I've Become a Whisperee!

I saw Cesar Millan in action for the first time on an episode of Bones. Playing himself, Cesar walks into a barn of killer dogs, makes his famous, "Tsst" sound, and they all immediately quieten down.

I rolled my eyes slightly, went, "Oh, Hollywood," and didn't think much more about it.

About a week ago, I picked up Season 1 of the Dog Whisperer (starring Cesar Millan) from my local library. Here's the amazing thing: Quieting a barn of killer dogs may seem improbable. With Cesar, it isn't impossible.

Seriously. (Although I suspect the dogs in Bones may have been from his own pack.)

I've become seriously addicted to the show and not because I learn something new every episode. Basically, by the time you've watched the first three episodes, you know Cesar's philosophy and what each owner needs to hear (such as, "Walk your dog!"). It's kind of like listening to radio psychologists. Yup, now Dr. Laura will tell another stupid woman not to move in with a guy who has a history of hitting women. Ho hum.

The difference is that someday I want to grow up and be Cesar. (I don't particularly want to be a radio psychologist.) Sure, he's talking about dogs, but he is also talking about group psychology. All the stuff he says about being "calm assertive" and "a pack leader" . . . I just sit there and lap it up--like somehow if I hear it enough times, it will translate into automatic results (yes, I know this doesn't work; yes, the pun was deliberate).

I also, by the way, happen to agree with Cesar about dogs. I've never thought of animals, including my cats, as little humans with fur. Ever. My cats don't think like me. They don't learn like me. They don't function like me. They're CATS! (Speaking of which, does anyone know of a Cat Whisperer?)

And dogs are dogs: pack animals, bred to the bone to respond to the top dog. And here's the thing: they WANT to. I always kind of suspected this, but like most warm and fuzzy humans, I had this idea that an overexcited, running around dog was a happy dog.

It isn't, and if I didn't believe that before, I believe it now.

To clarify: a running-after-a-ball-when-pack-leader-throws-it is a happy dog; a bouncing-all-over-visitors-and-chewing-slippers-because-I-don't-get-enough-exercise dog is not.

Unlike humans, dogs WANT to follow (or, at least, dogs admit it). They WANT a pack leader who is in charge. One of the most touching aspects of the show (that is rarely remarked on) is how the dogs in a household will automatically gravitate to Cesar. This is before he starts working with them. He walks in; he establishes dominance; the dogs immediately range themselves around him. He doesn't touch them, pat them, or make eye contact. A human would be offended. The dogs are relieved. They usually take a nap.

For example, in a Season 3 episode, (yes, I am working through them as quickly as I can), Cesar enters a room with two large dogs (Rottweilers, I think). He establishes dominance with his "calm assertive" presence. The dogs stop whining and charging the door. Cesar turns to the camera to talk and then kneels down to demonstrate doggy behavior. Behind him, the two dogs immediately also "sit". They want to conform. They ain't human! (There's no "But I want to express my independent self!!" stuff going on here!)

Cesar is also a kid whisperer, by the way. In another Season 3 episode, Cesar showed a mom how to open a door while holding her four month old and keeping the family dog at bay (so it doesn't charge visitors). Cesar demonstrated by taking the four month old. The kid slumped peacefully against his shoulder. As soon as the exercise finished, the mom quickly took her child back. It's one thing to let Cesar walked off with your dog; another to let him walk off with your kid!

Three more thoughts (I could go on and on, but I don't want to be too much of a groupie [says the non-dog]):

1. Why do people who perform services for dogs act so wimpy around them?

I don't mean the owners; I mean vets and trainers (other than Cesar who is really a human trainer as in "I will train you to take care of your dog!"). I'm amazed at the number of owners who have had bad luck with trainers and vets. I had such an experience a few years ago: I went into the vet with my cats; one of them hissed and waved his claws around. The vet freaked: "Get out the cage! Get out the muzzle!"


I clip my cats' nails. I've syringe their ears. I give them pills. I pick them up and remove them from places I don't want them to be. So I get scratched now and then or bitten. So what? If I didn't want that to happen, I wouldn't have cats. Why would anyone become a vet if they were that easily frightened of animals?

