Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Cesar Millan effect

I usually don't intentionally let dogs I walk go up to too many people but this Lab's just come up from Ohio and has been locked up in a cage for who knows how long and has had a cruddy life and was this close to being euth'd so I make an exception for him. He's untrained and hyper-enthusiastic. He butt wiggles at and tries to meet everyone who passes by. I let him approach a few of the friendlier people, at least the ones who aren't wearing super nice clothing. Everyone's good with that, even delighted to meet the dog, except for one father and son who I don't see, who walk up from behind and try to pass but the Lab runs two steps at them before the leash goes taut and he doesn't reach them but the dad's aghast and the six year old looks like he might cry and the dad tucks the kid beneath his arm and hurries off, giving me a dirty look.

"You're going to have to learn to stop rushing people," I say to the Lab who looks at me with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. "And also stop looking ridiculous."

I take the Lab upstairs and along the way he greets every staffer like each one is his closest and dearest friend who he hasn't seen in ages and everyone greets him back like he's the overgrown puppy nutbar he really is.

There's a couple sitting upstairs and as I walk by them the woman asks, "Is he your dog or are you adopting him?"

"I'm just walking him. We just came back from his walk," I say.

"You're a dog walker here?" she asks.

"I'm a volunteer. Sometimes I walk the dogs, sometimes I ..."

"Is he up for adoption?" the man asks.

"Yes, he's a ..."

"He's too big," the woman says.

The Lab knows we're talking about him or maybe he doesn't but regardless he wants to meet the new people. He starts to pull towards them.

"Hold on," I say to him - as if my words could actually make it through the dizzy happy fog that is this Lab's permanent condition.

"Oh it's okay," she says and both she and her husband lean forward in their chairs to get ready for his greeting.

I advance slowly with the Lab who's drooling with anticipation at the thought of making more human friends. The Lab reaches them and they start to pet him. The Lab starts to paw and to generally get over-excited at the stimulation.

"He's dirty. He doesn't know his manners," says the woman.

"He's not well trained," says the man.

"No, he just got here," I say.

"You should train him better," says the woman. "It's easier to adopt out animals if you train them first. You should train him to sit."

"Training dogs to sit is easy," says the man.

"We trained our last dog to sit in 10 minutes," says the woman.

Then, as if to teach by example, the man goes, "Chuh."

And the woman goes, "Chu."

And the man goes, "Chuh, chuh."

And the woman goes, "Chu."

And the man goes, "CHUH! CHUH!"

And the woman goes, "Chuchuchu!"

Regardless of what people might think of Cesar Millan and his methods, he's got a way of dealing with dogs that works for him. Some of his critics will accuse his show of being one big editing scam where hours of work are condensed into a few minutes but I don't think this is the case. I think, in his own way, Millan is a genius. This isn't an ethical judgment. His alpha dominance methods may be an outdated, moral outrage to some but that doesn't mean he's not a master at what he does and what he does, as far as I can tell, is exude his presence over the dogs, his air of being in charge. I'm pretty sure his method isn't just about his trademark vocalizations.

Maybe I've had a long day and I'm slow to react or maybe I'm just an asshole. I should pull the Lab off them but both the man and woman are now chuing almost in unison and I want to see how this is going to turn out. The Lab is getting more excited by all this chuing and he's now up on his hind legs trying to clamber onto the man's lap.

"CHUH! CHUH! CHUH! CHUH!" the man says.

"CHU! CHU! CHU! CHU!" the woman says.

The Lab's high up enough on the man's lap to start licking his face. His wife, seeing this assault on her husband, reaches out and give the Lab a bit of a shove with her fingertips and then leans forward and goes, "Chu. Off. Chu."

I've been perusing (I don't have time to actually read whole books anymore) Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human. In the chapter on dogs, she discusses whether the relationship between dogs and their owners should be based on alpha dominance or one more akin to parent and child. She brings up an interesting point about how it's a myth that wolves in the wild live in packs. Wild wolves actually live as families. Usually, a group of wolves consists of the two parents and their kids - the ones who are still hanging around. The parents are "dominant" in the way most parents are dominant over their kids and the kids generally stay in line even after they've grown up - just like with most humans (someone can become CEO of a big company but when he goes home, he still defers to mother and father).

But Grandin isn't sure about the artificial environment created when people take dogs into their homes. Do the dogs view the humans as parents or alpha pack leaders? It may be subtle but the difference would inform the proper balance between guidance vs. dominance. Grandin thinks that in Millan's case, where he has a pack of thirty or more unrelated dogs living peacefully together, it's dominance at work. Millan is the alpha dominant leader of the pack and the dogs realize there's no point for them to fight over the top boss position. In a typical family setting, though, with only one or two dogs, Grandin thinks the dogs will view the humans as parents because it's a more natural and comfortable social hierarchy for them, just as it would be for human children.

In either case, Grandin makes no mention of the chuh sound.

