Friday, January 27, 2012

Calm before assertive

I recently picked up Cesar's Rules, Cesar Millan's newest book (co-written by Melissa Jo Peltier), and dug in with interest and a little trepidation. Like many who shelter under the "positive trainer" label, I have strong misgivings about Millan's methods and influence, misgivings inspired partly by the handful of his shows that I've seen and the smattering of his articles that I've read, but in the main by the multitude of people I've encountered who claim him as an authority in their efforts to become "leaders of the pack." In Cesar's Rules, Millan laments that many of his critics lambaste him without taking the trouble to understand his teachings, but I think he should worry at least as much about those who lionize him without taking the trouble to understand his teachings, or more importantly, without mastering the knowledge and skills that would enable them to employ his methods with relative safety. And I remain deeply skeptical that certain of his methods can be used by anyone with absolute safety.

Watching The Dog Whisperer makes it clear even to this critical observer that a) Millan is a highly skilled communicator and listener, b) he has amassed a great deal of informal knowledge about dogs, and c) he genuinely desires the best for all the animals (human and otherwise) with whom he works. Artful editing may give a fairy tale glow to each abbreviated narrative, but I don't think it can mask Millan's essential character, and I have never sensed that his use of strong aversives was an expression either of sadism or of an ego run amok. I bought Cesar's Rules for much the same reason that he says was inspired to write it: I think it is vital that people who share similar core values and aims find a way to air their differences and to learn from them. Many of the book's chapters center on other trainers, including a couple of heroes from the positive training world, Bob Bailey and Ian Dunbar. Elsewhere, too, Millan goes out of his way to express respect, and at moments even deference, toward views that conflict with his own.

Beyond that, I have been impressed while reading Cesar's Rules by what may or may not be a new emphasis on patience. Not having read Millan's other books, I don't know whether they supply a similar corrective to the implicit promise his show makes that "calm and assertive" leadership will produce near-immediate results. But it is striking here in his anecdotes and instruction how often he stresses the importance of baby steps. He has generously (and to his own benefit, of course) highlighted and disseminated the wisdom of other trainers, but I've also found myself nodding along with many of his personal insights. His stated desire to honor each individual animal is at the heart of my own philosophy of training (again, whether we're talking about canine or human animals).

Which brings us back to the questions surrounding "assertive" leadership and the use of strong aversives (or "positive" punishment). To Millan's credit, he acknowledges and makes a good faith effort to hear and faithfully represent the criticisms leveled against this aspect of his teaching. As I noted above, I think Millan's message is dangerous primarily for the encouragement it gives to those who lack his skills and understanding. When such people "assert" themselves with their dogs, they often become abusive and/or teach their dogs to be similarly "assertive," and the results can be disastrous. Millan quotes Ian Dunbar on this risk: "I teach mostly noncontact techniques, and there's a good reason for that. Most human hands can't be trusted... It's one thing if you're an experienced animal handler like you or me, 'cause you know which animals you dare touch and how you can touch them. The training methods that I would prescribe have nothing to do with the way I would train a dog or you would train a dog. It has to do with the fact that this is a family and there's two children in it. They're not necessarily going to have the observational skills that we have, or the speed or the timing, and certainly not the dog savvy. But they still have to learn to live happily with their dog."

I think Dunbar lets Millan off the hook a little too easily here, as I don't imagine there exists any great gap between how either man teaches others to train and how he trains dogs himself. And that's really the point. In his defense of e-collars, Millan enlists Temple Grandin to support his point that a strong aversive may be the most effective way to interrupt the prey drive at its highest intensity, and indeed it may be the only efficient way to do it. I'm grudgingly open to the arguments he makes for their careful use in special circumstances where a dog's safety is at stake and other solutions elusive. But I think (I hope) that, once Cesar opens the door to exclusively positive modes of training, he'll have an increasingly difficult time resorting to (and justifying) the regular use of leash "pops" and other physical corrections. Once you recognize that they're unnecessary to pretty much any training (and rehabilitation!) task you might face, and once you see the enormous uptick in mutual trust that results from a strong commitment to a "no harm, no force" ethic, you may need time to shake your old habits, but the logic of love says you must.

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