Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Positive-Reinforcement Trainer's Favorites from Cesar Millan

As a clicker/positive/progressive/least invasive, minimally aversive/marker/reinforcement trainer, I am constantly working to find ways to communicate with my dogs that do not inflict pain, fear, or intimidation.  I have several tools in my tool belt already, but I love learning and keep looking for more to answer questions I don't have a sufficient answer to yet.  Especially dealing with reactive and/or aggressive, so-called "red zone" dogs.

So my colleagues will be surprised to hear I do have favorite sayings from a trainer such as Cesar Millan.  My reasoning often differs from his, but I feel they are worth mentioning.  As professionals, there has long been discussion of a line being drawn in the sand between "modern" training and "traditional" training.  I have been frowned upon by many trainers for following "traditional" trainers in social media networks.  But as many of my clients, friends and family have this methodology as their primary or even sole background, I feel it imperative that I be fully immersed to best relate to and help the dogs.

Without further ado, here are the pearls of wisdom from Cesar Millan's show The Dog Whisperer, and why I feel they are worth repeating:

  • No touch, no talk, no eye contact.  Contrary to the myth of dominance, I feel this is a crucial approach to take with insecure, shy, reactive, and aggressive dogs.  All of these behaviors are signs of respect, calm, and help put the dog at ease.  By not touching the dog, you're not forcing your presence on them; perhaps triggering an unpleasant memory, or causing stress.  By not talking to the dog, you allow them to think and process your scent and how you look without distraction nor the pressure of greeting.  By refraining from making eye contact, you're being polite in the dog world; where in the human world making eye contact is a sign of respect and attention, in the dog world, it's a potential threat -- as a predator, you never keep your eye off your prey.
  • The power of the walk.  Walking your dog can be a very good way to build a bond, but not because of establishing a leadership role over your dog.  By going on a walk, if you structure it correctly, you are your dog's gateway to the wide world of wonderful smells, new people to love, new dogs to greet with a wagging tail, small animals to chase and practice hunting, as well as the simple joy of novelty.  By being the giver of all good things, you become more interesting than what you give, and your dog will love you for it.  How to structure a walk properly is worthy of its own entry later.
  • Correct the dog before the behavior can escalate.  I would modify this to be more like "interrupt the dog before the behavior can escalate," but it's essentially the same message.  Instead of allowing your dog to stare at what is making him/her upset, interrupt them so they can make a better choice -- calm down and walk away.  Poking, tapping, kicking, leash popping, etc. are all forms of physical influence; while I'm in favor of being able to physically handle your dog with utmost comfort, I find these forms of touch too frightening for most dogs outside of a play setting, if at all.  Instead, I prefer to use a positively-conditioned sound, such as a kissing noise or whistle, that can pierce through any distraction and remind my dog to pay attention to me.
  • The power of the pack.  Dogs surely are the best teachers to their own kind.  Humans don't have the same vocalizations, physiology, or scent -- no matter how hard we try to mimic it, the dog knows better.  Allowing the dog ample opportunity to learn from their own kind can work miracles.  Scientific studies have proven that dogs can learn by example.  However, it is dangerous to put an aggressive, fearful, shy, or in any way "unbalanced" dog into a situation where they are surrounded by [well-behaved] dogs, and not actually effective in teaching the unstable dog the lesson they need most -- trust.  This method is called flooding, and while it can be effective with people who have phobias, it's not the same with dogs, because we can't possibly explain to the dog why they're in this situation.
  • Project calm, assertive energy.  The power of intention is one of the hardest lessons I've ever had to learn, but certainly one of the most powerful and influential.  I don't know if it's a foundation for influencing behavior, but it certainly helps to go out into any activity or outing with your dog with the full picture of an ideal in mind.  It's impossible to improve "bad" behavior without first defining "good" behavior.
  • Human goes first through any doorway.  Cesar wants the leader to go through the doorway to reinforce the dog's follower position; but I say it works better to keep our dog safe.  If we're the first one through the door, we're the first to see what is beyond it.  If we have a dog afraid of other dogs, for instance, rather than allowing our dog to be the first one to see the dog beyond the doorway and thus likely make a "bad choice" as in reacting to the dog, if we're the first through the door, we can manage our dog to get past its trigger.
My hope in writing this post is that the line between traditional trainers and modern trainers can begin to be blurred.  Science evolves just as the world does, and all we can do is make an effort to stay up-to-date.  Dominance has officially been debunked, at least in the common sense as it applies to canines.  Let's move forward with what I feel both sides can agree on:  mutual respect, teamwork, partnership, and companionship.

So, what are your favorite Cesar Millan sayings?  How about other trainers?  Have you adapted any to suit you and your relationship with your dog you'd like to share?  Leave a comment...