Retiring Dog Training’s Single-Combat Warriors

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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  1. Cyn McCollum’s avatar

    Poser.

    Perfect.

    Reply

  2. Donna Soderstrom’s avatar

    Ruth, I agree with you overall.

    The one benefit from Cesar’s time in the spotlight has been to raise awareness of training, especially in home/ private lesson training for problem behaviors. He has fallen from his pinnacle, but in his heyday I took advantage of the proud Milan fans and used that interest as a hook to get buy in to solving behavior problems. (Prior to Milan, many dog owners only thought of the group class, be it a kennel club classes or a big box store class, while one on one training is needed for many behavior problems.).

    The other peripheral benefits from Cesar have been to bring men back into training. He also put value on dog’s need for exercise. And he reined in the infantilization of dogs – a big challenge as the big box pet stores sell Easter bonnets and frilly dresses for dogs.

    My favorite television personality to direct clients to as a role model, contemporary with the Dog Whisperer show, was Super Nanny, with Jo Frost. She really was calm and methodical. : >

    Was Cesar the Donald Trump of dog training? Lots of self promotion, glib solution and promises of quick fixes? America, beware.

    Reply

    1. Ruth Crisler’s avatar

      I agree regarding Millan’s upsides, which you outlined well. He inspired a lot of people to consult trainers for help with behavior problems. In fact, I still get referrals now and again through his website (not sure how, but must be an awfully circuitous route). I rarely talk about him with clients, though, even those that bring him up. The average pet owner is blissfully unaware of the profound difference between what you or I do, and what Cesar does. No reason to point it out.

      Reply

  3. Renee Hall’s avatar

    spot on and wonderfully written. Brava Ruth!

    Reply

  4. Ruth Crisler’s avatar

    Donna, in answer to your Trump comment, I think they both are.

    If the current circus that is the Republican primary contest teaches us anything, isn’t it that when a group of people feel sufficiently embattled, and someone with agency and charisma (or maybe just a TV show) steps up and pledges to fight for them, they don’t examine their resume or behavior at all closely.

    Reply

    1. Robert Hudson’s avatar

      Wow really, you are turning this discussion POLITICAL? seriously?

      Reply

  5. Robert Hudson’s avatar

    “Balanced training” is yet another confusing label that I have not heard before. I have heard rant after rant from trainers on the internet against Milan for years now calling his methods “force training”, “dominance training” “archaic dog training” and the like. The people doing the rants usually refer to themselves as “force free” trainers, “positive reinforcement training” “praise and reward” based training… Everyone I hear on the side against Milan is dead set against any sort of punishment, fear, or dominance based training, and claims the “leader of the pack” mentality is complete BS, and some claiming the behavior does not even exist in wolves.

    And yet I have discovered that this dominance/leader of the pack approach is not unique to Milan and seems to be widely supported and taught by some credited dog training behavior schools.

    With Stillwell on the other hand, until this incident I have never heard one single negative comment about her from the training community. Nor have I ever heard her described as a “TV personality”. Nor have I ever heard that she never worked as a trainer in England before getting a TV show. That seems ridiculous, but since you said it, it must be true. She has never subscribed to any sort of force of dominance training, making her the darling of those who target Milan. I have heard nothing but praise about her. Now all of a sudden she is the villain.

    I am part of the pet media, so I am exposed to much more of what’s being said than the average person, but I am not a trainer. Like the rest of the public, I am an outsider looking in and all of this is very confusing. I do not know who is right and who is wrong. Who is a good trainer and who is not. I talk to lots of trainers for my radio show and web sites, but I have to take them on their word. Personally, what all of this has done for me is made me very unlikely to bring my dog to ANY trainer for fear of wasting my money.

    Reply

    1. Viatecio’s avatar

      I’m more amused that you slag Ruth for going political when you openly admit that, for years, you have not done any research on your callers’ opinions (since you take them all at their word, right?). You have no facts to guide your own words because if your followers, who have their own biases.

      Your job puts you in a position where it is better to be informed so you can guide your programs and have honest, insightful discussions and debates with your callers. To paint yourself as a blank and unimpressionable slate despite significant time spent talking with people who are willing to give facts, opinions, cases (or at least their versions and interpretations thereof) puts you at a disadvantage in any field.

      Ruth’s writing about “balance” as she defines it would be a good start before reading this and trying to paint either teevee trainer in the right or wrong.

      Reply

    2. Ruth Crisler’s avatar

      Robert, I’m a little confused by your comment, to be honest, but I do agree it’s hard to know where to turn for quality training advice these days. And I don’t blame you for finding dog trainer politics confusing.

      Terms like “force-free” and “balanced” are largely marketing jargon. They might give you some insight into a trainer’s ideology, but don’t reveal a whole lot beyond that, including whether a given trainer is any good at what he or she purports to do.

      You might want to familiarize yourself with the major trainer organizations (APDT, IACP, IAABC, NADOI), certifications, and sport/obedience titles. But the fact is, there is no universal gold standard in the area of pet dog training. Nor are there any barriers to the profession, since states don’t license dog us.

      If peering behind the curtain of dog training TV shows and politics has deterred you from seeking professional training or behavioral support in future, I don’t know what to say. If it’s caused you to be just a little more skeptical, that’s probably a good thing.

      Reply

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