In a little more than a week Cesar Millan will be in Halifax, and this is my last post on that topic, at least for a while. This one wasn’t planned until I went through my material recently and found a bunch of notes I made when I watched his shows, and read his written words.
Millan’s devotees often accuse his critics of ignorance. Yes, I am sure there are people who base their opinion on a few isolated YouTube clips, but that is not the case here. I watched 4 complete seasons, read all his books, and several articles and interviews, and I can tell you that there was rarely an episode or chapter that didn’t irritate me.
Millan makes many statements he has no proof of and that are contrary to what biologists, ethologists and other behavioral scientists say. The list long, and I selected only a few - the ones that particularly stuck out for me because he repeats them often, or because they are so… well laughable actually if dogs wouldn’t be harmed in the process.
Here they are: The things he says - and my comments.
Work with calm-assertive energy – When a choke or prong collar, or 20-cent rope, is placed around a dog’s neck we are dealing with physical control, not mental energy. Believe your eyes, not your ears.
The rope and choke collar is not only reserved for hardened, misbehaving dogs, but he also advises it for puppies' boundary training. You mean, his calm-assertive energy doesn’t even work with a puppy?
Millan’s explanation that he only shows owners how to use the tool they are already using correctly, an explanation balanced trainers frequently use as well, doesn’t fly with me either. Dog professionals have the duty to determine what's amiss that causes the dog to behave badly, not to adjust to the method and tools the person wants. We are influencers, not just informers, and should act on the dog’s behalf.
Despite Millan's rhetoric, the tool he uses matters most, otherwise he would use a normal buckle collar and have the leash loose at all times.
Millan is correct, though, when he says that one should not follow the dog’s energy, except he breaks his own rule each time when he react's to the dog's aggressive displays and pins him.
Biting with fingers to create relaxation – Really, who believes that? The last time I was bitten I felt anything but relaxed. Dogs he “bites” aren’t relaxed either, evidenced when they stress pant or have large round whale eyes.
Dogs live in the moment - Correct, but that only means that they don’t obsess about the past, not that the past doesn’t affect their behavior. Whatever is relevant is stored in a brain area where memory sits, but also where emotional learning takes place.
The more of an impact an experience has, the more it is memorized and can trigger a future action for a very long time, sometimes for life. Panic and extreme fear behaviors often begin with trauma: A person, or dog, experiences a perceived worst-case scenario and survives, but the fear stays imbedded in the brain - and also what got the organism out of the situation.
Yes, dogs live in the moment, but they do anticipate future events based on cues that predict that event. The doorbell ringing predicts the visitor and elicits barking; the leash and keys predict a car ride to the park and elicits excitement; the nail clippers predict getting the nails clipped and elicits fear.
If dogs wouldn’t have memory, they could not remember learned commands, who their friends and adversaries are, that this or that neighbor owns a cat, or what a veterinarian does.
When dogs greet, each one takes his turn to sniff the other’s butt and genital region – Some dogs do, and some don’t. Studies showed that olfactory information gathering often starts at the head and proceeds to the tail end of the dog, and that male dogs are more likely to sniff the anogenital region than female dogs, and that the dog that is being sniffed is most often the one who terminates the greeting.
We shouldn't manipulate a dog's body into a position we think is appropriate. Sometime next year I’ll write a post about it.
When you bring a new puppy into the house, carry her by the scruff and let her down with the back legs first – For crying out loud, most people don’t deal with a feral pup who was scruff-carried by its mother to a safer hideout. We deal with one who was lifted by the breeder’s hands, in and out of the whelping box, to the weight scale, to the car and veterinarian...
By the time a pup leaves the breeder for a new home, she should be plenty imprinted to human handling, including being carried. Suddenly being lifted by the scruff will frighten a pup more than anything.
A pup will not pee at a place where she already peed – False. It is the opposite. That is exactly why house training is more difficult if the accident area isn’t cleaned up to the satisfaction of the dog’s nose.
All mothers are calm-assertive - Wrong. Some are stressed and some are calm. Some are too strict and some too lenient. And that is especially true for human manipulated dog mothers who can be malnourished and anxious when her humans treat her as a money making machine or neglect her needs.
On the same note, puppies are not born a as clean slate either, ready to be programmed by us, but come with a genetic predisposition, and are exposed to their mother’s stress hormones when in utero.
A dog must always be in a calm-submissive state – The expectation that a dog never expresses fear, anxiety, discomfort, excitement or frustration, lifelong and regardless what kind of pressure he is under, is so unrealistic that it baffles me why otherwise rational adults would believe that it is possible without creating side effects.
Dogs listen to discipline, but not punishment – Discipline and punishments are intertwined: Discipline is the enforcement of set rules through punishment, and dogs surely listen to punishment when it is severe enough.
Millan is adding something that feels unpleasant to the dog as a consequence to what he (Millan) perceives as misbehavior with the intent to curb it, and that is positive punishment.
What emotional state the punisher is in is irrelevant. I get a kick out of the idiotic claim forceful trainers use that as long as the person is not angry, the punishment dished out won’t cause harm. Tell that to someone who experienced pain at the hand of another. The lab rat's scientist is definitely not emotional, yet can shock it into learned helplessness and aggression.
When a pup/dog arrives at a new home, nobody is allowed to make eye contact and touch the dog – What a dog needs most in a new home, right after he had to leave mom-dog and littermates, is social acceptance. If no one acknowledges his existence and does not reciprocate his offered eye contact, he learns in a blink moment that there is no belonging and information available in this group – and he’ll look elsewhere to have his needs facilitated.
Discipline comes before affection, and affection is only given if the dog is in a calm-submissive state - Nature’s affection is not a reward that reinforces good behavior, but something that is freely given as a sign of belonging, acceptance and comfort.
New Caledonian crows are masters in tool making and the savants amongst birds. Their skills are unmatched in the non-human animal world, and researchers at the University of Auckland suggest that the reason why they are so exceptional is because of the care elders provide their offspring.
During a 3-year-long field study, lead author Jennifer C. Holzhaider observed that baby New Caledonian crows enjoy an extended childhood in a stable and loving home, with elders that lead by example: They are persistent and patient, apply positive reinforcement, and indulge even near adult offspring once in a while. The crows live in a close family structure and feed, groom and touch one another, and share tools.
It appears, that it is affection, affection, affection and little discipline that brings out the best in these avian geniuses. I believe that the relationship we have with our dogs should resemble exactly that peaceful, harmonious and mutually rewarding coexistence. And we, the leaders by virtue of our species, have to set the stage.
On December 04, the day Millan will have his corporate-sponsored event, a panel of local dog experts are donating their time and hold a FREE Q&A session at Dalhousie University. We, too, will be discussing problematic behaviors, but will suggest solutions that are safe and strengthen the relationship with the dog.
For more info, check out: http://www.facebook.com/events/461110740601942/
If you’re not the Facebook type, the location is: Scotia Bank Auditorium - 6135 University Drive in Halifax. Doors open at 7.00 p.m. and the event begins at 7.30.
Hope to see you there.