Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cesar Millan's Rule: No Talk - No Look - No Touch

No talk? Ha! Not in my house. Just this morning I was complimented by a neighbor we met on our walk on how super attentive Davie is. I gave her a "leave" command when she focused on the neighbor's Cocker spaniel, and she instantly shifted her focus back to me cause it's practiced to a default, and then I kept her attention by being chatty and telling her how sweet and brilliant she is and she was totally glued to me, prancing beside me in a perfect heel and with perfect attention. We looked fantastic and I keep my reputation for another day. And, by the way, Davie was off-leash, like she usually is in our neighborhood.
I talk to my dogs - all the time. Dogs have receptive human language skills, and why one would deny them the opportunity to learn what we mean when we open our mouth beats me. Both our girls know many words and respond to the ones that are really relevant to them even when they are part of a sentence. And that is not unique. Many of my friends and clients who treat their dogs like we do report the same.
The downside is that our dogs are paying attention when we talk all the time and respond when they hear a word they know. When I casually ask Mike if he wants to "go" for a leisurely stroll around the block, Davie and Will erupt in noisy, excited barks. Maybe that's why Millan doesn't talk to dogs? The association to certain words takes them out of the calm-submissive state.

No look? Not happening in my house either. The opposite happens. Eye contact is the very first thing I teach a new dog, and is also what I emphasize with my clients. Suzanne Clothier, author of the book "If Bones would Rain from the Sky", says that offered and prolonged eye contact is a sign of deep connection and I agree.
When Davie and Will offer eye contact, or respond to their name with eye contact, I know that I have their attention and can follow up with a command. If they offer it in a new situation, it is a signal that they are unsure and I can take action to make them feel relaxed and safe again. And if they see a squirrel and make eye contact, they are asking permission to chase - eye contact as the canine way of saying "please" or "I want".
Accepting eye contact from strangers is an important thing every dog should learn. Especially dogs that fear people; are insecure around them. They become more reactive when they feel paid attention to. Paying attention to a dog by looking at him is exactly what people do. Especially people that fear dogs. Millan can tell his visitors at his compound not to look at the dogs, but in real life, if you walk your Amstaff or Rottie down the street, people will look. You can bet on that. What you gonna do? Yell nonstop "don't look at my dog"? Not functional, which means that every dog should be desensitized to accept eye contact.

No touch! That also doesn't happen in my house. Anybody who knows us and our dogs knows that they live in paradise. The price they pay is to have my hands in their hair, and being hugged and kissed.
Having said that, Millan does have a point with the no-touch rule. Many dogs become hyper-aroused when touched, especially with fast and repetitive patting. In that state they are squirmy, grabby and mouthy. Often I meet clients with an already charged up juvenile, and hands-on patting or pushing, or even stroking, causes her to go over the top.
Some people can't keep their hands off a dog who's sleeping. I know, they are super cute when asleep, but everyone has the need to chill undisturbed. If constantly interrupted, the dog becomes over-stimulated and again overly charged up. Just because your dog wants to lay beside you doesn't mean she wants your hands all over her all the time.
I frequently recommend to back off a little with the touching and give the pooch some space.
And definitely hands-off as far as strangers go. I have a strict rule: unless my dogs want to be touched by someone we meet on the walk or park, and they clearly indicate that, which almost never happens, I don't allow anybody to touch my dogs - like I wouldn't allow just anybody to hug my child.

Monday, August 24, 2009


I met with clients recently who own a wonderful adolescent boy dog. Wonderful, but misunderstood. I won't say what breed, but it's one who often gets a bad rep and it's not a bully type. Anyway, the owners are great. The type of people who are interested in their dog and treat him like a family member. Like most of my clients and dog owning friends who have, or aim to have, that kind of a relationship with their pooch, the female owner anthropomorphized while we were chatting, but then instantly hesitated and explained herself to me - almost apologetically.

