Reprinted from Esquire |
The Dog Whisperer Should Just Shut Up
By Curtis Pesmen
For Cesar Millan, the goateed toughguy, best-selling author, and cable-TV star who throws down pit bulls, it's time for new rules. And for countless dog owners, dog lovers, or stray humans skittish at the big-ass Doberman mix approaching them in the park, it's more than a matter of cult personality. We want our damn dogs to behave, and we're afraid of losing flesh - or of having to surrender "untrainable" dogs to the pound. Problem is, Cesar's ways, experts say, aren't the best ways for dogs. Or for us. Yes, yes, his alphadog training tips make good television and may provide fast results. But what happens when the show's over?
"My position is, Millan is a poseur," Claudia Kawczynska, editor in chief of The Bark magazine, says of the ex-dog groomer. "He is a hairdresser, not the real guy in terms of being an expert. He doesn't have credentials. And it is shocking to me how easily people are ready to fall for it."
With approximately two million strays euthanized in the U. S. each year, Kawczynska sees reason to worry: "He is doing a disservice to the real experts in the field," she says. "He gives quick fixes, but they are not going to be a solution for most families with problem dogs."
Ken Ramirez, an animal behaviorist and the chief animal trainer at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, believes everyday dog owners need to learn how to better observe and understand their dogs' behavior. Then they can reward the behavior they want and either ignore, avoid, or distract them from unwanted behavior. It's reinforcement versus enforcement. While both he and Millan believe the average dog owner - as well as dog - needs better training, Ramirez remains wary of instructors who yearn to make animals learn through tough-love techniques, or "aversives." "I may teach some of the methods Cesar uses," says Ramirez, who also trains bomb-sniffing dogs and their handlers, "but only as a last resort."
Millan fancies himself a faux wolf by practicing - and promoting - the alpha-dog theory of training, whereby he "joins the pack" and gains dominance. These alphatraining-yanking-learning techniques (in theory) then transfer swiftly to the dogs' owners. All of which makes Millan today a solid B-list Hollywood personality.
"The cause of most behavioral problems is miscommunication and not dominance issues," says Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., associate professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin and author of For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend. Either dogs don't know what their owners want, she says, or we inadvertently have taught them to do the wrong thing. "Most behavioral problems can be solved by owners learning how to teach a dog what it is they want, by using the science of how animals learn."
Yet the showmanship continues. On Millan's Dog Whisperer, he goes house to bad-dog house, jerking leashes, shaking scruffs of necks, and throwing the occasional kick - in a wolfmanto-wolfpack fashion, except that the dogs aren't truly fooled. They don't believe he's a dog. What's worse, says Janis Bradley, a San Francisco trainer and author of the helpfully titled Dogs Bite, the dogs often fall into a helpless state Millan calls "calm submission," but what trained behaviorists see as possible chronic stress or "shutdown," which can lead to a dog eventually fighting back.
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