“All the scientist creates in a fact is the language in which he enunciates it.” – Henri Poincare
Any positive reinforcement trainer will tell you that ‘you kill more bees with honey than vinegar’. In other words, offer positive feedback and watch desirable behavior increase in frequency; sling mud and you’ll see what isundesirable rise up. I wonder then, why the behavioral experts who so vehemently disapprove of Cesar Millan would attempt to “train him out of ” his ways using punishment as their go-to method. If saving dogs from (perceived) harm is truly the mission of the movement against “dog whispering”, why not employ methods that are strictly positive in dealing with the perceived problem? Could eliciting a response of ‘learned helplessness’ be the real goal? Attempt to break the spirit of a successful “newcomer” by claiming he is reviving disproven, antiquated ways from the dark recesses of history when in fact, he is bringing to light something that before him had yet to be illuminated? There are millions upon millions of people who proclaim that life for them and their dogs has changed for the better in light of Cesar Millan’s teachings and techniques. It seems very insulting to assume that all of these people simply “don’t know better”, or have blindly bought into the devious scam of an illusionist. I see something altogether different, and that is an historical pattern of “schools of thought” vying for the position of Pack Leader within academic circles.
While Cesar Millan is the present focal point of controversy, the debate between behaviorism – and ideologies that threaten to reveal its limitations – is long-standing. Modern day positive reinforcement dog training evolved from Skinnerian roots, and has changed very little at the core of its ideology. Skinner maintained that “behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences”, and that as the consequences contingent on behavior are investigated, more and more “they are taking over the explanatory functions previously assigned to personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, purposes, and intentions” (Chomsky, 1971). Skinner’s confidence that scientific inquiry into behavior would continue to strip away the existence of autonomous intention seemed unshakable. Until he attempted to cram the dynamic innateness of language acquisition into a Skinner box, at which point the foundation of his logic began to crack. Actually, the logic itself isn’t flawed; the fallacy is in professing that logic alone explains the “internal state” that Cesar Millan refers to as, simply, energy. “Dogs use energy to communicate. Energy is what I call beingness. It is who and what we are in every moment” (Cesar’s Way, web).
Inarguably, B.F. Skinner sought to eradicate words like “beingness” and “energy” from the vernacular he so carefully ascribed to behavior. These words implied the existence of emotional states in both human and animal, which would not fit inside the confines of laboratory conditions. A ‘technology of behavior is available’, Skinner argued, which would more successfully reduce the aversive consequences of behavior…and maximize the achievements of which the (human) organism is capable. But the “defenders of freedom oppose its use” (Skinner, p. 125). Undoubtedly Skinner would’ve seen Cesar Millan as a defender of freedom – as do I, which is why his principles ring so true.
When the intellectual quandary of language acquisition arose, Skinner grasped desperately to keep the abstractions of “beingness” under a tightly closed lid. But alas, Nature is messy and spills over. Try as science might to contain it, the vast scope of “freedom and dignity” that arises innately from within the experience of living, behaving, and “being” will always be one step ahead of our ability to objectively explain it. And, just as the science of cognitive psychology evolved to bring internal states of mentalism into the realm of scientific validity, the emerging, interdisciplinary science of Anthrozoology aims to understand both human and animal behavior in context of how “human beingness” relates to, affects, and is in part defined by, the beingness of other animal species. The human-canine relationship is at the heart of this developing field. According to the Animals & Society Institute, Human-Animal Studies (HAS) is a rapidly growing interdisciplinary field that examines the complex and multidimensional relationships between humans and other animals. HAS comprises work in several disciplines in the social sciences (sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science) the humanities (history, literary criticism, philosophy, geography), and the natural sciences (ethology, veterinary medicine, animal welfare science, and comparative psychology) (http://www.animalsandsociety.org/pages/human-animal-studies). Being that the modern science of dog behavior is so focused on the co-evolutionary influence our respective species have upon one another, I imagine that what critics today claim are wrong or “anecdotal observations” of Cesar Millan’s about the influence of a person’s energy on the behavior of his dog, are actually the scientific data of tomorrow.
