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animal rights

A treatise on dog "whispering"

As an animal rights activist, I am concerned about the popularity of so-called "dog whisperer" Caesar Milan, and his outdated "pack leader" mentality. Don't get me wrong. Milan has done a lot of good for a lot of dogs. He's an advocate of rehabilitation for even the most aggressive of dogs, he constantly educates people about the ignorance surrounding the hype over bully breeds, and he locates dog behavior problems in the humans handling the dogs, not in the dogs themselves. He also believes in what he does, and for some people and some dogs, his methods work. But that's not the whole story. This is.
Am I the only one who notices the irony of a man whose whole philosophy centers around domination and choke chains calling himself a dog "whisperer"? We used to half-jokingly refer to him as the Dog Yanker, but it's not really funny so much as true. There are, in fact, a lot of dog trainers out there who could rightly be called dog whisperers. Paul Owens, for example, who literally wrote the book on the subject a decade ago ("The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training" by Paul Owens). He, along with Karen Pryor, Turid Rugaas, and a whole new breed of trainers reject the old, traditional, "pack" mentality and the theories of domination championed by Milan. Instead, they rely on thoroughly studied, science-based, non-violent training methods revolving around positive reinforcement and not punishment. And, importantly, these methods WORK.

I love dogs, trained or not, but I do understand that a lot of dogs wind up in shelters because of behavior issues that could be prevented or cured through proper training. Even as an animal rights activist, I have no problem with people wanting to train their dogs. Sitting, staying, and coming when called can literally save a dog's life. Knowing how to walk on a loose leash can make walks safe and pleasant for both dog and human, leading to more walks. Training can be a good thing for both partners, if it's the right kind of training. Positive reinforcement methods are fun for the trainer, fun for the dog, and effective.

The same non-violent approach can be, and often is, used to teach humans new skills. There is nothing new about this approach, as it has been used in schools with children, in labs with all manner of species, and in the training of marine mammals for decades.* But for some reason, it was slower to reach the dog training world. Once it did, it caught fire, because it is so much easier for the dog and the human, it's so effective, and the results last. (The so-called "clicker" method is an example of effective, non-violent, positive reinforcement. Google it if you have not heard about it.) Why, then, does Milan continue to insist upon choke chains, yanks, punishments, and "domination"?

The idea that you need to be "pack leader" with your dog is a very old, traditional notion that seems on its surface to make sense, but it is not based on science. Someone decided that, since dogs are related to wolves, and since wolves form packs, that dogs must be dominated by a strong "pack leader" in order to behave. (Remember, the "experts" used to advocate spanking children, too.) Sadly, a lot of people - including Milan - are not aware that this notion has actually been thoroughly rejected by modern science and by better-informed modern dog trainers. It's not that it never works. Clearly, Milan has some spectacular successes with the dogs on his shows. (But we don't see the out-takes when it doesn't work, do we.)(Nor do we see the long-term results.) In fact, bullying a dog to force it to do things you want it to do will work, sometimes. It is, after all, the way dogs were trained for generations. Dogs are intelligent, friendly beings who are usually eager to please. So almost any training method is guaranteed to get some kind of result. And dogs, like people, can be bullied into submission.

It also suits certain personalities. Milan, for instance, talks a lot about "strong, calm energy." I think he's right on that point, by the way. Dogs are very perceptive, and eliciting a "strong, calm energy" really does have an effect upon their behavior. That works on people too - try it. Milan seems to be a dominant, but calm, person. Not everyone is. Some people don't want to dominate their dogs, and some people crave power over their dogs a little too much, and are not at all calm about it. For the most part, it's a dangerous and disrespectful premise for a relationship between two beings, and leads to abuse far more often than it leads to positive results. (Imagine thinking you had the right to coldly punish your mate, for instance, out of a "calm, strong energy" and a need to "dominate.") The dominance theory of dog training might be convenient for Milan to promote, but it has nothing at all to do with "whispering." It has to do with bullying, intimidation, and arrogance, and it often backfires.

