The Problem with Packs. Why the “pack mentality” for dogs is increasingly out of vogue. If we’re not pack leaders, then, what do we call ourselves? Pet parents? I like this blogger’s suggestion of being a “camp counselor” for her dogs. (Fearful Dogs’ Blog)
Horse and Dog Play Together Beautifully. This is so sweet and heartwarming. Inter-species friends are probably my all-time favorite phenomenon, and these two look like they may be Best Friends Forever. (Pawesome)
Self-proclaimed “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan is arguably America’s most well-known dog trainer, thanks in large part to his TV show, “The Dog Whisperer,” on the National Geographic Channel. I have watched his show many times myself, interested in seeing how this well-known man was purportedly rehabilitating problem dogs.
When I started my project of researching dogs, many people told me that I should read Cesar Millan’s books and watch his show. I see dog owners making that “pssh” sound and poking their dogs in the side like Millan does on his show. The general dog-owning public seems very fond of Millan and his methods.
But I’ll be honest. Based on what I had seen from his show, I was reluctant to read his books. This is because I didn’t really see Millan as a trainer. I couldn’t divine what his actual training techniques were, apart from physical corrections and murky statements about “calm, assertive energy.”
Having started my dog research among other positive training books, I quickly realized that Millan is not held in high regard among behaviorists and positive trainers. The more I watched his show, the more I realized that they were right. Millan, while well intentioned, advocates negative reinforcement and physical punishment techniques to an untrained general public.
I decided to read Cesar’s Way because I felt that I should at least read what he had to say before I completely dismissed him. My friend Liz gave me a copy of his book. I read it quickly, as it was not difficult to get through.
On the whole, I was impressed with Millan’s rags-to-riches story. He came to America as an undocumented immigrant and worked his way up from a car washer to a dog trainer. He got his big break when he was picked up by Jada Pinkett Smith, who sought his help in rehabilitating the family rottweilers. It is a nice story and as the reader, you are pulling for him to succeed and beat the odds. He certainly did.
The one other thing I liked about this book was Millan’s emphasis on exercise. Americans themselves don’t exercise nearly enough, and so it’s a no-brainer that our dogs probably aren’t getting any exercise, either. Cesar’s Way devotes a whole chapter to the importance of “The Walk” and the daily communion with your dog outdoors. I am a huge proponent of this idea and the notion of walking your dog being a time of companionship and communication certainly resonated with me.
But my admiration for Millan’s training recommendations ended there.
One of my main issues with Millan’s philosophy is that he is constantly comparing dogs in America to dogs in Mexico. Dogs in Mexico roamed free in packs, leash-less, without any training. I don’t deny that that sounds like an ideal life for any dog, but that kind of lifestyle is simply not feasible for canines in 21st-century America. We have leash laws. Dogs need to be neutered. They need to be trained how to walk on streets and greet people in public. Millan’s Dog Psychology Center in California is a nice idea, but it is thoroughly unhelpful to anyone who doesn’t live with a roaming pack of 30 dogs (which I imagine is most people). It’s nice that he’s able to make the dogs get along in a massive pack, but that is not how those dogs will be living on a daily basis when they get back home. Trying to make American dogs into Mexican dogs is not the solution. But that is what it seems that Millan keeps trying to do.
My second issue with Millan is his unabashed use and promotion of negative reinforcement training and physical punishments. In Cesar’s Way, he acknowledges that he is unpopular among positive trainers for his reliance on these dated methods, but he insists that they are effective. He even devotes a section of the book that recommends doing an “alpha roll” on a dominant dog, which absolutely floored me. I thought this medieval form of punishment had disappeared in the dark ages of dog training, but apparently not. This is one of the real dangers of Millan’s popularity, in my opinion. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, famed veterinarian and writer, had this to say about Cesar Millan:
Cesar Millan’s methods are based on flooding and punishment. The results, though immediate, will be only transitory. His methods are misguided, outmoded, in some cases dangerous, and often inhumane. You would not want to be a dog under his sphere of influence. The sad thing is that the public does not recognize the error of his ways. My college thinks it is a travesty. We’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years.
— Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Behavioral Clinic at Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
Another issue I have with Millan is his reliance on the old-fashioned paradigm of dominance and pack mentality. Millan would have us believe that our dogs are out to get us and always looking for an opportunity to usurp us. I simply don’t believe this is true, and I’m not the only one. Cognitive researcher and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin wrote directly about how Millan’s techniques are outdated and simply wrong in her book Animals Make Us Human. Dogs do not live in packs, Grandin points out, and it’s a misinformed way to think about a dog’s social unit. Rather, like wolves, dogs live in families where parents care for the pups in a partnership. Treating dogs like they are obsessed with dominance is a grave injustice to our canine companions. For more on this, I highly recommend an article published in 2006 in the New York Times by author Mark Derr, “Pack of Lies.”
The good thing I will say about Millan is that he has been successful in raising awareness of how we have failed our dogs in training and teaching. The bad thing is that the methods he advocates are archaic, cruel, and generally unhelpful to most people. But don’t just take my word for it: See a collection of qualified opinions about how we need to move away from this “Dog Whisperer” at the website Beyond Cesar Millan.
What do you think about Cesar Millan? Is he awesome? Overrated? Misunderstood?
I recognized Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s name from the many book blurbs she wrote for the other dog books I was reading. I’d heard The Hidden Life of Dogs mentioned as a “much-loved” text, one woman’s insight into the “mysterious” lives of canines. It was short and so I thought, what the heck, I’ll read it.
