Is The Dog Whisperer Doing Some Weird Kind Of Good?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I didn’t expect a post on Cesar Millan to be the hot discussion of the month, but lots of people weighed in on what a jerk Cesar is.  The Dog Whisperer’s training is barbaric and unscientific! people cried, just before LiveJournal’s automated spam-handlers blocked their frothing anti-Millan links.  He’s harmful!  He’s propagating horrible disinformation about how dogs behave!
All true.  Cesar’s concept of “the pack” is actually hokum.  The study that came to the conclusion that “dogs have a strict hierarchy” was from putting different groups of unrelated, captive wolves into a pen and letting them battle it out, which is kind of like throwing various families into a lightless prison and assuming their behavior is normal.  As it turns out, there’s an alpha dog when they’re jammed together into a survival mode found nowhere in nature, but in real life wolves tend to travel in family structures.  The dogs follow their parents because their parents have been proven to be responsible.
So Cesar is peddling theories that don’t play any more.  And I’m fully willing to admit that his habit of throat-punching dogs to get their attention probably isn’t for the best, as is his theory that if a dog is scared, you “flood” the dog with his terror so he gets used to it.
Yet still, Cesar’s helped me.  His thoughts on why dogs bark may be completely akimbo, but his practical advice of “Don’t yell, just stay calm and show the dog that there’s nothing to worry about” got Shasta to bark a lot less.
And I think Cesar’s helped a lot of people, by disseminating a real truth that most of Cesar’s foes tend to overlook: as the world’s most popular dog trainer, the constant and enduring lesson of every one of his shows is, if the dog behaves badly, it’s your faultYou are providing improper feedback for the dog.
Which is really valuable.  Thanks to Cesar, when Shasta misbehaves, I don’t get mad at her – I wonder what I could be doing better.  Which makes me less likely to mistreat her, or get frustrated.  And maybe the feedback that Cesar tells me to provide is wrong, but that conceptual shift that “It’s my job to show her what to do” is such a change that it has all sorts of behavioral fallout for me.  It’s not the damn dog, it’s the damn me.
Which is something that gets overlooked a lot.  Not to mention that Cesar’s popularity brings professional dog trainers to the fore, and makes people more likely to seek them out, thus maximizing the chance that someone will find a dog trainer who goes, “Oh God no, don’t listen to that fool.”  For all that people hate Cesar, he’s actually doing a lot of good that gets overlooked.
This isn’t a defense of Cesar.  I’m just fascinated by how complex life is.  This is a case where a self-taught dog “expert” got catapulted to the fore by virtue of working with some celebrities, and while he’s spreading some horrible habits among dog owners, quietly he’s also propagating a set of tools that’s also genuinely helpful to dogs.  And I think that as people, we tend to go, “This is good!” or “This is bad!”, in most cases it’s a weirdly mixed bag where yeah, you wish that Cesar wasn’t as popular as he was because he’s got some really toxic effects, but on the other hand if nobody had heard of Cesar Millan then a lot of people would still be blaming their dogs and not themselves.
It’s not all good, or all bad.  It’s this weird, “Well, kinda….” where I think that if you’re honest, you look at it and find it hard to nail it down exactly what sort of effect this all has.
Life’s messy.  Just like our dogs.

1 Comment

  1. Carmel J.
    Oct 9, 2013

    I agree. And also offer that Cesar did more for me in how to parent human toddlers than any child expert. Because staying calm, making sure that you are sending the right messages through word, tone, and body language and observing the child to see what is really going on are key things to do in parenting as well, especially when the child is only somewhat verbal.
    Obviously throat punching is out, so you do have to modify things somewhat. It also made me realize how dogs don’t ever get past that toddler stage, and how grateful I am that my kids have. 🙂 (No pets for me anytime soon, something I realize and thus am not going to be jumping into to the detriment of an animal.)

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