The Lab, oblivious to the noise coming from the couple and now happily invading the (very) personal space of his two new best friends, has won the competition of wills.

"Alright," I say to the Lab and I pull him towards me. "Hey, stop that," I say and I turn the squirrely dog around to face me and try to calm him down.

"He's much too big," the woman says.

The man is brushing off his pants and wiping off his face while the Lab's attention gets diverted elsewhere: the cats, the floor, the adoption office, the elevator, the columns, the stairs. After a quiet moment of observing the slight to non-existent attention span of the Lab, the woman says:

"Our dog died a few months ago. He was sixteen."

"We're looking for a poodle. Do you have any poodles?" the man asks.

"I don't know about poodles but there are some other smaller dogs here," I say. "You can go into the adoption room and have a look. One of them is pretty timid, though, so please take it easy on him."

I take the Lab into one of the back rooms. He's not ready for adoption yet - still needs to be health checked and speutered. I walk him into his kennel and just as he realizes I'm going to leave him behind and is about to freak out, I take out a biscuit and present it to him.

"Sit," I say and after a moment of consideration, the Lab sits. I may not have Millan's amazing power over dogs but I do have access to good snacks.


Biscuit said...

I was going to be all irritated at those people but then you made me laugh at the end so I cut them some slack.

And I'll bet they're pretty nice despite the CHUCHU-ing. Although they're going to baffle some lucky dog for a while.

selkiem said...

I think they forgot the poke, you know you go CHHHCUUUCUCH and then POKE. Preferably on the backside. Silly people LOL

and in my books, cut up chicken hot dogs are a training tool second to none... [nods wisely]

Jo Ann said...

Fred, you do have access to good snacks....and more importantly, a whole boatload of common sense !!!

YesBiscuit! said...

So you make the sound like the trainer on TV makes and the dog is trained? Hmm. Do these people also think you say "You've always got time for a great meal" and a gourmet meal appears before you in under 30 minutes?

Mommyof2girlz/StephD said...

I was annoyed with the couple as soon as the wife kept interrupting I agree I think it is Cesar's dominant energy that works, so many owners are overly passive with their dogs. I haven't heard of Grandin so thanks, loved the post made me chuckle. :)

admin said...

I keep being told that you can't blame Milan if people use his techniques incorrectly.

But then, I've never actually witnessed them being done correctly by anyone but him.

Vida said...

I had a good laugh with this, thanks!

I taught a puppy stray that we took in to sit as well with a treat. She saw one of our dogs sit for a biscuit and promptly did the same when it came to her turn. It took all of 10 seconds of training, I was amazed!

Meaghan Edwards said...

I am a huge fan of Jackie Parkin's methods. Positive, non confrontational, no intimidation.

House of the Discarded said...

I was so irritated with these people until I heard that they had a dog for 16 years. I usually feel warm and fuzzy about anybody that will give an animal a lifetime home.

What is it about rowdy black labs that are so endearing? I sorta like them ornery :)

Tigerspirit said...

Another book you must read is "Inside of a Dog" by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz. She is working in the area of dog cognition, and I learned an enormous amount about my dogs from her. She makes the point that dogs are also families, not packs, and 'dominance' is generational. She rejects, based on evidence, the dominance training school for positive re-enforcement.

But the really interesting stuff is about how dogs perceive the world and make their decisions. I kept thinking of my Jimmers and your Rocky... A great book!

Brooke said...

that was awesome...i needed a giggle. i can get all 4 of mine to sit, simultaneously, if i have a treat. otherwise...not so much, but i'm admittedly a slacker with my own kids.

Anonymous said...

I think a golf expression applies to dog training "It's not how, it's how many".

Lynda said...

I'm a big fan of Cesar and his methods. Not to say I use them all, but I do like his show and I think he's got a lot of good points. It all comes down to what works for you and your dog. If people watch the show and all they get from it is "walk your dog for 45 minutes or more a day" then I say YAY for them. Because a tired dog really IS a good dog.

The "chu" sound doesn't work on my dogs - since they're deaf - but I say it anyway, lol!

Thanks for another great post, Fred!

Laurie Luck, KPA CTP said...

What great common sense you have. You just witnessed/harnessed the power of positive reinforcement!

The dog does something you like, you reinforce it. Voila, the dog will do that thing that earned the reinforcement MORE! No need for weird noises, poking, or any psychobabble.

Clear, simple, easy -- and dog friendly -- positive reinforcement. Ah, I love science!!

Anonymous said...

Those goofy people missed the whole point of the sound... It's just supposed to be an interrupter sound, something to snap the dog's attention back to you. An audible version of the "hind poke".

I seem to remember him saying at some point that he picked that sound because it's an easy to make sound that's also high pitched, so it gets the dog's attention in a more sensitive dog frequency range than a lower tonal spoken word might...

Unknown said...

I think Millan's main message is that humans must be calm and exude peace. But for some reason, people always forget that and focus on some silly detail like that sound he makes.