The book is written in a memoir-like style and covers Thomas’s years of life with a large pack of Siberian huskies and one dingo (where this dingo came from, I don’t know, since Thomas lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and made no mention of ever visiting the Australian bush). Thomas spent time on Baffin Island observing wolves and her admiration for wolves comes through in her interactions with her dogs. Throughout the book, she constantly uses “wolf language” to describe how her dogs interact: They’re operating in a pack, there’s a hierarchy, there’s general suspicion toward humans, etc. Even her attraction to the husky breed indicates this desire of hers to keep wolves as pets.
Early on, we are introduced to the stud-bolt husky Misha. Misha is the celebrated wandering warrior, the Aragorn, if you will, of this story. Misha comes to live with Thomas and quickly makes it clear that he doesn’t want to stay in her fence. He nimbly scales the 6-foot wall and disappears. He escapes and wanders for hours and is often gone for days. Thomas says she would get calls from people six miles away saying they’d found her husky.
Though she lived in busy, urban Cambridge, Thomas made no efforts to curtail Misha’s adventures and instead decided to follow him on his treks. What she discovered was that Misha had an unusually excellent internal GPS system. He could always find his way home. He never got lost. He navigated Cambridge traffic like a seasoned pro and was never hit by a car (which seems a miracle in itself). Her time tracking Misha led her to bring other huskies into her home and within a few years, she had a veritable pack on her hands.
The part about following Misha intrigued me, but after those journeys, Thomas’s narrative and observations failed to maintain my interest and my respect. Thomas doesn’t seem to think that her dogs required any training or obedience–she prefers that they live according to their natural instincts. This is a nice idea–if you’re the type of person who can put up with 10 unruly dogs in your house. Thankfully for her sanity, Thomas appears to have been this type of person.
But that’s not even what bothered me the most. What really irked me was Thomas’s lack of care and concern for her dogs’ sexual health. None of her 10 dogs get neutered or spayed, not even the two pugs who lived indoors. So, naturally, puppies happen. Thomas writes about at least four litters that her unsupervised female dogs endure.
The most upsetting story that Thomas includes is an afternoon spent walking the neighborhood with her little dingo, Viva. Viva is only a few months old at the time and had just entered her first heat. Thomas says she was walking slowly with Viva when, out of nowhere, an English springer spaniel comes bounding over the fence and attaches himself to Viva. Viva is scared, Thomas writes, cries through the whole experience and never indicated that she wanted this dog’s amorous attention. “I realized dogs could rape,” Thomas concludes after this little anecdote–as if she was free of blame from the entire incident. On the contrary, Thomas is the only one who should feel guilty here. First, she never spayed her dog. Second, she had the idiocy to take her dog, unleashed, on a walk around the neighborhood while the dog was in her first heat. Third, she just stood there and watched while her dog got raped. The springer, though aggressive, was just doing what dogs do. Thomas, who should have had some foresight as the rational animal in this situation, appears neglectful, irresponsible, and downright stupid.
Viva has her puppies when she is just a puppy herself, just over 8 months old, and suffers through labor, as Thomas depicts it. Viva does not seem to be an instinctively competent mother, something which Thomas pities her for. Another bitch in the house, Koki, gets impregnated by another one of Thomas’s huskies around this same time. Koki is more confident, Thomas asserts, and a higher-ranking female in the household. One day, Thomas comes home and finds the house eerily still. None of the dogs will greet her. She goes upstairs and she finds Koki in Viva’s litter, holding one of Viva’s pups in her mouth. All but one of Viva’s pups are dead. Koki, apparently, is responsible for the deaths of these puppies. This is a horrific incident–and again, one that could have been avoided if Thomas had been a responsible dog owner. Instead, she justifies Koki’s infanticide with Koki’s belief that these lower-ranking puppies had to die so that her own puppies could succeed. I don’t know how I’d characterize Koki’s motives in killing another dog’s puppies, but I feel like this is a stretch without any evidence.
In a related point, my other big issue with this book is Thomas’s gross anthropomorphism of her dogs. I suppose this can only be expected, since Thomas is herself a respected anthropologist. But the motives and emotions she assigns to her dogs are almost always human motives and emotions and impossible to prove. She rarely gives any supporting behavioral or physical evidence that this emotion is, conclusively, what the dog was thinking or planning; rather, she just “knows.” I find this highly suspect.
Toward the end of the book, Thomas and her family move to a spacious property in Virginia where she builds a large, fenced enclosure for her remaining pack to live outdoors. She begins to lose daily contact with her dogs and, unsurprisingly, they become increasingly wild and wolf-like.
Thomas’s conclusion is that dogs don’t want or even necessarily need people in their lives. I think this is a ridiculous notion. The only reason Thomas reached this conclusion is because she was letting her dogs live like wolves by the end of the book. Of course they weren’t acting like dogs; dogs, as we know them, are defined by their dependence upon and relationship with humans. Not so for wolves–or, apparently, for Thomas’s wolf-like pack of huskies. Wolves don’t need people just like Thomas’s dogs didn’t need people. These animals were not acting like dogs. They dug an enormous den and tunnel system for their private use, bred as they pleased, and generally ignored Thomas’s existence.
She turned her dogs back into wolves and then somehow claims to have mystic insight into the lives of dogs. Hardly. The only thing Thomas uncovered was that, if left to their own devices, a pack of 10 huskies will devolve into animals with wolf-like natures and behaviors. They will be barely recognizable as dogs, because, for all intensive purposes, they’re not really dogs anymore.
If it’s not already clear, I have little respect for Thomas as a dog owner and as an observer of canine behavior. I think she ran an interesting experiment with her dogs and drew some misapplied conclusions from that experiment. Were her dogs happy? Yes, I think so. But they weren’t really dogs. For Thomas to claim to have some hidden insight into the lives of dogs is woefully inaccurate. But to have insight into the lives of dogs turned back into wolves? Well, then maybe. If that’s what you’re interested in, then this is the book for you. If you’re actually interested in dogs, save your time.