Archive for August, 2010

Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer

Cesar Millan is the most loved – and the most hated – dog trainer in the world today. Adored by millions of fans, Millan is also vilified by many dog trainers.

Right, wrong or indifferent – I find it amusing that such volumes of hatereude* are launched against a man who doesn’t even describe himself as a dog trainer.

But if Cesar Millan isn’t a dog trainer – what is he?

I think that Cesar Millan is a self-help guru very much in the mold of his mentor Tony Robbins. The Dog Whisperer acknowledges that Robbins has been a strong influence on his life, and in his books the he talks about how he uses self-help techniques like visualization, scripting and inner dialogs to help his human clients change their behavior.

While he provides some basic how-to advice on dog training I find it ironic that his handling methods, which I suspect Millan does not see as the primary focus of either his philosophy or his television series, are the stimulus that elicits most of the wrath directed at the man from dog trainers. Cesar says that he trains people, and indeed, The Dog Whisperer spends a lot more time talking about changing human behavior than he does about training dogs.

And I think that Millan’s mentor, life coach Tony Robbins, might have profited (pun very much intended) from studying Millan’s television success. While National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer series has hurtled Millan to the forefront of an expanding financial empire, NBC recently canceled Robbins’ reality series “Breakthrough” after one of the most disappointing debuts in recent television history.

While I knew that Millan was a student of Robbins’ program I had not thought much about the link between the two of them until I ran across a webcast of the first episode of Robbins’ series online the other day. In the first minutes of the episode I was immediately struck by how similar Robbins’ mannerisms and speech patterns were to those you’d see on an early episode of The Dog Whisperer. It was like watching an amped up Whisperer who had decided to leave the dogs at home. The resemblance was so strong I expected Robbins to say “tchzzzt” and poke his clients in the shoulder to redirect their attention when they balked at following his suggestions.

Both shows are built on a similar formula:

Troubled family narrates a touching story of heartbreak and tribulation;

Charming, successful, trendy, macho guru interviews family in a way that inspires them to acknowledge their part in creating and/or maintaining the  dysfunction in their lives;

Guru aggressively pushes individual family members well outside their comfort zones to elicit breakthrough experiences;

Individual family members then have touching on-screen epiphanies that we are led to believe will lead to life changing transformation; and

The show ends with guru providing a compelling step-by-step narrative on how his system transformed their lives and why it can transform yours too.

Sure the formula varies a bit from episode to episode – but writing for television is a bit like making soup. If you’ve got a good a basic recipe you can play with proportions and ingredients and still get very good results. And for psuedo-televangelical series like these, the most important ingredient is the guru’s ability to be credible, inspiring and motivational.

“Breakthrough” starts with a close up shot of a very macho looking Robbins saying: “I’m gonna make you do stuff you don’t wanna do, I’m gonna make you face stuff you don’t want to face.” And this idea of pushing people (and dogs) far outside their comfort zones to achieve a “breakthrough” epiphany is one of the main tools used by both men to change their clients’ behavior.

Why? Well, in episode one Robbins says:

“How do you breakthrough whatever unconscious concept we have about what’s possible? All a breakthrough is is a moment in time when you get an insight or you see a truth or you have an experience that once it happens the veil disappears and you just take back control of your life, not just today, but long term. And we’re looking for ways to trigger people to have those breakthroughs.”

The aggressive push to epiphany is probably one of main reasons that Millan’s series has been so successful (it’s also the basis for a lot of the criticism directed at the man), because watching his human and canine clients cope with these physically and emotionally stressful situations is interesting to watch.

Robbins’ show featured dramatic scenes where he pushed people out of their comfort zones though the methods he used were a lot bigger in scale (and budget) than Millan’s.

Both men are skilled at creating powerful positive experiences for their clients. And while these experiences may provide intense emotional highs for their clients and, at least in Millan’s case, they also sell well as entertainment, I’m not convinced that they lead to effective long-term change in most cases.

In light of these similarities, why has Cesar’s show been phenomenally successful and Robbins’ a dismal failure? First, the Dog Whisperer has a much easier job. Dogs accept change far more readily than people do, so Millan’s job lies largely in getting dog owners to accept their place in the problem and take a few, usually relatively simple steps, to effect the needed change.

Another important difference is that Millan offers his clients concrete bits of training advice along with those trademark Dog Whisperer truisms while Robbins just focused on a few abstract motivational platitudes. Another important factor was that, at least in my opinion, Robbins’ show came across as more infomercial than tutorial.

