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What is wrong with Cesar Millan, and what is wrong with us?
By Alexandra Semyonova, author of book The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs
Most of the problems with Cesar Millan’s ideas about dogs have been pointed out elsewhere, so I don’t need to go into those at length. The idea of the dog as a domesticated wolf appeals to our romantic side, but it has nothing to do with reality. Besides, even if a dog were secretly a wolf (which it isn’t), Millan’s ideas about how wolves treat each other are complete fantasy.
For more on this, see: http://www.nonlineardogs.com/100MostSillyPart1.html .
We know that domestic dogs aren’t pack animals. They live in loosely organized, fleeting groups. Their relations are based on familiarity and above all trust-building. They don’t use real violence to resolve conflicts. They aren’t interested in ‘dominance’, and no such thing as ‘submission’ exists. They don’t have leaders, just good friends. Their social systems are based on respecting three very simple rules, and on finding mutually satisfying compromises – it’s not a "winner takes all" system, as our human one is.
See: http://www.nonlineardogs.com/100MostSillyPart1-3.html .
The real problem with Cesar Millan is not that he’s projecting wolf rules onto dogs, but that he’s projecting human social rules onto dogs. Millan is not the first person in history to have done this. Humans have always done it, from the very beginning of our cultures. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian ideas of how the animal world works reflected the structures of their own societies. During our feudal period, we divided the animal kingdom into noble and not-noble animals. We were sure the ignoble looked up to and were led by the noble. During the rise of industrial capitalism, we suddenly ‘discovered’ that the animal kingdom worked on the basis of ruthless competition, never mind noble birth. A long, long history of, “Gee, they’re just like us.”
So why is Cesar Millan’s particular projection any worse than all these others? The answer: because of the period in our history that it came from. This whole romantic idea about the wolf as a noble but ruthless pack animal, true to an absolute alpha leader, arose in Nazi Germany and was part of the rise of the Nazi Cult of the Wolf.
Konecki, KT, Pets of Konrad Lorenz. Theorizing in the social world of pet owners, Qualitative Sociology Review, Volume III, Issue 1, April 2007. http://www.qualitativesociologyreview.org/ENG/Volume6/QSR_3_1_Konecki.pdf accessed July 2008.
Sax, B, What is a "Jewish dog?" Konrad Lorenz and the cult of wildness, Society & Animals, Volume 5, Number 1, 1997. http://www.animalsandsociety.org/assets/library/341_s512.pdf
It was just after WWII that this cult of the wolf was transferred onto our household dogs. It was divested of its obvious roots and presented as science. This cult (the dog is a wolf, and the wolf is basically a hierarchical and authoritarian creature) became widely spread in popular literature, without anyone being in the least aware that they were being given Nazi fantasy to swallow.
Mr. Millan is very proud of the fact that he’s never learned anything about dogs except what his grandfather taught him. And given his age, it’s a good bet his grandfather grew up just when all these ideas were being spread around as if they were science.
Cesar Millan isn’t the first to recycle these ideas. Steve Duco and Nancy Baer did it before him, as did John Fisher. Becoming the ‘leader’ would magically solve all behavior problems in a dog. The big difference is that these last three authors didn’t recommend terrorizing and torturing dogs as part of leadership. Which brings me to say that Mr. Millan’s ideas and his behavior toward dogs take us back a good bit closer to the Nazis than any of the other ‘leadership’ writers have. If you object to my use of the words torture and terror, please take a look at:
and then at:
... in case you miss Mr. Millan kicking the dog in the penis to get the bite reaction he’s so proud of after.
And check out his Illusion Collar:
.. which is designed to keep the choking part of the choke mechanism up around the dog’s larynx and pharynx, so as to cause maximum pain, asphyxiation, and possibly permanent damage to the dog’s delicate swallowing mechanism.
And lastly: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/torture
There are thousands of us out here working with ‘aggressive’ dogs every day and not getting bit. This isn’t because we intimidate or terrorize the dogs even better than Mr. Millan does, but because we understand them. Most of us would be fairly ashamed to come home with a bite wound. We’d feel we’d missed something the dog was telling us, or any number of professional mistakes – which are our own fault, not the dog’s. So what really amazes me is how proud Mr. Millan is at the end of many episodes, showing the bite wounds he got yet again. As the links above show, if Mr. Millan is worried the dog won’t get aggressive, he does something to make it do so. The dog must be aggressive, and the more aggressive it is, the greater an authority the trainer must be? This is called the Lion Tamer Syndrome. The Lion Tamer Syndrome is not, not ever, about competence in training animals. It’s more a kind of pissing contest between humans. And the more a human engages in it, the less s/he generally really knows about the animal involved.
So what is wrong with Cesar Millan? It is that he is, surely without knowing it himself, asking people to construct an authoritarian regime with their dogs based on fear, intimidation, and where there’s failure to obey, torture. The affection part? Dogs, in any case, are openly and freely affectionate with any friend they have and are delighted to be so. They don’t use affection as a bargaining chip or a means of bullying.
So what is wrong with us that we go for something like this?
Our dogs are, in fact, our prisoners and completely at our mercy. There is no Lion Taming to be had with a domestic dog. They are, after all, domestic. They offer us their affection with no strings attached. They take an awful lot of bad treatment from us without retaliating or loving us any less.
The real question in the whole Cesar Millan problem is why so many of us nevertheless are so attracted to the idea of setting up an authoritarian regime with our dogs. The real question is why people stand by and watch their dog being intimidated, bullied, frightened to the point of being terrorized, choked to the point where the word torture begins to apply. The real question is why we don’t feel instant revulsion watching the images National Geographic channel is broadcasting – and why so many of us would be tempted, were it not for the disclaimer – to try the same brutal treatment at home.
Perhaps the relief so many people feel at being ‘allowed’ to return to the bad old ways is because it excuses them from taking a look at themselves. Rather than acknowledging that they were the cause of a ‘behavior problem’ in the first place, they’re told it’s all in the dog. Perhaps it’s also laziness. It’s a heck of a lot easier to just beat an animal down than it is to learn about animal behavior and training techniques that really work – without hurting the animal to boot. For a lot of people, it’s probably also good for their egos. At last they can be The Leader – even if it is only of a creature completely and utterly at their mercy, who is their prisoner. At last, a relationship in which you don’t have to give but can only take, and your prisoner has to love you anyway (because he’s stuck and has no other choice, mind you). As I’ve said elsewhere (The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs, Myths 43 and 48), this seems a pretty pathetic definition of love to me.
I hope that most of us will turn our backs on this phenomenon once we realize where Cesar Millan’s ideas came from and what they reveal about us. I think most of us are appalled at the number of totalitarian regimes humans have set up again and again through history, and that most of us will not want to be imitating this at home with our dogs.
Let’s let dogs be dogs, please, and let them help us to be better people.
Finally, take a look at how to find a real dog trainer:
http://www.nonlineardogs.com/100MostSillyPart3-3.html (bottom of page)
Alexandra Semyonova is an animal behaviourist and author of The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs