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single combat

At the risk of alienating colleagues on both sides of The Great (and Largely Imaginary) Divide, here are some brief and unapologetically provocative thoughts on the recent adventures of our industry’s most over-exposed personalities.

I briefly considered naming this piece, Two Things I Am Having Trouble Getting Excited Over, but feared that wouldn’t be catchy enough. And really, the number one priority of any top-tier trainer has got to be maximizing eyeballs, am I right?

Cesar Millan

Let’s talk about the pig episode first. For anyone currently living under a rock: first, let me congratulate you on acquiring some truly enviable real estate; second, feel free to find the video on Youtube or rely on my description. It shows a TV entertainer and self-styled aggression guru performing an ill-conceived and poorly executed stunt involving some pigs and a dog with a history of attacking them. A pig gets bitten. There is some blood, and some squealing.

Is it hard to watch? That’s subjective, but I would have to say no, not compared to a hundred other things I’m forced to watch, like Donald Trump making a sickeningly plausible run for president.

Is it animal cruelty? I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve read the California statute and would call that a stretch. It seems pretty obvious that the injury to the pig, while stupid and unnecessary, was the unintended result of more than one serious miscalculation, not of malice or even insensitivity. The real crime was National Geographic legitimizing this nonsense by packaging it as cutting-edge behavior work.

Speaking of errors of judgement, it’s been apparent for some time that the balanced training community, in so far as one exists, may have made its own regrettable miscalculation in hitching its wagon to Millan’s star. Designating the charismatic savant originally marketed as the Dog Whisperer as balanced training’s patron saint and prime-time champion has arguably spawned a generation of trainers focused on branding and showmanship ahead of knowledge or technique. 

Should Millan be forced off the air? I’d rather people simply stopped watching, but if the consequence of this particular bout of ineptitude happened to be the end of Cesar 911 or even the end of an already lengthy career, I could certainly live with that. Because as much as I find the outrage over this specific incident somewhat misplaced, Millan remains someone I cannot bring myself to defend. He bought into his own myth on the ground floor, and the rest is history.

That said, let’s not pretend it’s really about the pig. Last time I checked, there was a whole show on TV about killing pigs, not to mention the genuine atrocity that is modern factory farming. The disconnect between the standards of welfare we insist on for our pets and those we quietly tolerate for our food animals, even when they are the same animal, is infinitely more unnerving than the worst things Millan has ever done. And I will add that the worst things Millan has ever done do not compare with the things truly abusive trainers do on a regular basis.

victoria stilwell

On to Victoria Stilwell and the bite she incurred while filming police dogs in action for her latest television project. Video of this event is unlikely to surface, but based on the scant information available, it is apparent that Stilwell was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s unclear if there was handler error or not, if there was error on the part of Stilwell or not, if the dog was well-trained or poorly so. It’s also unclear who was actually responsible for orchestrating events or for keeping Stilwell and others safe.

Stilwell’s first public move after sustaining the bite was to blame the dog’s handler, an accusation she has since stepped back. To my mind, adopting the guise of a dog training expert in such a context signals a measure of personal culpability, but falls short of explaining the public fit of schadenfreude incited by this all-around inglorious incident.

To wrap one’s head around that, one would need to remember that Stilwell has made a career of capitalizing on our industry’s political divisiveness, and has not been at all shy about vilifying whole classes of trainers as lazy and abusive based on no less scant information. And one would need to remember that like Cesar Millan, she was never a real dog trainer prior to being cast as one on TV.

So, the conspicuous murmuring that karma was at work as much as the Malinois who tagged her, while certainly unkind and admittedly unprofessional, is also really easy to understand. In other words, it’s not actually about the pig. It’s about the longstanding and entirely righteous resentment many career trainers feel at having been publicly chastised by an actress who never walked in their totally unsexy shoes.

the take away

Neither of these events can reasonably be taken as an indictment of any existing training method. In the first case, there was no identifiable method; in the second, no training was occurring. If either speaks to anything, it’s to the collective folly of our adopting a pair of non-trainers as the champions of our competing methodologies.

The idea that either ever represented the pinnacle of our profession has always been a pretense, and neither has frankly been a good ambassador. If Millan permanently distorted the concept of balanced training into a faith-based bravado-fueled affair reminiscent of rattlesnake handling, then Stilwell surely planted the enduring suspicion that positive reinforcement trainer was synonymous with poser. 

For the record, I hope that Stilwell recovers swiftly, that Millan retires quietly, and that neither ever headlines another dog trainer conference. Meanwhile, I hope the rest of us can tear our eyes from the spectacle long enough to realize we have a great deal more in common with one another than with either of them.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2016.

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Take a look at this Google News headline. It’s a lesson in the importance of proper conjugation.

Yes, that would likely dwarf anyone’s estimate.

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No Pekingese. No Bulldog. No Clumber Spaniel. No Mastiff. No Neapolitan Mastiff. No Basset Hound.

These are the breeds that were absent within their respective group competitions at this year’s Crufts, due to their chosen ambassadors (those judged Best of Breed) subsequently flunking a newly mandated vet check.

