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.

Why train by positive reinforcement?

This is the short answer: because positive reinforcement is a humane, science-based method of training animals that focuses on rewarding desirable behaviours. It is safe for everyone to use and it strengthens the bond between you and your animal.

  • It is humane and safe because it does not involve punishment (be it verbal or physical). Animals have different levels of sensitivity and even though many dogs tolerate punishment, for others it may be a trigger to bark, bite or hide, ultimately escalating the situation instead of solving the problem. Therefore, using punishment is not safe. Secondly, punishment damages the bond between you and your animal, teaching the animal that they cannot trust you or even should fear you. (I also think that punishment is plain wrong and useless but it’s a matter for a different post).
  • It is science-based because it mostly uses the principles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning that have been well documented over the last hundred years. There has also been research into positive reinforcement itself that showed that animals trained by this method learned faster and retained the new skills much longer than classically trained animals.
  • It is a method because once you learn the principles you can yourself train your animal. Of course what you train them to do and how long it will take depends on many factors (the animal’s age, experiences and predispositions, your skills, the amount of time you’re willing to invest…)  but you definitely do not need to be a ‘dog whisperer’ to use it to your advantage.

Positive reinforcement…

  • is not a quick fix. Like all successful training methods positive reinforcement requires us to think about our goals, plan ahead and manage the animal’s environment so that we can set them up for success. Most problems consist of multiple “bad behaviours” and each of them has to be fixed individually. (For example problematic greeting behaviour may involve barking, lunging and uncontrolled running. All separate issues for training.).
  • does not mean that you have to use treats (or any other kind of reward) all the time. Yes, initially you treat each time. But once a behaviour is stable (reliable) you can gradually wean the animal off treats and only reward them from time to time. Unless it’s something that is really hard for them. Speaking of which, why are we so opposed to rewarding our dogs? No one ever asks when they can stop punishing their dogs… Without delving deep I’d like to make an argument for treating our dogs lavishly: most of the things we ask them to do are contrary to their instincts and obeying all our requests is hard work. In my opinion hard work deserves pay. Full stop.
  • does not equal permissiveness. The difference between positive reinforcement based training and “traditional” training is how we react to the unwanted behaviours. Where a ctraditional trainer might opt for correction1/punishment, the positive trainer opts for telling the dog what they want (instead of what they do not want)2because really, just expecting them to “know better” is plain unfair. Example: your dog wanders off the sidewalk. Instead of yelling/jerking the leash, one way would be to teach your dog the cue “sidewalk” and reward them for getting back onto the sidewalk.
  • Not everything can (or must) be trained.

Do not shout at your dog

…and how I learned the hard way

It’s really hard to resist the urge to punish the dog verbally, especially when they are doing something that is not only wrong but also potentially dangerous. Patricia McConnell suggested in one of her books that it has more to do with letting off steam and appeasing our own anger than with anything even vaguely resembling training. But still, it’s just really hard.

For example: despite her training my dog cheerfully walked into the street. My reaction? I shouted at her. She stopped. I did some more shouting. She lied down.

She lied down in the middle of the zebra.

Why? Firstly, despite all the sounds I was making I did not give her any clear instructions. I think she figured out I was unhappy but that’s not a cue or even a clue. Secondly, I must have looked pretty scary to her, no wonder she decided not to approach me.

Luckily we lived in a very quiet neighbourhood with few cars so I had the seconds necessary to put my thinking cap back on, change my body language and tone and make her come to me. I hope I rewarded her plenty for coming back. The whole scene lasted probably less than half a minute but it felt like ages to me…

I’m sure that everyone who has a dog (or a child for that matter) has been in a similar situation. Frustration management is a problem for all of us, humans and dogs alike. Situations like this clearly show that shouting does not solve any problems. The biggest lesson I took from this experience is, well, not shouting at her. But there are other lessons.

First of all, did this have to happen? No. This situation was 100% my fault. She should not have been off the leash in that situation at all because a) I was talking on the phone, and b) we have only started practicing staying on the pavement.

Roads and pavements are just one of these things, just like walking shoulder to shoulder or facing each other during greetings, that are so very natural to us that we tend to make the assumption that dogs should also know what they mean. But my dog has most probably spent her whole life scavenging the countryside, how should she know? The key to being a successful companion is managing their environment and setting them up for success.
In our case that means that I do not talk on the phone when she’s off the leash and – after months of practice – I still let her walk the streets freely only when I can totally focus on her. And I try my best to not lash out because if she ‘misbehaves’ it is because I haven’t taught her a better behaviour.

Introduction

There is a myriad of things you can teach your dog and a myriad of ways to do it. What often gets lost in the equation is: why do we want to train our dogs? and what do they need to know?

Once you start thinking about it it’s pretty obvious that what they need to know and what we want them to know are not the same. What do we want for them?

For me it looks like this:
I want my dog to be safe.
I want my dog to be happy.

To be safe she needs to be able to:

  • stop when I ask her,
  • come back when called,
  • not rush into new situations (=no running out of the door, jumping out of the car), and
  • comply with medical exams.

To be happy she needs to be able to do things that she likes. For that she needs me to learn about her, observe and listen so that I can provide the opportunity to her.

Does any of that require fancy trick or obedience training?
No.

Can dogs enjoy tricks & obedience?
Probably, maybe – people are actually really divided on that one.

This blog aims to explore ways to teach dogs to be safe in a non-violent way and to investigate all the ways we can make them happy and their best possible selves. Maybe we can become our better selves in the process as well.