This past May on our anniversary date my wife and I finally made the leap towards expanding our family by inviting a young pup into our lives. Addie is a miniature Golden Retriever mix that we rescued from a suburban family with five kids. Since we adopted her directly from her prior owners we had the benefit of gaining up-front knowledge about her habits and the treatment she received and we brought her into our home with confidence that she wasn’t a victim of abuse. Her prior family just wasn’t able to give her the attention and exercise she demanded amid the hectic demands of raising five children.
In the initial transition from the quiet suburbs to the city Addie displayed some typical and expected anxiety, but after a few days of adjustment she quickly settled into her new life with us. At just 13 months when we got her, Addie is still an adolescent in dog-years. She is a great dog, but she is still very young and demonstrates a lot of puppy-like nature. After the initial adjustment we got to know some of Addie’s minor quirks that bothered us, such as jumping on us during greetings, growling at strangers, whining when we would leave her, leaping at other dogs, and most annoyingly, pulling on the leash with a leviathan force that threatened to pull our arms out of the socket whenever out on a walk. Within our first week with Addie we wisely arranged an in-home session with an excellent dog trainer to educate us on some techniques to modify her behavior. After just a two hour session our trainer modeled some techniques to improve our assertiveness with our new dog and correct some of the problem behaviors and within the first day we saw immediate changes in Addie’s behavior. Without going into all the nitty-gritty details, the basic lesson we learned was that we should always take charge of Addie’s behavior and correct her before she begins to demonstrate any of the problem behaviors. This takes a lot of energy and attention on our part as new dog owners because we need to watch her carefully when walking her and take note of any of her in-house behaviors and address them before she becomes distracted and lost in her doggy ways, but the payoff is huge. I won’t say that Addie is a perfect dog, I don’t ever expect her to be, but with a lot exercise, discipline, and love, she is a pretty damn good dog and I wouldn’t give her up for the world.
This basic philosophy is summed up with the understanding that a dog is first and foremost an animal, then a dog, then a breed, then a companion. Most animal and dog behavior issues arise because people tend to look at their dogs as companions first and animal last and therefore we apply human philosophy/psychology to an animal without accepting that the approaches that work best on humans aren’t necessarily useful for animals. The trouble is we’re speaking human with our companion when we should be speaking dog. We must first meet the dog’s basic needs to exercise, roam and explore, and feel part of the pack and only after the dog’s animal needs are satisfied can we work on the warm and fuzzy companion relationship. Feeling part of the “pack” involves a balanced relationship of leader and follower with the human always taking on the role of leader. Just as there are different leadership styles in human/human interaction, there there are different schools of thought about what it means to be a leader for a dog. Some are “biscuit-givers” who reward good behavior only and this has its benefits, but the conditioning towards the treat may not consistently provide the same response when the treat is not present. Some leaders are more prone towards negative reinforcement such as yelling and or placing the dog on lock down, however this doesn’t really work because dogs live in the moment and unless the correction is at the precise moment that bad behavior occurred they won’t understand the punishment with the crime. Some take a lead by example approach to leadership through calm and assertive direction towards the desired behavior. This is the approach that our trainer believes in (with a mix of prompt correction when applicable) and the approach that most fits with my personality and demeanor.
The approach that our trainer provides is similar to the philosophy of the superstar and self-proclaimed Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan. Although our trainer didn’t necessarily recommend Cesar Millan’s book, Cesar’s Way, as follow up reading to our lesson, my wife picked it up from a coworker’s recommendation and she passed it on to me so that I would be on the same page with her. At first I was a little hesitant towards reading Millan’s book because my first exposure to him was through a negative reference discussed in a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and respected, John Bradshaw’s Dog Sense. Speaking from a well studied and educated perspective of an anthrozoologist, Bradshaw offers plenty of criticism towards Cesar Millan’s approach because Millan often references ideas based on debunked and out-dated studies of alpha leaders in captive wolf packs. From a scientific and philosophical perspective, Bradshaw and Millan are polar opposites, with Millan admitting unabashedly that his techniques are primarily developed from personal experience working with and observing dogs on the rural ranch he grew up on in Mexico whereas Bradshaw relies on a breadth of scientific references that demonstrate everything such as brain chemistry and genetics. However, when reading Millan’s book I found myself looking past these differences as well as his hokey reliance on terms such as energy and his machismo recommendation to “walk tall with your chest out to demonstrate your leadership” and recognized that when you get down to the basics of what Millan is arguing, the basic approach makes sense.
It is easy to point out specific things that Millan does and proclaim that he has it all wrong, as many reviewers of his book are apt to do, but when taking into consideration that there are different leadership styles that are effective in human-human interactions, it would be foolish for us to believe that only one type of style for human-dog interaction is the one pure and only correct style to utilize. Every dog and every human are unique animals in and of themselves. The difference is that the human has the opportunity to not only learn through verbal communication but has the capacity to reflect and modify his or her future behavior based on what they have learned and reflected upon. Therefore, adding a little bit of Millan’s approach isn’t hurtful, the danger is taking everything as face value. To use Milan’s own words:
“We have the power to rationalize, which includes the power to fool ourselves. That’s what we do when we humanize animals. We project our own image on to them to make ourselves feel better. In doing so, not only do we harm to those animals, but we also distance ourselves even further from the natural world in which they exist.” (270)
With that said, I will give some criticism to the book as a book. Subtitled, “The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems” the book goes way beyond the expectations of an “everyday guide” while also suffering from persistent repetitiveness. Although I did appreciate Millan’s back-story because it helped me appreciate and better forgive him for some of the terminology and practices he employs, the introduction to his life story was way too long and includes too many celebrity name-drops for my interest. A lot of the book can be skimmed pretty quickly and although some of the case study examples of specific problem dogs are helpful, the writing is dumbed-down to a wide audience. Most of the book is written with starry-eyed magic-presto dog-is-fixed happy tales, and for a book that employs as many case studies as it does there isn’t enough cataloging of the true struggle and challenge that goes along with dog-owners sliding back into old habits. The chapter that that catalogs the different behavior issues is the most concise and helpful reference and it appears that the rest of the book is fluff to support the sale of a very thin how-to pamphlet. Cesar’s basic argument is that the formula for a happy dog is 50% exercise, 25% discipline, and 25% affection, in that order. I think it is a great argument, but Cesar buries the coffin, with all the nails in overly reiterating this ad nauseum. Many will argue that Cesar’s excessive promotion of exercise with at least an hour of walking a day isn’t realistic in a modern life, but that is a symptom of a bigger problem with the priorities of our modern lives.