Robbins’ “helping families in crisis in only 30 days” focus on a quickie fix seems to be a perfect fit for today’s drive-through mentality so I understand why network executives gambled on “Breakthrough”. But I think that the show failed because while people may buy into the idea that a few whiz-bang tricks may fix their dogs’ problem behavior, at least at some deep level they’re aware that quick-fix pop psychology methods won’t cure their own issues.

My advice to Tony Robbins, should he get another shot at a television series: tone it down, take it slower and give your most valuable advice away on the show. Millan tells fans all of his training secrets in the DW series – and they line up in droves to pay for more.

*Hatereude – pleasure derived from the hatred of a shared enemy.

August 30, 2010 at 9:55 am 12 comments

No Look, No Talk

No Touch

SRSLY – how hard is that to remember?

August 30, 2010 at 1:11 am 4 comments

Fierlingers’ Dog Tulip

I’m a huge fan of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. Their Still Life With Animated Dogs is not only one of the most captivating animated shorts ever made, it also presents an utterly brilliant commentary on modern life with dogs.

The Fierlingers’ long-awaited (at least by me) animated feature My Dog Tulip will be released by New Yorker Films this week. The film is based on J. R. Ackerley’s 1956 book about his sixteen year love affair with a German shepherd named Tulip. Parent please note, this animated feature was created for adults not children.

According to the film’s website:

A profound and subtle mediation on the strangeness that lies at the heart of all relationships, My Dog Tulip was written, directed and animated by award-winning filmmakers Paul and Sandra Fierlinger and is the first animated feature ever to be entirely hand drawn and painted utilizing paperless computer technology.

It features the voices of Christopher Plummer as Ackerley, Lynn Redgrave (who died earlier this year) as his annoying sister and Isabella Rossellini as Tulip’s veterinarian.

I haven’t read the book – yet. But according to the book review:

In 1947, J.R. Ackerley rescued an 18-month-old German shepherd, and from the start her every look and move were to undo him. “Tulip never let me down. She is nothing if not consistent. She knows where to draw the line, and it is always in the same place, a circle around us both. Indeed, she is a good girl, but–and this is the point–she would not care for it to be generally known.” As he anatomizes her from head to toe with the awe-struck precision of a medieval courtier, Ackerley instantly turns us into Tulipomanes. Alas, many of the mere mortals she encounters feel differently, for there are indeed two Tulips. One is highly strung but heroic, flirtatious but true. The other is a four-legged rejoinder to authority: a biter, a barker, and a dab hand at defecating her way around London. Not that any of these are her fault. “You’re the trouble,” Tulip’s one good vet tells Ackerley as she banishes him from the surgery. “She’s in love with you, that’s obvious. And so life’s full of worries for her.”

I’m not generally a fan of movies glorifying bad dogs (this is why the book is still on my ‘to be read’ pile) – but I’m certain that the Fierlingers’ lyrical animation, their brilliant observations on men, women, dogs and the weird and wonderful ways our lives intersect will make this film one you don’t want to miss.

Here’s the trailer:

August 29, 2010 at 8:03 pm Leave a comment

But is there a Dog?

via GraphJam

I’ve had a few clients who agonized over this conundrum and never considered that dyslexia might be the real source of their problem…

August 29, 2010 at 7:56 am 2 comments

Open please

“I did not know they came in bottles!”

August 28, 2010 at 9:19 pm 3 comments

Excuse me

Click for link to full size version

He’s right. A good pet dog would have.

Whether you walk on two legs or four, honoring someone else’s personal space is a universal sign of respect among social creatures.

I like demonstrate this the first week of my beginning obedience classes by standing uncomfortably close to one of my human students. Once I’ve crowded the person to a visibly irritating extent I ask them how they feel. Replies typically run to some combination of: “Uncomfortable.” “Irritated.” “Like I want to move away.” “That you’re a very rude person.”

While most humans have an innate understanding of the rules of personal space within our own species, we tend to fall miserably short when it comes to applying this important idea into the way we live with our dogs.

There are strict cultural rules about how we interact with strangers, friends, relatives and loved ones in space,  but puppies and babies are exempt from those rules. If a strange toddler jumps into my lap and kisses me, I’m probably going to react more in delight than disgust. A random teenage boy who takes the same liberties will not get the same kind of reaction.

Because it takes more than a decade for an innocent baby who doesn’t understand social rules to morph into a  teenager who flouts them, it makes perfect sense to us that the two creatures should be held to different standards. The problem is that a dog makes this transition almost overnight.

And so we forget to teach our dogs to respect our personal space.

We keep dogs partly because they have a charming tendency to reward our attention with lavish affection. Touch is a vital part of the human – canine relationship. Problems arise, however, when we blindly accept physical contact from our dogs in all situations.