Any whose contributions to a well-established field challenge its hard-won tenure in the “lay consciousness” faces severe opposition. One such revolutionary is Dr. Jane Goodall. In 1960, Jane was in her early twenties when the man known as the father of anthropology, Louis Leakey, selected her and two other young women with no formal education – Dian Fossey and Beruti Galdikas – to venture to Africa, observe apes in the wild, and report back on what they saw. Leakey chose these three specifically for the absence of academia’s influence, which kept them unbiased, and unlikely to have expectations related to a predetermined hypothesis.
The successful objectification of behavioral observation was not merely a breakthrough in a field, it marked the foundation for a field of its kind to exist in the first place. It is not surprising then that when Jane Goodall – a young woman who had never heard the word ethology when she unwittingly helped to reshape it – was inserted into the Ph.D. program in ethology at Cambridge University in the early sixties, she was ridiculed and cast out by the academic elite. Said Jane, “It was a bit shocking to be told I had done everything wrong. Everything.” (David Quammen, National Geographic Magazine, 2010). She writes in National Geographic Magazine, “I believed that having a degree of empathy for my subjects could help me detect slight changes in their mood or attitudes and provide insights into their complex social processes. I think time has proved me right.”
Critics accused Jane Goodall of scientific sacrilege for her heart-centered approach, by which she ascribed personalities to wild chimpanzees, and wrote about the exchanges of energy between them and her as they accepted her into their community across species boundaries. But it was exactly who she was and how she did her work that led to her allowance into the chimpanzee colony by its patriarch, whom she called David Greybeard. And it was because of her acceptance into their world that “the definition of man” is what it is today. Jane Goodall may not have had the “seal of approval” from the academic elite back then, but in trusting instinct to inform intellect, she understood more than could be expressed in the confining language of science.
Dr. Goodall’s work was instrumental in shifting paradigms away from the mechanics of animal behavior to the far “messier” internal dimensions of animal life and relationships. As Cesar Millan explains dogs’ behavior in the context of their unique canine-human-family-packs, Dr. Goodall exposed chimpanzee behavior as seen in the interrelationships of one wild chimpanzee colony. Similarly, Cesar Millan explains dogs’ behavior as being inextricably interrelated with their “packs” – or modern day social groups comprised of human family members and other animals. Behaviorism states that it is an animal’s environment that predicts its behavior, but “positive reinforcement training” does not take into account the role of other dogs and “family members” on the behavior of each individual in the group.
So much of the anti-Cesar Millan rhetoric boils down to semantics. For example, people jump all over his use of the word “alpha”. Simply stated, the alpha male or female is the member of a group of social animals that holds the highest rank. This is what CM means when he talks about a pack, and about holding the leadership role within your pack. If human beings aren’t the “alpha” members in a family pack that involves both people and pets, everyone is in trouble. The animal in this position within the social system may have preferential access to mates, food or space. The term was popularized with regard to the gray wolf by L. David Mech in 1970, (and later disavowed by Mech himself, who said his observations of captive wolf groups comprised of unrelated members wouldn’t accurately reflect the behavior of wild wolves or domesticated dogs). What he discovered instead was that the alpha members of a wolf pack are a breeding pair, and they and their offspring form a pack. Mech said of gray wolves, “In our experience, the most usual context of dominance behavior in free-ranging wolves is that of parent to offspring” (Mech, David and Cluff, Dean, Prolonged Intensive Dominance Behavior Between Gray Wolves, 2010). That being said, Cesar Millan’s metaphor of dog+human family members = pack makes perfect sense.
A study from 2008 out of the U. of Florida suggests that wolves outperform dogs in following human social cues under certain conditions. “Although earlier studies suggested that wolves could not follow even simple cues such as tapping or proximal pointing, later research indicated that highly socialized hand-reared wolves could find food under easier conditions, such as when a container indicating the correct location was touched by a human (Udell, Dorey and Clive, Wolves outperform dogs in following human social cues, Animal Behaviour, 2008). While this does not prove that wolves and dogs are “the same”, it does suggest a correlation between the effects of environment and rearing conditions on canines – wolves and dogs alike – which might imply that the social structure comprised of a human-canine family, or “interdependent interspecies pack” must be analyzed by a different set of guidelines altogether than wild wolves, captive wolves, wild domesticated dogs or domesticated dogs as independent groups. Because humans and dogs have co-evolved since the “caveman hunted alongside the wolf”, our respective evolutionary paths have been inextricably linked and undeniably one has influenced the other in fundamental ways. It only makes sense that CM’s metaphor of people-and-dog-family-pack will be the hybrid human-canine social structure that Anthrozoologists will soon define in scientific terms.
