Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Controversial Cesar Millan

I am so sick and tired of reading about how everyone hates Cesar.  I need to vent.  Please do NOT comment with strictly anti-Cesar remarks.

  • Am I a fan? Yep.  Is my whole family a fan?  Yep.  Do we like dominance theory-based training?  Definitely not, and my Dad used to be that way, and his Grandfather before him.  We do NOT believe Cesar uses those methods, though he borrows the terminology for ease of communication.  Energy can be reinterpreted as attitude and intention.  Dominance can be reinterpreted as leader-like or confident. Submission can be reinterpreted as respectful.  If he were to use other terminology, I think it would go over much better with the positive only people.
  • Think about his motives.  Yes, he has a TV show; yes, he has to make a living.  NO, HE DOES NOT INTENTIONALLY HARM/ABUSE DOGS.  You can clearly see that man LOVES dogs, and he works for THEM.  Keep things in this perspective.
  • Do I think there are less aversive ways to accomplishing the same goal with really tough cases? Yes, but they take longer.  I don't think every owner will be the kind of person to commit to a regimen that demands so much and shows such small improvement over a relatively long period of time.  Even though, yes, I believe they should.
  • Do I think his ways are effective and another option for the really tough guys? Yes.  For an extremely sensitive/fearful dog, definitely not; but there are cases that are too confident where this may be more effective.
  • Do I think of him as a trainer?  No.  Does he use the so-called controversial methods for obedience/trick training? No!!
  • Does he avidly support and use positive reinforcement methods for such training? YES!!  The problem is, and I agree, this isn't always feasible.  I'd rather fix a dog the hard way than give up and euthanize, all because an owner doesn't have the patience to fix a dog the nice way (when it can take many months or even YEARS).  Perhaps the dog is reacting poorly to a newborn human baby.  There is a serious time crunch, and no rescue will be able to guarantee a happy home for such a dog with that history.  Repressing a bad behavior is what most people do, until it becomes the new norm.  I see no reason why it's so evil for dogs.  The risk, of course, is relapse.  That's why Cesar emphasizes that the owners must do their homework after he leaves and the show is over.  He's only just begun the rehabilitation process, he doesn't work a lasting-miracle in a 30 minute segment -- nor does he claim to.
  • Is he implementing more and more positive reinforcement in the show and in his work on a regular basis?  Yep.  He's taking on less severe cases (for the most part) than the first seasons, showing the lighter side.
  • Does Cesar (at least recently) make every effort to keep the dog under threshold? Yep, his strategy is escalation prevention.  Is this always possible when the owner makes a mistake?  No.  Does he believe, as many horse trainers do, that if an animal misbehaves, you can't give up until you've accomplished your goal?  Yes.  Positive trainers refer to this as ending on a positive note.
  • If my greyhounds had behavioral problems, I'd be screwed trying to fix them with positive methods.  They are not very highly motivated individuals by anything when outside.  Praise, treats, toys... the only thing that makes them interested even briefly are those grilled chicken strips intended for salads. I'd probably have to skip meals to make them interested enough, even in those.  Yes, they live without a meal or two or three, but they don't know why I'm skipping their meal, and they know it's time; I really am uncomfortable doing so.  Regardless, those chicken packets come at a hefty price when added up over the time/quantity needed.  It's not realistic.  They would never be rehabilitated using treats.
  • The same goes for all dogs over threshold -- they no longer care about treats.  Cesar works with them when they are in this mental state because they must learn an off-switch to be sane again.  Do they learn anywhere near as well in this state? Nope, and Cesar knows it.  That's why he always works to prevent an escalation.  Is it still necessary?  I think so, because life happens, and people won't react perfectly when it does -- but the dog still needs to be manageable.
  • It frustrates me to no end when people claim that dogs never roll each other to tell another dog to quit, calm down, or knock it off.  My greyhound, Kibeth, does this to the rambunctious Dolce of her own accord at least once a week.  She uses her paw and just pushes him down to the ground on his side, where he lies belly up -- looking apologetically, but calmly up at her.  She releases him, and that's that.  JoJo has nipped him on the neck when he annoys her by licking her face for too long.  People can't be dogs, but I don't see why mimicking these behaviors is such a bad thing.  Charades is an effective game because we use universal people gestures to communicate without spoken language.  I see no reason to not use this notion when communicating with our dogs.  Communicate as they do to get your point across.  Feedback of all sorts, "Yes, do that!" and "No, stop that!" are equally important, in my opinion.  If a puppy starts chewing on your fancy shoes, you likely say, "No!" and then if you're smart, hand over something else they are allowed to chew on.  I favor this methodology.