Anthropomorphism is a no-no for many in the dog-pro circuit. Followers of the hierarchical pack philosophy already see the root of all behavior problems in the humanization of dogs, and people belonging to the science oriented group don’t believe that there is a place for anthropomorphism in science. World-renowned ethologist Roger Abrantes referred to it as “the crime of anthropomorphism”. I am guilty as charged. And receive periodically smiles usually reserved for small children, or a belittling sneer, typically from people without experience, but who took some science courses, maybe have a diploma or degree, and point that out during the first two minutes of a conversation.

Anthropomorphism, according to the dictionary, is: the attribution of a human form, human characteristics, or human behavior to nonhuman things such as deities in mythology and animals in children’s stories.

Dogs don’t have human form. But even that is debatable, or why else would dog mags hold dog/owner look-alike contests?

Human characteristics? You betcha. Dogs and people have much in common. Both species need mental and physical stimulation, thrive on social belonging, want to feel safe, like to play, are motivated to get stuff they like and avoid stuff they don't like, and synchronize their actions to the group’s. Both are, by nature, manipulative opportunists, except dogs are the way cuter ones.

Dogs also have a brain. And one that performs beyond simple mammalian survival tasks. Prestigious Harvard University Extension School offers a course named: The Cognitive Dog. Psychologist Paul Bloom states, “that for psychologists, dogs may be the next chimpanzees”. What’s good enough for Harvard, is good enough for me.

Dogs are more similar to us than different. Many humans are emotionally closer to dogs than to our genetic next of kin: apes. There is no harm in humanizing dogs as long, and that’s key, one also understands how dogs and humans differ. It is great that good science made it to dogs. I understand the Laws of Behavior and apply operant conditioning, but also translate what a dog might say could he communicate in a human language and have a great time putting English explanations to their actions. I gaga over dogs but am not a touchy-feely pushover, unaware of their species-specific needs and limitations.

In my world, science, leadership stuff and anthropomorphism are all inclusive. It, and analogies to human behaviors, adds clarity for my clients and often makes them more compassionate. They fall in love with their dog again. A little humor eases their tension, which in turn takes the edge of their dog’s.

Anthropomorphism can contribute to a harmonious, functioning dog/human relationship; the unique adventure of two species sharing a life together as companions. Let’s not reserve it just for cartoon characters and Disney movies.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Since the resurrection of the dominance ideology a few years ago, I hear dog owners use the terms alpha and pack leader all the time. The question is if, or if not, dogs need a leader. It is disputed by some behavior-purists, but in my opinion, they do.

But not because they are status seeking little demons the moment they invade our homes and hearts, but because they inherently know, as a species, that we have the power to provide, keep them safe, or harm and hurt them if we so choose. Humans, since domestication some 12.000 years or so ago, were dogs’ lifeline. Even non-owned "Village Dogs", a term coined by Dr. Raymond Coppinger that describes dogs that live in the periphery of human settlements in every region on this planet, live on human waste around garbage dumps. Dogs, as a species, flourish because they hang out with people.

When a pup or rescue dog moves into the midst of humans; his new family he knows nothing about, he seeks a couple of things - social acceptance and the feeling of safety. He needs to find out how he will get that, and all the other stuff he wants like roasted chicken, bones and toys, and a cushy place to rest. And that's where the humans come in. Only the people who are members of his intimate social group can explain how his world works from now on. The world he's thrown into. Not every dog needs to belong to people, but once they do because we chose to buy or adopt one, they rely on those very people for provision and protection. And that's leadership.

Studies proved that humans and dogs and other mammals learn best when taught without coercion. Completely without force and punishments. And that's Mindful Leadership. Teaching the dog what he needs to know to fit in, while at the same time decreasing fear and stress - the cause of most problem behaviors.

For people to be Mindful Leaders they need to understand how dogs communicate, what they are motivated by, what stresses them out, and how to teach in a way the dog can comprehend. In future posts I want to chat about all that, and sometimes also other dog related topics that occupy my mind. I am studying and working with dogs professionally since 1995. I want to share with you the finer nuances of body language and behavior - for dogs' sake, so that as many as possible live a life free of fears. As a nice side-effect, a content and emotionally balanced dog is typically a well-behaved one, which makes the owners happy as well - and society at large.