There are a number of problems with the dominance/"pack leader" method and philosophy, not the least being: We're not dogs, and our dogs KNOW we're not dogs. We are NOT the pack leader. Nope. We're the human. They know that, we know that, let's be clear. We're not fooling anyone here. No, we do NOT know how to be a good pack leader. And if we did, we wouldn't imagine that it's the bully who leads. That doesn't really work with dogs any better than it does with humans. There are just all kinds of flaws with our ideas about packs and dominance. (For instance, proponents of the pack leader theory say you have to eat before your dog, to show the dog who is boss. But in a wolf pack, if there is plenty of food, the leader doesn't make a point of being the first to eat. In fact, the adults generally feed the pups first. Dogs are excellent communicators, and go to great lengths to avoid conflict when they can. They do not naturally go around trying to constantly bully each other, and usually a dog who behaves like that is not treated with much deference in a dog social group.)

Another problem with the domination approach is that many of us cannot, or will not, do it. It doesn't work for people who want a more egalitarian relationship with the dogs in their lives. People who refuse to throw their dogs off the furniture, make them beg for food, or do alpha rolls on them have been traditionally told that their dogs just can't be well behaved. It also doesn't work for dogs who don't want to be dominated. And let's face it, there are dogs like that just as surely as there are humans like that. Many of us just don't want to be bullied, and will not respond to that sort of behavior.

And that leads to one of the most serious problems of all with the dominance/"pack leader" method of dog training: It can create severe behavior problems, and can make existing problems worse. This method is famous for accidentally creating very, very aggressive dogs. A dog with no aggression can learn to become aggressive when treated like this, and a dog with existing aggression issues will only become more aggressive if subjected to stern corrections and alpha rolls. That is absolutely the worst thing you could do with an aggressive dog, since it only exacerbates the underlying problem - which is usually fear. (And this, by the way, is the reason why many traditional trainers will tell you that aggression "can't be trained away," and why organizations once routinely put dogs taken from dog fighting rings down under the mistaken assumption that an aggressive dog "can't be rehabilitated.")(We now know differently, thanks to all the people using non-violent desensitization and positive reinforcement. This is why some of the dogs rescued from the heinous criminal Michael Vick are now therapy dogs, thanks to the dedicated rescuers who took them in.)

You really can destroy a good dog by bullying him or her into submission, just like you can destroy a person that way. When I was a kid, a dog I loved very much became aggressive because of traditional training methods. It's not that he wasn't loved, it's just that this is how the "experts" taught people to train their dogs then. I remember the horror I felt, watching him be "trained." He was bullied and scolded and yanked and sometimes even hit. It was a painful process for him, and for the person who trained him, but that's what people were taught to do back then. This dog became fearful of people, and it manifested as aggression. He bit someone shortly after the training was complete. As he got older, the problem grew worse and worse, as the "corrections" grew more harsh, and no one knew how to deal with it then. This dog was eventually killed. It was awful. If only people had known, then, that the self proclaimed "experts" were wrong, and that there was a better way.

In fact, there is a MUCH better way. I urge anyone who isn't familiar with the non-violent approach to dog training to read, for example, "Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training," by Karen Pryor, and anything by Turid Rugaas. You can also google "clicker training" and "non violent dog training" to find out more. Please do not succumb to the idea that you somehow need to dominate and bully your dog for his or her own good. You do not. Milan is well meaning, but misguided and often unhelpful. Even when his methods work, they are likely to backfire, sooner or later. And they are traumatizing for most dogs and many humans to employ. If you would not train your children with this method, then you should not be training your dog that way either.

The concept of animal "whispering" came to public consciousness when a new generation of horse trainers rejected the tradition of violence and abuse that was part of traditional horse training, and adopted instead a gentler, more respectful, more egalitarian relationship to the horses in their care. The idea that Caesar Milan should take this name on for his yanking, "correcting," dominance philosophy is just wrong. Milan is not a violent person by any means, and is able to pull off his methods fairly well. But what he advocates is, at its heart, disrespectful toward dogs as a species and, more to the point, it is unnecessary and less effective than more compassionate methods. Where dominance/"pack leader" theories often lead to abuse and violence, positive reinforcement methods often lead to a richer, more trusting, and more fulfilling relationship between humans and dogs.

*Just to make this clear, I do not condone nor support the use of animals in labs OR for "entertainment." I mention these uses of positive reinforcement training only to make the point that it's been used for a long time in many different venues, with many different species, and has been thoroughly studied and found to be more effective than traditional methods.

non violent training 16.Dec.2009 12:54

about time

We don't need to dominate over animals or to establish unequal relationships of power and control. It really is possible, and better, to have good, healthy, equal relationships with the animals around us.