Contrary to the misinformed claims that CM is a domineering authoritarian overseer of his pack, he teaches us about calm-assertive leadership. Any regular viewer of Dog Whisperer knows that e-collars, alpha rolls and dominance plays in response to aggressive dogs in attack mode comprise a very small percentage of CM’s dealings with dogs. According to the infamous bell curve, there will always be extreme cases on either end of a spectrum, and while 100% positive methods will work in 96% of cases, those fringe 4% will require the use of alternative methods. In response to misrepresentations about his “signature methods”, CM and the producers of Dog Whisperer did a show-by-show breakdown, watching hundreds of hours of television and counting when a particular technique was used in any given episode. They examined in detail 317 separate cases of problem dog behavior across 140 episodes, and charted which of CM’s dog rehabilitation methods and tools were used across the board.
Critics may be surprised to learn that CM never once introduced a prong collar, introduced a choke chain in only 1% of cases and an e-collar in 3% of cases. In 17% of cases, the owners chose to use a prong collar. Cesar teaches that any and all of these items are tools which, if used correctly, can be effective. But that it is the energy with which we communicate calm-assertive leadership to our dogs that makes the real difference. Calm-assertive leadership was discussed in 98% of episodes, discussion of body language in 91% of episodes, the importance of exercise in 72% of episodes, the power of using other dogs to help balance the troubled dog’s energy – or what CM calls the “power of the pack” was covered in 63% of episodes, and positive reinforcement was used in 67% of episodes!
Those who misunderstand CM claim that CM looks at dogs as though they are “in an ego-driven race to become the leaders of the free-world”, and that “it is only when we misinterpret canine behavior that we start to think dogs must be trying to achieve a higher rank than us.” (Stilwell, Train Your Dog Positively, p.21). CM teaches that dogs must respect humans as “pack leaders” in order to maintain structure in a household. Whether one is a mother or father, the President of the United States, a dog trainer, or a dog’s human guardians, leadership qualities are obviously qualities one should procure and project to those who depend on them for guidance, protection and direction. “To positively influence your dog’s behavior, you must always begin by being a positive, confident, calm and assertive human. This is the definition of true leadership” (Cesar’s Rules).
Let us look at the terminology CM uses for which he is so harshly criticized in terms of parenting. Three themes can be identified in assessments of parenting style over the past 50 years (Skinner, Johnson & Snyder, 2005). The first tenet of a motivational relationship between parent and child is love and affection. Many who denounce CM and call him cruel are very wrong in their estimation that he withholds affection. He simply instructs people to give affection at the appropriate times, so as to reinforce a calm state of mind. This is akin in positive reinforcement to ignoring behavior that is undesirable while giving attention to that which is desirable.
The second theme is parent provision of structure. Referred to in work on discipline and authoritarian parenting, this theme suggests that clear and consistent expectations and limit setting are advantageous to children, especially in terms of their internalization of rules and the development of self-efficacy (Skinner, Johnson and Snyder, Six Dimensions of Parenting: A Motivational Model, Parenting: Science and Practice, V. 5, No. 2, April-June, 2005). CM says the role of the pack leader is to set “rules, boundaries and limitations”. Dogs need to know that their pack leader is clearly setting the rules, boundaries and limitations for their life both inside and outside the house. – Anger, aggression, or abuse toward the dog will not establish you as pack leader; an angry, aggressive leader is not in control. Calm-assertive energy and daily, consistent leadership behavior will make enforcing the rules easier (Cesar Millan, Be The Pack Leader). In preeminent positive reinforcement trainer Dr. Sophia Yin’s “Program for developing leadership in humans and impulse control in dogs”, Dr. Yin says “you gain leadership by controlling all the resources that motivate the pet and requiring the pet willingly work for play, treats and pets instead of getting them for free” (Yin, Teaching Fido to Learn, loc 44 of 370/kindle book). Here, Dr. Yin uses terminology that alludes to an alpha wolf or other animal playing a dominant role in a group who controls the resources, and therefore creates order among pack members. Patricia McConnell says “the key is to understand that dogs will work to get something they want…make obedience relevant to life, so that your dog begins to learn: “Oh I see, the way to control my environment and get what I want is to do what she asks.” Cesar says essentially the same thing: “Waiting is another way that pack leaders assert their position. Puppies wait to eat, and adult dogs wait until the pack leader wants them to travel. Waiting is a form of psychological work for the dog. Domestication means dogs don’t need to hunt for food, but they can still work for it. Establish your position as pack leader by asking your dog to work” (Cesar Millan, Be The Pack Leader). CM talks about the critical importance of being the pack leader precisely so that your dog will not feel responsible for creating order out of chaos, and will understand what is expected of him, so that he can work to earn the resources you control.
