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Section II: Going to the Dogs
3. Who do you agree with: Cesar Millan’s way with dogs or those critical of it?
What do I think of Millan’s method, personally? Well, bear in mind that I am not a scientist. With that a given: I personally think it makes great TV. A lot of things that are full of beans make great TV. The alpha-wolf theory of dog training is full of beans.
To the extent that the results shown on television appear to be successful, one could argue that any method that applies consistency and reasonably clear instruction eventually will work on most dogs. We might ask, though, how many of Millan’s results are NOT shown because they failed?
Macho bossing around that entails the use of fear, hanging a dog by the neck on a choke chain(!), and showy dominance techniques: that’s not what works. What works is the same thing that works on a human child: quiet, consistent repetition and open, enthusiastic reward for desired behavior.
I once had a particularly difficult German shepherd. She was extremely smart and notably stubborn. She was powerful, intelligent, confident, and assertive—as a German shepherd dog should be. She also was a very strong-willed pup.
After trying every training technique I knew, including Millan’s, I could not get this dog to quit trying to chase cars and to heel consistently and safely. Finally, at the suggestion of a veterinarian, I hired a “behavioral trainer.”
This guy immediately threw out the choke chain and the pinch chain, insisting that collars of this nature are cruel. He put the dog’s regular rolled leather collar on, walked off down the street with her, and within 20 minutes had her heeling like she was strutting her stuff at Westminster.
“That’s fine for you,” said I. “But she’s not gonna do that for me. This dog knows she can get away with dragging me down the street while she’s trying to bring down a pickup truck by the oil pan.”
“Wrong,” said he. He then showed me how to use short, brief jerks on the harmless collar accompanied by a voice command, and demonstrated that once the dog connected the jerk with the “HUP!“ command, all that was necessary was the voice command. No pinching was necessary. No yanks on a choke chain were necessary. No posturing or pretending to be the Boss Wolf was necessary.
That dog lived to a ripe old age. People would come up to me and coo admiringly, “Ohhh your dog is so well behaved!” Who’d’ve thunk it?
None of the behavioral trainer’s techniques entailed Mr. Millan’s crackpot theories—but the guy’s method worked, where Millan’s did not. His method was just what I said: quiet, confident, consistent repetition. Think about it: wolves are successful predators because they cooperate, not because they beat each other up. The idea that Millan is aping the behavior of wild wolves in packs misapprehends what wolves do. And what dogs do. And what successfully functioning human families do.
You don’t work on a dog. You work with a dog.
Abuse may elicit the desired result—submission and fear. But abuse is not the same as training.