the dog further into the school, and eventually walks him up and down the hall. The dog does this, I feel, because he really is a very good dog and doesn't want to be wrong. But he also does it with a hesitant gait, head and tail down, and as close to the wall as he can fit, because that's where the shadows are, and so the floor is less reflective.  The "After" of the show was the dog going to the last day of school with his owner, apparently over his fear of floors.

Now, Elka has never specifically been terrified of a floor, and if she had, I don't know that I would have felt throwing her onto it and making her deal was the best option. If I was afraid of something, would I want that? Would it teach me anything, other than to avoid whoever made me do it? I think patience and positive reinforcement, along with a package of cut-up hot dogs, would have achieved the same result without the drama, the choking, and the unreasonable level of fear.

And that's just one example. Other episodes of the show include the sort of editing that makes me wonder what was done to the dog in the meanwhile; the frame before, a dog might be alert and pulling slightly on the leash, and in the next, cringing and avoiding eye contact with humans and dogs. It's a personal preference, I suppose, but I don't like it.

So, the Caesar I care to hear about is the one who crossed the Rubicon and who Shakespeare wrote about, who "three times refused a kingly crown". Accept no substitutes.


  1. I have to agree. I've never much cared for Milan. If someone wants a TV show recommendation for dog training, I will send them more towards Stilwell, as a more positive trainer.

    A dog, especially a large dog like a Dane, that was afraid of slippery floors: I would put traction booties on the dog (there are a variety out there), and slowly, through use of treats, happy voice, and play time, get the dog to put one foot on the floor surface it is afraid of (possibly by teaching a foot-slam behavior first). Then take a break. Then, over the course of days or weeks, slowly increase the time that foot touches that floor, then require another foot, etc, slowly, and with lots of rewards and happy play, making touching that floor fun. And, since the dog would have traction boots on for all of this (and any time in the future I wanted the dog on that type of floor), it would be a fun game to the dog, where they learn the floor won't hurt them.

    Large dogs are often scared of slippy floors, and for good reason.

  2. Thanks!

    I hadn't thought of the traction boots! Another example of how this problem could've been solved. In addition to, say, leaving the poor dog at home.

  3. Never been a big Milan fan. He drives me nuts. Each dog is different.


  4. The one that upset me the most was seeing a small dog being forced down to endure a nail clipping. Some patience and positive reinforcement would have done the trick. But that's not good television I guess.

    I hope Victoria Stilwell or some other positive trainer can knock him off his popularity pedestal.

  5. @Kari in Vegas I'm just so dismayed every time I see him again; promoting the swiffer, with a new book out, etc. etc.

    @Pamela It would be really nice if a positive trainer could overtake him in popularity. It seems like it's perhaps a matter of education; most people still don't' know that you don't need to jerk your dog around to teach her things.

  6. That poor Great Dane puppy. :(

    I've never really watched the show because I just can't stand it. This is a good reminder of why.

    I agree with Pamela - I wish everyone watched Victoria Stilwell instead.