I’d like to say a few words about Cesar Millan.

I appreciate his focus on exercise, structure, and leadership. And I can’t get through an episode of The Dog Whisperer without shouting at the TV.

Truth is I don’t indulge very often, despite the professional interest I presumably should have. And I do shout at other TV trainers, notably Victoria “Why-let-never-owning-a-dog-get-in-the-way-of-a brilliant-career?” Stillwell, and that Canadian fellow whose modus operendi seems to involve an intensely creepy home-search. But Cesar’s overwhelming popularity and unofficial status as the patron saint of balanced trainers earns him special consideration.

Many dog trainers will tell you that Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer. I’ve said it myself. Cesar has said it himself. But to non-trainers, that assertion comes across as a nonsensical cop-out, and maybe it is. What is certain is that as long as he keeps showing up on Animal Planet National Geographic Channel doing something that for all the world is indistinguishable from dog training, real-life trainers will be called upon to address Cesar’s message, methods, and towering success.

I usually begin by pointing out that Cesar is not so much instructive as inspirational. He presents a compelling example of how one might–or even ought to–live with dogs. It is an entertaining illustration of what is possible (and also occasionally of what is not, even for him). It is great television. It is good business.

It is not a training method.

A method is systematic and reliable, if not universally applicable. Socrates had a method. Lee Strasberg had a method. Bill Koehler had a method. Cesar draws on something closer to a style. His style works for him, at least by and large, but that success depends heavily on a particular dynamic existing between himself and the dog (not to mention skilled editors and a dynamite publicist). In its absence, Cesar’s way yields less reliable results, and few of his signature techniques remain advisable.

A sound method, by contrast, should function independent of extraordinary powers of calm assertion and physical prowess. Mind you, both help a great deal, and may in fact be prerequisites in some cases where the stakes are especially high. But they are arguably more gifts than skills, and thus challenging to teach, develop, or codify.

I know, Cesar doesn’t train, he rehabilitates. So are we talking apples and oranges? Charting new territory? Or just flying blind?

I find that rehabilitating aggressive dogs is less linear than straight obedience training, and that a lot may be accomplished without teaching formal skills. I still call it dog training, and suggest method is no less important in these cases. In fact, every aspect of dealing with dangerous dogs argues strongly in favor of a reliable, systematic approach.

The fact some number of exceptional people are capable of going it alone into the void, relying on instinct to carry the day, and coming out unscathed, does not persuade me of the existence of an alternate model. But it is sound entertainment to be sure.

Many experienced trainers take cases similar to those featured on The Dog Whisperer, but it’s rare that made-for-TV drama ensues. Real-life trainers are mostly not showmen, but rather engineers. We lay a solid foundation and build skills overtop. We teach first and apply second. It’s less sexy, takes longer than an hour, and is rarely televised. It is methodical, and we generally do let you try it at home.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

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