Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cesar Millan is a Hack?

I'm still educating myself about this debate (more here), the convictions and emotions surrounding which (not to mention cultural and gender predispositions) seem as strong as in any discussion of raising children.

But I will say the contrast between the two methods employed in these two particular videos is pretty striking (Update: An executive producer of the show weighs in (see comments to this post) as to why this may be. For the record I agree with her about common courtesy of at least taking these things in context.):


Melissa Jo Peltier said...

There is a significant difference between these two videos for a very good reason - the animals in question have very disparate behavioral issues, and are at different stages in their development.

"Tucker" is an apparently well-behaved PUPPY; he is a clean slate and nail-clipping is a relatively new experience for him. His talented handler is doing exactly the right thing, introducing a young, impressionable dog to the grooming ritual in a relaxing, positive way. This is conditioning at its best. If you watch Cesar Millan's "How to Raise a Perfect Dog" special, you'll see him using similar positive association techniques in teaching Mr. President, an English bulldog-puppy, how to enjoy having his nasal folds cleaned. The purpose is the same - make grooming/hygiene rituals enjoyable, fun experiences. Because Cesar used positive associations with Mr. President as he hand-raised him, the bulldog, now a year and a half old, actually enjoys going to the vets and groomers.

"Josh" (the Maltese) is a completely different case. If critics had watched this entire Dog Whisperer segment IN CONTEXT instead of blindly attacking what they PERCEIVED was happening within the short clip, they'd have learned that the Maltese profiled here is an older rescue dog that had attacked and bitten many people. "Josh" had been repeatedly returned to shelters by a series of frustrated owners. IHe would surely have been put down had his current owner not rescued him when she did. From the very beginning, she could not groom Josth without incurring injury. The owner's own daughter wanted the dog out of the house because it attacked her. More than one groomer had actually banned Josh from their facilities! Other trainers - yes, "positive only" trainers too - had advised the owner to put the dog down.

Cesar spent a day with this dog in which he calmly and assertively overcame the dog's panicked, fear-based reaction to the clippers by simply not backing down to the dog's outbursts. Ultimately, the owner found herself able to groom Josh for the first time ever. Because she learned to change her own energy and attitude toward the dog, Cesar's lessons "stuck" for the long term. Josh eventually became a calmer, more trusting dog, and eventually, even her daughter could groom him.

I know all this because I'm one of the show's executive producers. Whenever you see these extreme situations on Dog Whisperer, I promise you, these owners have already been the clicker route, the treat route, the veterinary behaviorist route...and the responses they've gotten has been, "This dog can't be helped." Behavioral issues are the number one reasons that dogs are surrendered to shelters, and the vast majority of dogs surrendered to shelters are euthanized. Which is candy-coating for what really happens to these animals - because we can't handle them, we EXECUTE them instead.

I see a lot of moral outrage over a handful of clips taken out of context (out of hundreds of Dog Whisperer episodes filmed) despite the fact that the vast majority of these cases have had happy endings (80-85% by our estimates), and in all cases, the dogs in question ended up staying in their homes with their owners, and with their lives and good health intact. Where is the moral outcry over whether or not a dog deserves to DIE just because a certain human can't help that animal with the only method that the human deems is the "right" one?

Sadly, for most humans, issues like those of so many dogs we've profiled on Dog Whisperer, mean giving up on a dog and depriving it of its most precious possession - its life. How humane is that?

Matt said...

You raise some interesting points, Melissa; thanks.

So if I hear you correctly, to those professionals who insist Cesar is merely getting dogs to "emotionally shut-down" or become "flooded" instead of "relaxing, calm and submissive" you would say, "well, in some cases it actually works, at least as a first step, and where nothing else does, with more than a risk of biting but their entire lives on the line" is that right?

This argument I find sympathetic...provided long-term relationship results are actually achieved, and the risks don't dramatically increase from displacement...hard things to assess sometimes, I imagine.

The shock collar he uses (without explaining to TV audiences) I have some trouble with.

But such things as the occasional finger jab or alpha roll (on our own sweet dogs), well...we do that.

Matt said...

I will also say, however, that having spoken personally with a number of dog professionals who are afraid of being sued and bullied by CM for daring to question his bona fides in public (this has happened)'s too bad this conversation and these professional criticisms can't be taken up directly by CM in public...

All the new age energy talk does little to update his methods, which are on the whole uneducated, antiquated and cruel, and designed mostly for the tv audience not knowing any better, in their view.