As those of you who read the New Yorker magazine know, I had a profile in last week's magazine on Cesar Millan, who hosts the "Dog Whisperer" show on the National Geographic Channel. (Sorry, the article isn't online). Cesar (everyone calls him by his first name) is a dog behaviorist, whose specialty is helping the owners of aggressive or troubled dogs. The point of my article was to use him as way of examining the idea of presence—that is, the ability of certain kinds of people to create order out of chaos.
I've received a far amount of feedback on the piece. One of the most interesting comments came from Janis Bradley. Bradley is the author of the book "Dogs Bite," which I referenced in an earlier post as one of the best things I've ever read on that issue. She's an instructor at the SPCA's Academy for Dog Trainers in San Francisco and is one of a number of dog behaviorists who are critical—to say the least—of Cesar's methods. Here is an excerpt from an email she sent me:
Here are the basics. On his TV show, the main method Millan uses for aggression is aversives (leash jerks, kicks, snaps of the hand against the neck, and restraint, among others) applied non contingently. The aversives are non contingent because they are so frequent that they're not connected to any particular behavior on the part of the dog—the dog gets popped pretty much constantly. This results in a state called learned helplessness, which means the animal hunkers down and tries to do as little as possible. This is what Millan calls "calm submission." It's exactly the same thing you see in a rat in a Skinner box that is subjected to intermittent shocks it can do nothing to avoid. This can happen quite fast, by the way, shall we say in ten minutes? The dangers to the dog are obvious, ranging from chronic stress to exacerbating the aggression, i.e., some dogs fight back when attacked. This latter is the simplest reason that aversives are a bad idea in treating aggression. Even used technically correctly as positive punishment for specific behaviors like growling and snarling, aversives do nothing to change the underlying fear or hostility, so the best you can hope for, in the words of famed vet and behaviorist, Ian Dunbar, is "removing the ticker from the time bomb." Thus such methods substantially increase the risk to humans of getting bitten.
I was aware, when I was writing the piece, of the controversy over Cesar's methods. I didn't go into it, because I didn't want to write a piece about the specifics of dog training, especially since I'd love published that piece on Pit Bulls. I really wanted to focus on Cesar, and on the broader question of what meaning dogs—and human beings—attach to movement. Nonetheless, I think it's important to acknowledge how controversial Cesar's methods are. Bradley is not alone. On some of the dog blogs, Cesar has attracted quite a bit of criticism. (Try: nationalgeographic.com)
I don't pretend to be an expert on dog training, and I'm inclined to take Bradley's comments quite seriously. But let me make a few small points. This controversy is, in no small part, Cesar's creation. In his book "Cesar's Way," which has been in the top five on Amazon for several weeks, he talks a lot about the importance of humans being behaving as pack leaders, and establishing dominance over their dogs. Along the same lines, his shows feature a number of episodes with quite spectacular footage of Cesar wrestling large and aggressive dogs into submission. That is what the critics are responding to.
What you see on the Dog Whisperer, though, are highly edited snippets of Cesar's interactions with problem dogs. In the course of researching my article, I watched a good deal of unedited footage of Cesar in action, and I also accompanied Cesar on a number of his "house-calls." What you see, when you observe the unabridged Cesar, is something quite different. For instance, Cesar's "aversives"—to use Bradley's language--don't seem non-contingent when you see him in context: on the contrary, over the course of an hour or more with a particular dog, he might only "touch" the dog once or twice, and only in response to very specific behaviors. What you also realize is that Cesar's overwhelming focus is nearly always on the owners of dogs—not on the dog's themselves. He spends most of his time trying to teach owners how to create a healthy environment for their dog: the importance of regular exercise, of clarity and consistency in communication, and so on. And despite all his talk about dominance and being a pack leader, what is striking about Cesar viewed in full context (and this is one of the major themes of my article) is how paradoxically gentle he is. That's why, in the piece, I compare the way he relates to troubled dogs with the way movement therapists work with autistic children.
I should reiterate that this is not an area in which I'm an expert. There may well be legitimate issues about how the kinds of methods Cesar uses, under some circumstances. I think as well that Bradley and others are quite right in worrying about the impact of an unsophisticated reading of Cesar's approach on the way we treat dogs. If you do what he says, and not what he does, I think you miss what makes him effective.
I guess I'd be curious to see what people like Janis Bradley think of Cesar if they observed him in operation first hand.