While at a party last weekend, I met one of the cutest puppies I have ever seen. After six years of teaching group obedience classes, puppy socialization classes and in-home Perfect Puppies programs, I have seen my share of cute puppies but this one took the cake. The little guy looked a bit like a Border Terrier with some long-coated Chihuahua thrown in the mix. He had a striking sable colour pattern with some white spots for good measure. He belonged to the neighbor next door and was out for his nightly rituals. When the neighbor held him up to the top of the fence, he was immediately swarmed by all the “crazy dog people” at the party and he took it all in stride. He soaked in the attention while his owner said how much people seem to be drawn to him and what a great feeling it gave her spiritually to have such a special little puppy in her life after losing her old dog a few months earlier.
It was uplifting for me to see someone so attached to their puppy with nothing but positive things to say. But suddenly, things changed. The woman declared that she was an avid Cesar Millan fan, she followed everything he recommended to the letter and that was why the puppy was so wonderful. I am sure I must have grimaced slightly and the group of educated dog owners that had gathered around my side of the fence seemed to recoil slightly and gradually disband. Visions of three dogs I had tried to help in the past year whose owners had been practicing the techniques they saw on National Geographic’s “Dog Whisperer” swarmed through my brain. One dog had been re-homed after snapping at the child in the family and the other two had been euthanized for biting (one of the dog’s owners required 17 stitches to his face after alpha-rolling the dog for resource guarding). My horror continued as the neighbor informed us that she wanted desperately to go study with Cesar Milan so she could help spread his messages and methods around the world.
“But don’t you find him a bit mean?” I asked. The woman looked at me as if I had just used her lord’s name in vain. Her eyes flashed as she countered that Millan was kind and loved dogs. Various episodes of his show seemed to fast forward through my brain all at once. Dogs with tucked tails and whale eyed expressions, being repeatedly checked and occasionally choked in the name of dominance danced through my head like clips from a scary movie. All I could sputter out was the fact that the man still uses choke chains. The neighbor argued that he only used the tools that his clients wanted him to use.
Typically I do not back down from a Millan debate. With science on my side, a growing number of studies and reputable organizations lending their voices in support of positive reinforcement it does not take much convincing to convert people from dominance theory to learning theory with a focus on reward-based training methods. Once people realize their dogs are simply opportunists, not masterminds trying to takeover the household, they happily leave the alpha rolls, choke chains and other punitive tools behind.
For some reason I felt completely disarmed at the thought of this puppy being checked into submission if it stepped out of line. I felt like the ancient Greek scientists and philosophers who first suggested the world might not be flat. I didn’t know where to begin in explaining how flawed the Dog Whisperer’s techniques truly are. Should I have started with the fact that dominance or rank is rarely the root for bad behaviours in our pet dogs despite Cesar blaming it for virtually every problem he encounters? Should I have taken the time to explain the suppression of behaviors that Millan typically performs on his show often results in fallout on another level? Or perhaps I should have told her about the recent research that found 25% of the dogs observed actually acted aggressively when alpha rolls and other types of force were used?
Instead I walked away and told her the puppy was lovely as I strolled back to my chair. I felt hopeless as I have when in circular arguments in the past. It has been so long since anyone has challenged the ideas and facts that I present them and it was as if I had forgotten how to fight a good fight. I have since vowed never to walk away again. Hopefully the neighbor at the party will expand her readings beyond Cesar and pick up a scientific journal some day but I have my doubts. I have seen these same people in chat room and other blog postings and they are challenging to have logical discussions with because they believe in untruths. Just as it is equally challenging to convince people who believe the world is flat that it is in fact a sphere, it is difficult to argue with Millan’s militia.