Why I’m not happy that Cesar Millan visits Budapest

Cesar Millan is one of the most famous dog trainers in the world. His TV program “The dog whisperer” ran on the National Geographic channel for 8 years and was only taken down after he was accused of animal cruelty. But I will not go into details about Cesar Millan and his commercial career.

Instead, I would like to provide an alternative, science-based explanation of what is happening in the preview that Cesar Millan did for Index. If any good training is based on setting the dogs up for success, this is clearly an example of bad training because the dogs were set up for failure.

My interpretation1:

  • Two dogs who do not know each other are forced to confront each other frontally2 in a small room full of people.
  • They are both on the leash.
  • They are sliding on the floor.
  • The handlers don’t tell the dogs what they want them to do.

In the beginning both dogs are curious and a little excited. Then you can see a change especially in the vizsla that Cesar is handling: the tail goes down, he looks away, nearly freezes, his mouth is first shut tight, then he starts panting heavily. From a dog that was excited but fine, he turns into a dog that is tense, shows clear signs of stress and uses many calming signals.

If you look at the small dog, it’s actually doing a great job of communicating his preferences, using a lot of calming signals to de-escalate the situation. He clearly attempts to walk away.

There is one more thing that I must mention. It is Cesar’s “training tool” which, according to him, “calms the brain”. BULLSHIT. It is a thin leash that forms a noose at one end. He puts it so that it circles the dog’s muzzle and is fastened where the skull and the neck meet. Even though he talks about how the dogs shouldn’t pull, once the device is placed he applies constant pressure effectively depriving the dog of oxygen. He doesn’t have to apply a lot of force because the laws of physics and nature work in his favor:

  • The smaller the area we apply pressure to, the less strength has to be applied to achieve the desired effect. Put simply the thinner the rope, the easier it is to suffocate the dog.
  • The area where the skull and the neck meet is especially vulnerable, which means that this device is also probably causing pain.

Cesar never stated what the purpose of this exercise is but let’s assume it was to stay by their handler’s side without pulling on the leash. Can dogs do that under such unfavorable circumstances? Yes, they can. BUT YOU MUST TRAIN THEM, not terrorize them.

sad dog
photo: www.pexels.com

Below you can find a small selection of signs exhibited by the vizsla in the video. If anyone is interested in a more detailed analysis that I compiled with the help of dog trainers from the Canis Pacalis network, I would be happy to send it by email:

  • in the beginning of the video the vizsla is pulling on the leash and moving
  • 00:07–00:10 the dog already starts tongue-flicking when Cesar stands very close to him and gesticulates wildly
  • 00:1700:20 when Cesar puts the device on he stands directly in front of the dog and leans over him3, you can see the tail slowing down
  • 00:3200:34 when Cesar holds the leash: the dog is barely moving anymore, the head and tail are low, the whole body seems tense, the ears lean slightly backwards, the dog tries to turn away but can’t
  • 00:5200:59 the dog is barely moving, his tail is low, his mouth is wide open, he pants heavily and his head is facing away from Cesar as much as possible. His panting and wagging speed up when Cesar touches him. When Cesar goes to the back and demonstrates pulling on the leash, the dog freezes.

Do not shout at your dog – pt. 2

Let’s recap: I was walking my dog off leash and talking on the phone. She walked onto a street. I shouted at her to come back, in response she lied down in the middle of the street. Not good. But why? The answer is of course: body language. Let’s have a look.

The human side: what was I doing?

I was standing tall, probably with my arms outstretched to some degree, leaning forward somewhat, using a loud, unpleasant tone of voice. Dogs can learn the meaning of verbal commands, but they’re hard-wired to respond to body language and it’s hard for them to overcome it.

My words meant: come back. My body and tone of voice meant: stay away. For us it is natural to interact face-to-face but dogs – given a choice – approach each other from an angle1. My body language at that moment was probably universally threatening but we, humans, are less sensitive to it as we primarily rely on speech. Have a look at how I could have improved the situation:

This is what I probably looked like – I was facing her, this shows me from the side so that you can see how I was leaning forward2:

Improvement 1 – hands by my side, not leaning forward anymore:

Improvement 2 – standing sideways:

Improvement 3 – squatting:

The canine side: what was Leus doing?

She stopped when I called her and turned towards me, then she lied down even though I told her to come back. Why would she do that?!

First and foremost, we must throw out of the window the misconception that dogs do things to spite us. Then we can proceed to the actual explanation.

We already established that my body language was threatening – the message “I’m scary” that my body was sending was stronger than the verbal message “come here”. Leus lied down in an attempt to appease me and avoid conflict.

Calming signals

This brings us to the so-called calming signals – a term developed by the Norwegian trainer Turid Rugaas3. She made three important observations that changed the dog training world forever:

  1. Dogs have a rich body language that they actively use to prevent conflicts.
  2. They primarily learn this language from other dogs but humans help them with this process.
  3. Some of the body language can be used by humans too.

Lying down, as Leus did, is one of these calming signals. These are the main signals that Turid Rugaas describes in her book:

  • turning the head away/looking away
  • “softening” the eyes (kind of like squinting or slowly blinking)
  • tongue flicks (the tongue comes out and touches the muzzle or the tip of the nose quickly)
  • longer licks around the muzzle
  • sitting down
  • moving slowly
  • moving in a curve/curving
  • stopping
  • lying down
  • sniffing
  • yawning
  • turning away
  • play bow
  • peeing
  • splitting (dividing other dogs)
  • tail wagging

Some of these behaviours can also signal distress: if you are on a crowded bus or in a vet’s waiting room you might see a lot of dogs that are panting, yawning or licking themselves. Obviously, these are just fragments of the body language – dogs can also yawn when they’re sleepy, pant when they are thirsty or wag their tail when they are happy. It is important to evaluate these signals in the context of the given situation. But please, stop shouting at your dog already.