Cesar Millan

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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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I am a balanced trainer. I use a wide range of tools and approaches as I see fit, and have no moral or ethical qualms with using punishment skillfully and responsibly to meet training goals. I view dog training pragmatically, as a matter of choosing the optimal path for each dog/client team, respectful of individual needs and preferences, but not bound up in specious notions of self-perfection or personal growth.

I do not see dog training as a contest between me and the dog, and have come to bitterly resent the appropriation of the term “balanced” by trainers whose attitude toward dogs is essentially combative.

Forcing unnecessary confrontations is no more “balanced” than a head halter is “positive”. It’s also nothing like genuine leadership, which involves inspiring trust and respect, providing guidance when needed, setting fair boundaries, and creating stability.

Nowhere is this more important than in the context of working with aggression, yet one still hears trainers refer to gloving up and doing battle in such cases, as if resolving aggression issues was simply a matter of going mano a mano.

I tend to attribute this mindset to the combined influence of dog training as television drama, our natural fascination with aggression and its traditional role as a professional proving ground, and the old school myth that one need bring aggression out in order to address it.

Of course, most balanced trainers are not actively looking for a fight. But some are clearly a little too eager to prove they can win a confrontation, or maybe just too comfortable in that arena to bother avoiding one. I would have to put Cesar Milan in the latter category, as his obvious confidence in his physical prowess seems to tempt him into triggering aggression fairly casually.  And in balanced trainer circles, one frequently encounters those who seem to be courting aggression unnecessarily, and, in some cases, suffering the consequences.

Now, for the record, I’m not suggesting that every trainer who’s ever been bitten was asking for it.

I’ve been bitten a number of times, once trying to get a tennis ball away from a
bull mastiff at a dog park before she swallowed it, once breaking up a fight,
once leashing up a kennel-crazy dogo-mix, once in the leg (redirected
aggression), and once because I reflexively reached for the collar of an
aggressive Rottweiler in a moment of confusion (he’d just gotten loose from
another handler). Those were all legit bites requiring medical attention. The
last one was probably four years ago. But none occurred in a training context.

The only time I’ve been bitten while training a dog was around two years ago, when I was nipped by a year-old cattle dog with zero bite inhibition. (Before anyone starts an argument over the meaning of bite inhibition, let me note that this cattle dog was not protesting anything, just executing a Touch command.) I honestly don’t remember if I needed a band aid, but I know I didn’t take it personally.

Again, good trainers can occasionally get bitten in the course of training. But good trainers are damn careful. They not only aren’t looking for a fight, but know how to avoid stumbling into one. As to how that’s accomplished, there are clearly more ways than one. I can only speak for myself, and don’t consider myself an expert, despite a reasonably good track record.

First, I don’t generally use muzzles in training contexts. I own a bunch and use them occasionally while socializing an aggressive dog. I’m not saying it’s wrong to use muzzles while training, just saying I don’t. They interfere with the dog’s demonstration of natural body language, and cause most to feel nervous and/or compromised, potentially inhibiting normal behavior. They can also embolden the handler to take greater risks, as with pushing a dog too close to–or over–threshold. As a friend who worked as a motorcycle messenger once expounded, “I ride a lot more carefully when not wearing a helmet.” Personally, I don’t find helmets to be an issue. But a muzzle is a game changer, and it’s a game I don’t care to play.

Now I will employ a second line, either in conjunction with a second handler, or a tethered to a wall or post. That’s kept me safe in cases where I suspected the dog might come up the leash. And at least in the colder months, I’ve been known to strategically don my trusty pair of Carhartt overalls, just in case.

I don’t train aggressive dogs on psychotropic meds, and I don’t train aggressive
dogs I can’t read, or feel genuinely uncomfortable with. In at least two cases,
that’s meant instructing the client without handling the dog myself at all. In
one case, it meant referring the client out. That dog should probably have been
euthanized (and maybe has been).

I’m not suggesting I read all dogs with ease, by the way, only that I happen to be able to read most of the ones that present to me as clients. There are frankly certain breeds I see so infrequently, that I would hesitate to work with a genuinely aggressive one. (Akitas come to mind.) Bully breeds, on the other hand, are my bread and butter, so I’ve had a lot more practice reading them (and they’re just easier, too, I suspect).

