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?
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.
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.