  • People who claim that dogs are not pack animals really bother me.  When Hurricane Katrina hit, surviving, abandoned dogs formed packs to survive -- as they do in other natural disaster situations.  Feral dogs also form packs, though there are loaners.  It's a survival instinct, it's a social need.
  • JoJo breaks up fights at dog parks.  I wish I could catch it on video, she's amazing.  All she does is run between dogs who are rough-housing too intensely, or even dogs who are all-out fighting.  I swear, she'd be a hippy if she were human.  Some people call this dominance, I think of it more like refereeing.  Either way, the idea of, "Snapping them out of it," is a good one!  JoJo, because she can run 40 mph, uses her speed.  The arguing dogs look up, dazed, and have a very clear, "WTF was that?" expression on their faces.  They go back to playing, but happily and peacefully instead of fighting.  Cesar uses his hands (bite mimic/touch) or the leash to accomplish the same -- more about the leash portion later.
  • Lots of people insinuate that Cesar is not as effective as he seems; the dogs revert to their previous poor behaviors and end up rehomed, euthanized, or continue their less-than-ideal lives (in varying degrees of misery).  This is not always the case, but I do know of a few followups that were not a happy ending.  Perhaps there are more, it doesn't really matter.  Give me a positive trainer who has succeeded with every dog and every human 100% and I will worship them.  Victoria Stilwell suggests people rehome their dogs sometimes.  Does that mean she failed?  No, it's just that the dog/family is not a good match.  I like the phrase, "A tired dog is a happy dog."  To me, it means that the owner must be up to the task of providing the necessary mental and physical stimulation a dog requires EVERY DAY.  When they are not, it's not an ideal match.  That lack of ideal pairing may be workable or not, depending on the severity.  This is true, in my opinion, no matter what your training philosophy may be, and does not necessarily reflect on a trainer's success.  That Cesar doesn't always suggest a rehoming only shows his hopefulness that with the proof of possibility, the owners will have the commitment necessary to see it through.
  • Those who claim that Cesar cannot read a dog's body language forget the human error component.  Again, Cesar admits he makes mistakes sometimes, but everyone can.  Interpretation is a very subjective thing, and anyone can see something from one angle, and something completely different from another; but of the exact same subject at the exact same time.  I saw a comment on a YouTube video by KikoPup that read something like, "I've noticed Kiko always has her tail between her legs in your videos, why is she always so scared around you?" I don't remember the exact wording, but that was the accusation.  Now KikoPup, for those who don't know, is a wonderful positive trainer.  I admire her videos, and am grateful to my livejournal community buddies for introducing me to her channel recently.  The explanation, logically, as kikopup replied, is that Kiko has very thin hair, and she's almost always cold.  Someone watching without the sound might see the grim, slightly nervous-looking face of kikopup, and believe with good reason that Kiko is interpreting her owner's unpleasant facial expressions and is afraid.  Point is, though Cesar is/could be wrong at times, I don't think everyone else can make judgments without being there -- even in a video.  The removal of the sense of presence is important, at least to me.
  • I hate it when people attack his personal dogs.  They are ambassadors, each of them, and it is clear that Cesar and his family love them very much and provide a fulfilling lifestyle for them.  Those who complain that they must lead miserable lives helping to rehabilitate unbalanced dogs must not appreciate bomb-detection dogs, police dogs, or any dog who will be uncomfortable at times while on the job, but revel in their work.  These dogs are clearly not sad, abused, overly distressed, or miserable.
I feel like if Cesar is really the evil, domineering, abusive behaviorist that everyone on the other side of the fence thinks he is, there'd be a lot more sound (yelling) and physical contact than there is.  He doesn't use choke chains, he uses whatever the owner is already using.  The only time this changes is when the owner is stupid, and tries to get a dog to stop pulling with a harness leashed to the back, or something similarly and obviously ineffective.  There is a practical side to his methods, which is what makes them and him appealing.  Carrying treats on every walk and having the feeling that I am only bribing my dog to behave doesn't make sense to me sometimes.  However, I have learned that I can "snap Dolce out of it" when he becomes reactive with a treat just as well as I can a touch.  As a treat also means reward, I'm choosing to use the former for effectiveness.  If he didn't snap out of it for the treat, I would use touch, assuming that the  touch would snap him out of it.