It continually impresses me how willing Cesar is to put the animal's needs over a few scratches and bites.

2. Why do people who don't want to walk dogs get large dogs!?

According to Cesar, even small dogs want to be walked (this makes sense), but I have never, never, NEVER understood why ANYONE would get a large dog and then shut it up in a yard. Whadja get it for?

I happen to like large dogs, such as German Shepherds. But I will never own one. This is because I don't have the discipline to walk it for an hour + every day. It would be grossly unfair to the animal for me to buy or adopt it just so I could . . . what? Say I have a German Shepherd? Pet it at night? Feed my cats to it?

It's like the gym: if I'm not willing to go out walking NOW, why would a gym membership make that any more likely?

3. I'm writing this next thought when my cats aren't looking: dogs are smarter than cats.

Dogs NEED to exercise their brains. One of the most interesting aspects of the show for me is how much Cesar emphasizes a power-walk where the dog actually has to concentrate (rather than just ramble around). I've long suspected that one reason a good owner trains a dog is because it not only makes the dog easier to be around, it gives the dog something to do!

Bad dogs are often bored dogs.

And animals have to have brains in order to get bored. They don't need brains just to be boring. (But, yes, I happen to like boring.)

Thus endeth the lesson.

I highly recommend Dog Whisperer. Even when you take film editing into account, Cesar is gosh darn amazing! And the film editing is actually very amusing.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kate,

Great post. I like your writing style and humor, and I'm especially pleased to see you make distinctions among dog, human, and cat psychology. Both humans and dogs are group-oriented animals, so we humans are more familiar with the general psychology of dogs. Where we really go off the rails is in applying our ideas to cats, which are, well, another animal entirely.

Cats don't need approval, they don't go in for submission and appeasement, and they are quite independent (but not "solitary" -- a myth recently debunked). In fact, one could argue cats aren't even fully domesticated, as dogs and horses are. As our founder at the Cat Behavior Clinic puts it, cats are "exploited captives," like camels, Asian elephants, certain deer.

But there is a way to modify their behavior; it starts with understanding what they need in their environment -- and most of the behavior that needs modifying is the owners' . . .

To answer your question, you can find Cat Whisperer (tm) behavior modification services at the Clinic!


C. Powell
The Cat Behavior Clinic

Cherndawg said...

My Work as a behavioral therapist has given me a lot of insight into this sort of thing.
I enjoy shows about animal training alot, because it's a great chance for me to see other people actually doing what I do. While the venue is different (I'm trying to change the behavior of handicapped individuals), many time the principle is the same.
And, just as you find in the TV shows (and as mentioned in the comment above), many times the family/parents are really the cause of the problems, reinforcing those undesired behaviors.
Individuals are stubborn and set in their ways, so directly changing the individual is really hard. The key often lies in changing the environment (including those occupying the environment with the individual), so that the individual begins changes their reactions and interactions with that environment.

If you ever want to change a behavior, consider 3 things-

1. What is the purpose of this behavior (what are they trying to obtain or escape from)?

2.What things in the environment are reinforcing this behavior (causing it to continue)?

3. What is an alternate behavior that will require roughly the same amount of effort to achieve the same task as the undesired behavior?

From here, you just introduce the alternate behavior and determine the best way to reinforce the subject for performing that behavior. Often times, natural reinforcement (example- I flip the light switch, and now I can see) goes a long way.

Reading back over this, I feel I should point out that of course I do not equate children or handicapped individuals with animals. However, behavioral modification is similar process for every individual; regardless of their age, race, or species.

Kate Woodbury said...

Hey, Mike: I think a lot of analogies can be drawn between human behavior and cat/dog behavior! After all, we are all mammals :) I think humans gravitate between the dog mentality (pack behavior) and the cat mentality (loner within a group behavior). Plus, as you point out, behavior modification is behavior modification. When I worked at a counseling clinic, the demand, "Fix my kid" almost always resulted in the Cesar response, "Fix your home first." Really: how can an ADHD kid be calm in a totally chaotic environment? And how totally unfair is it to expect that?

I've just posted more about cat behavior.