According to the Kennel Club website:

The Kennel Club has introduced veterinary checks for the Best of Breed winners at all Kennel Club licensed General and Group Championship Dog Shows from Crufts 2012 onwards, in 15 designated high profile breeds. This measure was introduced to ensure that Best of Breed awards are not given to any dogs that show visible signs of problems due to conditions that affect their health or welfare.

The fifteen high profile breeds are as follows: Basset Hound, Bloodhound, Bulldog, Chow Chow, Clumber Spaniel, Dogue De Bordeaux, German Shepherd Dog, Mastiff, Neapolitan Mastiff, Pekingese, Shar Pei, St Bernard, French Bulldog, Pug and Chinese Crested.

Thus no Best of Breed award was ultimately awarded to the winners of six individual breed contests. See all results here.

One can read more about these events on a number of sites, including Terrierman’s Daily Dose, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, Border Wars, and Honest Dog.

Personally, I applaud the Kennel Club for taking this step, although they may have done so grudgingly, and although it is perhaps not the best step they could have taken. And I applaud the veterinarians in question for their willingness to suggest that the Kennel Club’s “Best”– if that includes dogs suffering from visible health problems– isn’t good enough.

But I’m a little put off by the Kennel Club’s apparent effort to lay blame for the crippling health problems within certain high-profile breeds squarely at the feet of a handful of judges. And I’m equally put off by the suggestion that the solution to these problems, which clearly stem in large part from a century of judging dogs by appearance alone, is somehow to judge dogs more competently by appearance alone.

From the Crufts website:

Ronnie Irving, Kennel Club Chairman, said: “The majority of people involved in showing dogs, including the 15 high profile breeds, are doing a good job in moving their breed forward and many judges are ensuring that health is paramount when they judge. This work should be applauded and recognised.

“Sadly though, a few judges in some breeds simply can’t or won’t accept the need to eliminate from top awards, dogs which are visibly unhealthy. Neither we who show dogs, nor the Kennel Club which must protect our hobby, can reasonably allow that state of affairs to continue. I hope also that monitoring the results of this exercise may even, in time, enable us to drop from the ‘high profile’ list some of those breeds which prove to have a clean bill of health.

“This move, along with the other health measures that we have put in place will help the Kennel Club to ensure that the show ring is, as Professor Patrick Bateson said it can be: a positive lever for change in the world of dogs.”

Professor Steve Dean, Crufts Committee member and Senior Veterinary Surgeon, and a member of the Kennel Club General Committee, said of the new requirements: “The guidance which we will issue to Show Vets will focus on clinical signs associated with pain or discomfort which will come under the main headings of external eye disease, lameness, skin disorders and breathing difficulty. The show veterinary surgeons will be looking for signs such as ectropion, entropion, corneal damage, dermatitis, breathing difficulty on moderate exercise, and lameness. The fifteenth breed is the Chinese Crested where the principal issue will be the presence of skin damage arising from hair removal and thus signs of clipper rash or chemical insults to the skin will be looked for.

According to Kennel Club secretary Caroline Kisco, the vets will be judging the winners’ health solely by outward appearance. In other words, vets are not to disqualify dogs for any reasons beyond those that would have been apparent to the show judges themselves. Watch the below video to hear Kisco explain in her own words.

Here’s my take on that interview. By scapegoating individual judges, the Kennel Club deftly avoids undermining the idea that purebred dogs may be perfected via beauty contests. After all, a competent show judge should be able to gauge a dog’s health and fitness just as easily as these independent veterinarians, right?

It’s not the system that’s broken, it’s not the bizarre dog show culture, and it’s certainly not the Kennel Club ethos. It’s just a few bad apples– a few blind or deluded individuals that somehow can’t tell a sick dog when they see one.

Other than that, everything’s fine.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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A few of you might remember a post from around two years ago regarding an obvious hoarding situation masquerading as a cat sanctuary. The post was titled WTF?, which should provide a clue as to my take on the matter.

According to the ASPCA, Caboodle Ranch was the subject of a year-long investigation culminating in last week’s arrest of its owner Craig Grant, and the removal of 700 cats from its premises.

Below is the fluff segment, posted on YouTube, that originally caught my attention.

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What a mug! No wonder the bulldog is so popular.

The New York Times published this article on bulldogs last week. Better late than never, as they say.

They really can be charming dogs, I admit. I know a whole bunch and do adore a number of them. It is also an inarguable fact that they make some of the most freakishly cute puppies on the face of the planet. But I nonetheless routinely caution against their acquisition, along with hoards of fellow dog trainers, for a multitude of reasons including heart, joint, and breathing problems, debilitating allergies, and short lifespans.

Examining the progress of the breed over the past century explains a lot. Below is an illustration from the NYT article depicting the evolution of the University of Georgia mascot “Uga”, followed by some photographs I found online.

A) Uga I, 1956-66. B) Uga III, 1972-81. C) Uga V, 1990-99. D) Uga VIII, 2010-11.

Original Yale mascot "Handsome Dan", 1889

bulldog c. 1913

Westminster Best in Show, 1913

Original Georgia mascot "Uga", 1956-1956

Westminster Best in Show, 1955

Handsome Dan XIV, descended from a top show champion, 1995

Uga VIII, dead at 2-yrs-old from lymphoma, 2011

Handsome Dan XVII, present

For a more in depth take on the NYT article, see this recent post at Pedigree Dogs Exposed.

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