My big issues with Cesar and his show are:
  • It is highly unlikely that most anyone else can replicate his methods due to the human nature of error.  I do believe that misinterpreted, people can abuse their dogs mimicking what he does on the show.  He admits he makes mistakes -- we all do; but someone who doesn't have his experience would be WAY worse.  So I definitely don't think anyone should try this on their own without him, or someone trained extensively by him.
  • Not using a harness clipped to the front ring instead of that $0.35 leash.  I understand the principle that it's not the $50 leash or collar, it's the person, and I commend him for making this point. However, I do wish he'd do away with anything that can tighten fully around a dog's neck.  Unless the dog is a real puller and will disregard the pull to the front of their body, this pairing would be much less aversive to the dogs and I've found it very effective with Dolce.  Even swapping for a martingale collar would make me feel more at ease.
  • Change the vocabulary.  "Educated people" (including Cesar) are opposed to Dominance Theory (as we understand it to be abusive and intimidating) so he should avoid resembling it like the plague.  He should address these concerns by changing the terminology to better suit the reality of what he actually does; which I do NOT believe to be in the same category.  My suggestions above are some of many applicable options.
  • The Dog Psychology Center is not a feasible option for most people.  Based on my very positive experience when I had to board Dolce at a doggy daycare, if the resource isn't available, Cesar's ideas for the really tough guys won't work.  That's why I wish people would band together to help in this way, rather than touting it as unrealistic.  Best Friends does it one way, Cesar does it another -- it's a good way to do it.
What I'm uncertain about:
  • Claims that dogs don't have hierarchies (leaders & followers) in their packs as wolves do.  I can see that going both ways, or perhaps somewhere down the middle -- with the leader being a fluid position, filled as needed by the most competent pack member at the time in the situation.  That is my experience with my 3 dogs, at least.  Kibeth is the queen at home, though she rarely takes much advantage of it.  JoJo is the queen at the park, if we're outside or have to travel in the car.  Dolce follows them both easily, though often tries their patience.  All 3 dogs listen to me more than they listen to Rick.  I suspect it's strictly because he does no training with them, so they have no experience following his commands and recognizing them as such.  Similar to when border collies follow the command, "Sit" only when said a certain way.  Any deviation is an entirely new command to them, because they're so smart and aware/alert.
  • The intimidation factor.  I think people, by nature, are intimidating to all animals.  I'm tempted to believe that no matter what training regimen we follow, we intimidate our pets to some degree. That Cesar comes across as intimidating is only because of the situation he faces -- not because of his intention to be scary.
  • Comparisons from horse training, human education, etc.  I'm not sure they apply at all, or if they apply all the time, or somewhere in the middle.  If only we could think like dogs and horses do. ;-)
I would like us all to learn from Cesar that dogs want balance.  I'm sure other trainers believe this, too.  If a dog is unbalanced in any way, I firmly believe that we, people, are likely responsible for at least a majority of it.  There is the nature/genetics factor, but as breeders of these pet dogs, we (in general, no one specifically) are ultimately responsible for that.  There is the environmental factor, which we cannot possibly be 100% in control of, but we should be when bringing an animal into our lives.  If our dogs are out of balance, we have only us, the human race, and the universe/fate/destiny/God (whichever you believe in) to blame.  Let's work together to fix it as best we can!!

In short, I don't care who the trainer is or what the method is.  If the dog is truly happy and balanced, the owner/trainer did a good job.  This precludes abusive methods in itself.  Before we pass judgment on someone, keep in mind their intention, and remember that no one can be perfect.  Certainly not me; but not you, either.  (Pointed at no one in particular, FYI.) Let's admit our faults, learn from them throughout our lives, and see people for who they are in each moment, rather than just who they were.  When Cesar first came here, and he became famous, he wrote, Cesar's Way.  Like the book or not, in his next book, he mentions how he has discovered other methods, namely positive reinforcement, and has broadened his horizons since he wrote Cesar's Way.  He's a work in progress... just like everyone else.  Let's support his growth in this "nice training" realm, rather than bash his previous "all-dominance" attitude, as some continue to do.  Let's celebrate his tremendous efforts to mass improve the welfare of dogs in the world through rescue, education and awareness.  I, personally, am very grateful in this way.  He is the one who introduced me to the idea of psychiatric service dogs with the episode on Sparky and AJ.

Whew.  Sorry for the book, but I feel better.

No comments:

Post a Comment