Like the rude teenager who crowds you into a clothes rack at the mall and laughs as he clears the sidewalk with his skateboard, a pinball dog has no respect for the rules of shared space. Pinball dogs are the rude, pushy beasts who knock over furniture and small humans, jump on visitors, trample flowerbeds and otherwise wreak physical havoc on nearly everything they come into contact with. Some of these dogs are good-hearted but socially inept while others understand the rules and choose to exploit them for their own evil purposes.

Barbarian or boor, a dog that crashes through life like a four-legged demo derby champion isn’t much fun to live with. And like a pushy teenager searching for boundaries, he’s not really comfortable with the situation he finds himself in.

Dogs are social creatures.  They have an innate sense of the importance of courtesy.  As I’ve written here before, Peggy Post’s “Emily Post’s Etiquette“ includes several pearls of wisdom applicable to modern life with dogs. I especially like this bit from the introduction:

Etiquette must be active. It isn’t enough to know what to do. Courtesy matters only when it is translated into everyday behavior – not just put on for show when it’s convenient. The rewards of an active commitment to everyday courtesy are myriad, though not often tangible. There are also important personal rewards that some people may not even be aware of, including the self-confidence that comes from knowing what to do in new or difficult situations; a positive reputation with others; and personal relationships that are more congenial, even in times of stress, because the people involved treat one another with respect.

Teaching and maintaining a formalized set of behaviors (i.e. rules of etiquette) to your dog gives him a roadmap that helps him navigate an often alien human world. It’s one of the most valuable gifts you can give him.

Yielding” is a fair and gentle way to teach your dog to respect your personal space using methods he understands naturally. Teaching your dog to “yield” is incredibly simple. All you need to do is use the side (not toe) of your foot or outside edge of your leg (not the point of your knee) to nudge him out of your way. This must be accomplished with gentle but insistent nudging, never a kick or poke.

As you nudge your dog say “Excuse me”. Repeat the phrase with each nudge and keep nudging him with an even, insistent cadence until he moves. Once your dog moves, praise him and step through the space he was occupying when you started the exercise. Only make him move once. If you pester a dog with incessant nudging and make him move repeatedly you’ll either convince him that you’re a clueless dolt or incite him to the kind of rousing body slam games you were trying to cure in the first place.

Practice the exercise several times a day in a calm, matter-of-fact way. And once you start doing Yielding exercises with your dog stop stepping over or around him when he’s in the way. Considerate people will move out of your way when space requires it, you should expect the same kind of courtesy from your dog.

If you have a very large dog or one who is skilled in manipulating the law of inertia in his favor, begin by practicing yielding when the dog is sitting or standing. If you’ve got a small dog or one who’s naturally more polite and conscious about space you may want to start by practicing the exercise when the dog is lying down. (And if you have an aggressive dog – get professional help before you embark on any kind of training program.)

Your goal is to teach the dog to calmly and agreeably move out of the way without being nudged.

It may seem like a silly and somewhat pointless exercise, but Yielding is an important part of my training program. Once your dog understands that he needs to move out of the way when you say “Excuse me” you’ve got a way to stop him from jumping up on you because a dog cannot possibly move politely out of your way and jump up on you at the same time. Yielding is a convenient way to teach the dog not to cut in front of you when he’s on a leash. You can also use it to move a dog off the furniture and to stop him from jumping up on counters. And asserting your space is a great way to reinforce the “Leave it” command and teach a dog to wait at doors.

Yielding teaches a dog to think about what he’s doing with his body and how it affects those around him. It’s an important part of proper human-canine etiquette. And it’s an incredibly easy thing to teach your dog to do. So – what are you waiting for?

August 24, 2010 at 8:57 pm 11 comments

Photo Friday

Shepherd with his horse and dog on Gravelly Range Madison County, Montana, August 1942. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress Color America

From the Denver Post’s July 26, 2010 plog feature Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943.

These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations. The photographs are the property of the Library of Congress and were included in a 2006 exhibit Bound for Glory: America in Color.

August 13, 2010 at 9:23 am 6 comments

Quote of the Day

“Joy is a puzzling emotion, little examined from a biological point of view, perhaps because we suspect Stendahl to have been right when he said “To describe happiness is to diminish it.” But it seems clear enough that it is, like other emotions, a reaction, that it does not spring to life by spontaneous generation but in response to some sort of release. To be joyful is to be relieved, to be sprung free from anxiety. It then follows that absent real anxiety, neither can there be any real joy.”

Paul Gruchow in “The Necessity of Empty Places

August 5, 2010 at 2:32 pm 1 comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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August 2010