Saturday, August 28, 2010

What If You Are Not Calm-Assertive?

Cesar Millan, National Geographic’s famous dog trainer, is touring major Canadian cities to tell people how to become calm-assertive. I’ll bet that tickets to his events sold out in a flash, cause many people want to know exactly that. I know that, because my inbox is regularly peppered with “Dog Whisperer” lingo, like red zone, submissive, pack leader and yes, often the question: “Can you help me to become calm-assertive”? Canadian owners will be thrilled having the chance to hear the real pop-psych for dogs explain them how. If I’d ever meet Cesar Millan, I have a question of my own. What if you are NOT calm-assertive?
Even though Millan claims that everyone must, and can be calm-assertive, in reality most lay owners fall short. Someone who is by nature hesitant, softhearted, a bit unsure, cautious or sensitive, and whose body language reflected that for all her life, cannot switch suddenly and assume a different persona on a dime, even if she visualizes being some strong-minded celebrity.
And faking it for 10 or 15 years, or however long the dog lives, is just not functional – and counterproductive. Imagine you observing someone you live with acting a certain way all day long, and the moment he addresses you he becomes this mock alpha. Would that confuse you? Maybe make you a tad anxious and suspicious?
Never mind the physical aspect. Just recently I had an inquiry from a couple who were convinced that their 16-week-old pup was striving for pack leadership. They wanted my help to demote him a few pegs, cause the lady of the house was already afraid of him, and hubby not very successful. They described this pup, a giant breed who’ll eventually weigh around 150 pounds, as a born 10 on the alpha scale and wanted me to bring him down to an 8. Aside from the fact that their diagnosis was probably inaccurate, it mystifies me why they thought that would do them any good. A male adult livestock guardian dog with big teeth who’s an 8 is still a huge problem, especially if his people set the stage for, or were feeding, a confrontational relationship.

The average owner failing the corporeal aspect of the calm-assertive mantra is typical.
Corrections look so easy when applied by a professional skilled in applying corrections. Things done by experts always look easy, no matter what the field. Dog training isn’t an exception. If one practices for twenty years, one gets very good at it. A punitive dog trainer with decades of experience manhandling dogs is very proficient. That doesn’t mean that you, your grandpappy, or your 10-year-old can mimic that.
I mean, who can do the left-turn leg-thrust while jogging? How do you pin a struggling Great Dane till he capitulates if you’re 5’5”? Or lift him off the floor on his choker?
Millan, and other experienced handlers look good cause wrangling dogs is what they’ve been doing for many years. They are physically skilled to overcome any dog – and don’t mind getting bitten in the process. Chances are you do mind. In fact, for most people a bite is a deal breaker and gets the dog a one-way trip to the veterinarian.

Life’s reality is not someone blustering about with a straight backbone saying “Ssht”. It is normal for people to periodically be tense, frazzled, tired, or anxious. Dogs live in neighborhoods where they are liked by some and feared by others, and looked at even if you tell someone not to. Dogs live in our midst, and naturally experience the colorful palette of people’s personalities, and that is what they should habituate to.
So, quit stressing out if you can’t pull it off like Millan or the punitive trainer near you. Luckily, and unlike a dog who can neither choose how he is treated, nor can he express anything but what he feels, humans have alternatives.
One could, for example, be calm-cognizant. You all have a cerebral cortex, right? So, use that. Rationalize that people and dogs are individuals and learn at different paces. Learn about behavior, communication, positive reinforcement and reframing, conditioning and counter-conditioning, desensitizing and habituation….
And calm-compassionate. Compassion is a human thing, too. It's seeing the world from someone else’s point of view, and offering refuge and safety if that someone is anxious or frightened. It's releasing pressure with the overwhelmed dog, pushing a little less and progressing at the his comfort level, even if it takes time.
How about calm-confident. Cognizance combined with compassion leads to success and success builds confidence. Automatically, without the person having to pretend anything. Failure destroys confidence, so manage and orchestrate situations that set you and your dog up for success.

Static assertive, strong, and physically skilled humans don’t represent the real world. Dogs live with young and old people; physically and emotionally stronger and weaker ones; people who have good and bad days, and not with a charismatic male whose aptitude is to fearlessly overpower dogs.
Your dog understands that. So be yourself when you interact with him cause that is what you do best. But know how to manage space and control resources, how to teach without errors and how to get voluntary attention, and offer safety, and you will still be the leader in your dog’s eyes, even if you can’t knuckle-bite as effectively as Cesar Millan.