The third theme is that of autonomy support, suggesting that better developmental outcomes accrue if parents (pack leaders) interact with children (dogs) in ways that do not compromise their freedom of expression or intrinsic motivation (Skinner, Johnson and Snyder, Six Dimensions of Parenting: A Motivational Model, Parenting: Science and Practice, V. 5, No. 2, April-June, 2005). While many dog trainers focus only on conditioning responses to human cues, CM stresses the importance of fulfilling your dog’s needs on the “animal” level, as well as the breed-specific level. Meaning, if you have a herding dog, that dog is hard-wired for running and corralling animals; it is in his blood. If you do not live on a farm with a flock of sheep, you will need to fulfill your dog’s genetically-ingrained needs by providing some outlet through which he can honor the “herding energy” within him. If it is not actual herding, he will likely suggest the dog does agility training. CM works with a lot of German shepherds, highly intelligent working dogs that need jobs in order to be fulfilled. When they are not fulfilled, and are therefore what CM calls imbalanced, they will redirect their energy counterproductively, into activities like digging, barking excessively, or fixating on shadows. CM says “Breeds were created for different reasons – some dogs were bred as companions, some as herders, and some as protectors. But each was bred to draw out and focus on desired instincts to create dogs that excelled at particular tasks. Although the animal and species aspect of dogs are common to all of them, breed can sometimes affect behavior, and it is also sometimes necessary to consider breed when working with a dog, whether just for training, by giving them an appropriate job, or in rehabilitation (Cesar Millan, Short Guide to a Happy Dog).
I relate these ideas of CM’s to the idea of encouraging individuality and freedom of expression in one’s children. In the parenting literature, support for autonomy extends beyond allowing children freedom of choice and expression to communicating genuine respect and deference, and encouraging children to actively discover, explore, and articulate their own views, goals and preferences (Skinner, Johnson, Snyder, 2005). Most importantly, labels like “positive” or “high quality” parenting typically include parenting that is not only warm but also high in structure and autonomy support. And an optimal parenting style (e.g. authoritative) is one that combines high structure and high autonomy support (Skinner, Johnson, Snyder, 2005). All of this being said, I believe most experts in parenting in concert with experts in canine behavior (in the context of a wolf pack being akin to a family group, with the mother and father wolf its leaders) would agree with CM’s formula for balance, fulfillment and pack leadership.
To hone Cesar’s methods, one must learn precisely that which cannot be taught in a classroom. Rather, becoming a calm-assertive pack leader begins with a long, hard look in the mirror. It involves taking daily inventory of what energy you are projecting, not only to your dog, but to the world. It is more a spiritual practice with daily mistakes born of simply “being human”, while always striving to maintain balance, and get better at your job as guide, teacher, parent and trainer. It is something that must be brought to life from within a person’s conscious mind, a form of controlling one’s own behavior in order to see positive effects in the outward behavior of one’s dog. I, for one, begin again each morning with the goal of calm-assertive, self-assured, effective and efficient leadership in mind. And I end each day reflecting on where I’ve grown, and where I still need work. Ultimately, as human beings, our very best is all we can do. And luckily for us, our dogs see in us the pack leader we should all see in ourselves.
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