Mostly, I train the dog at whatever pace he needs, in order to keep him
fundamentally on board with the project. That means keeping a sharp eye on the
threshold for a bite at any given moment, and maintaining a keen awareness of
the dog’s overall stress level. Sometimes, it means breaking lessons down into
very tiny steps, so as not to risk confusion or frustration. Sometimes (not
often) it means backing out of an exercise as gracefully as possible, and
revisiting it more carefully or intelligently just a little later on.

I still remember one session with a two-year-old American bulldog mix, newly enrolled in a board/train program. He’d been impressively responsive to a number of introductory exercises, seemed quite enthusiastic, and took the occasional correction totally in stride…until I decided to review his down command. He visibly tensed and braced himself. I went slowly, knowing I had unwittingly trespassed onto precarious ground. I’d given the cue, and felt obliged to enforce it. But just as he averted his gaze in the manner of a dog preparing to bite, I made the call to abort the exercise, returning briefly to something less stressful and ending on a high note, rather than a trip to the emergency room.

Not so long after that, I found myself listening to a young enthusiastic trainer explaining how she’d been bitten in the course of demonstrating an exercise with a client dog. She’d gotten herself into an intractable situation in the course of enforcing a command, and wound up the story with the words, “But you know, you can’t back down. You gotta win, right?”

Sure, if you call that winning.

I acknowledge skillful training can include conflict between dog and handler. But I’m against courting such conflicts
(whether intentionally or carelessly) or rushing headlong into them.

Training should be a collaboration, not between equals, but between parties that
share mutual respect. Sometimes, I think that respect is expressed by a trainer
backing off, and coming back with a better strategy, rather than coming back
with more gear.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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I’d like to say a few words about Cesar Millan.

I appreciate his focus on exercise, structure, and leadership. And I can’t get through an episode of The Dog Whisperer without shouting at the TV.

Truth is I don’t indulge very often, despite the professional interest I presumably should have. And I do shout at other TV trainers, notably Victoria “Why-let-never-owning-a-dog-get-in-the-way-of-a brilliant-career?” Stillwell, and that Canadian fellow whose modus operendi seems to involve an intensely creepy home-search. But Cesar’s overwhelming popularity and unofficial status as the patron saint of balanced trainers earns him special consideration.

Many dog trainers will tell you that Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer. I’ve said it myself. Cesar has said it himself. But to non-trainers, that assertion comes across as a nonsensical cop-out, and maybe it is. What is certain is that as long as he keeps showing up on Animal Planet National Geographic Channel doing something that for all the world is indistinguishable from dog training, real-life trainers will be called upon to address Cesar’s message, methods, and towering success.

I usually begin by pointing out that Cesar is not so much instructive as inspirational. He presents a compelling example of how one might–or even ought to–live with dogs. It is an entertaining illustration of what is possible (and also occasionally of what is not, even for him). It is great television. It is good business.

It is not a training method.

A method is systematic and reliable, if not universally applicable. Socrates had a method. Lee Strasberg had a method. Bill Koehler had a method. Cesar draws on something closer to a style. His style works for him, at least by and large, but that success depends heavily on a particular dynamic existing between himself and the dog (not to mention skilled editors and a dynamite publicist). In its absence, Cesar’s way yields less reliable results, and few of his signature techniques remain advisable.

A sound method, by contrast, should function independent of extraordinary powers of calm assertion and physical prowess. Mind you, both help a great deal, and may in fact be prerequisites in some cases where the stakes are especially high. But they are arguably more gifts than skills, and thus challenging to teach, develop, or codify.

I know, Cesar doesn’t train, he rehabilitates. So are we talking apples and oranges? Charting new territory? Or just flying blind?

I find that rehabilitating aggressive dogs is less linear than straight obedience training, and that a lot may be accomplished without teaching formal skills. I still call it dog training, and suggest method is no less important in these cases. In fact, every aspect of dealing with dangerous dogs argues strongly in favor of a reliable, systematic approach.

The fact some number of exceptional people are capable of going it alone into the void, relying on instinct to carry the day, and coming out unscathed, does not persuade me of the existence of an alternate model. But it is sound entertainment to be sure.

Many experienced trainers take cases similar to those featured on The Dog Whisperer, but it’s rare that made-for-TV drama ensues. Real-life trainers are mostly not showmen, but rather engineers. We lay a solid foundation and build skills overtop. We teach first and apply second. It’s less sexy, takes longer than an hour, and is rarely televised. It is methodical, and we generally do let you try it at home.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

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