This month, I'm poring through Cesar Millan's wildly popular best-selling training book How To Raise The Perfect Dog: Through Puppyhood and Beyond. I want to write about how the training book compares to my own life, dogs and experience. I am eager to meet my first "perfect dog" and I am curious to know what "beyond" means, unless it's that Rainbow Bridge.
Yesterday, I wrote about Cesar's view of housebreaking and my own experience with it.
As I wrote yesterday, training books for me are often works of inspired humor and fantasy. This is nowhere more apparent than in Cesar's chapter called "expressing disagreement" with your puppy and learning to express limits "kindly," and in a language the puppy will understand.
Although Cesar has a reputation for being tough, his advice – at least about disagreeing with puppies – is nothing but positive. It is, in fact, often ludicrous, perhaps with an eye to the many dog lovers out there who think store-bought food is abuse. The book seems to me a desperate nod to the very popular and fashionable training program called positive reinforcement training. You will find very few people on those Facebook forums or anywhere else in the sensitive regions of the dog world who would claim to practice anything else.
I ought to state two things up front just to be transparent.
1.I do not accept the idea that Cesar Millan is in any way an abuser of animals, or that his methods are cruel and abusive, as many dog lovers believe. His training methods for correcting bad canine behavior are far gentler than the methods dogs themselves use for correcting one another. Although he has absolutely nothing in common with you or me or our dogs, he has an absolutely proven record of rehabilitating many dogs others have given up on.
2. Like everyone else, I am an advocate for positive reinforcement training.But I am not an entirely positive person. You probably are not either, if you're being honest. It's what they call being human.
3. I have written one training book, an e-book called Listening To Dogs: How To Be Your Own Training Guru. It cost $2.99 and you most likely never heard of it. The more training books I read, the more I like it. I understand that Cesar sells a ton more books than I have or will. He is the Big Guru of dog training in America.
Positive Reinforcement Training is pain-free training, it exists under different names and descriptions but basically it is about reinforcing the behavior that you want, rather than correcting the behavior you don't want. It is the most gentle conventional method of training, by far the most politically correct and by many standards, the most humane. If we are being honest, it is also nearly impossible for most people to fully achieve.
I remember being invited to a very positive clicker training program for a dozen dogs in a windswept cow pasture in upstate New York. The positive reinforcement trainer was emphatically positive. The first thing that happened was that the Lab ate his clicker, which his owner dropped in the cold and snow, and his owner cursed the dog and smacked him in the butt. The clicker cost $3, the man shouted, and the Lab had eaten three of them.
The Lab and owner were expelled, it turned out to be too cold for people to click.
So this is the dilemma surrounding positive reinforcement training, the elephant in the room. If you look at the news, or any five people you know in or outside of the office, or members of your family, you know that most people are not entirely, or even mostly, positive. Truly positive people stand out like a full moon in a dark sky. And even celebrated positive people like the Dalai Lama confess that they are often quite surly and negative.
Dogs are unpredictable, instinctive, have very different ideas than we do about what is appropriate. When you get a dog, your first task is to teach them not to be a dog, or do any of the things dogs love to do – roll in feces, eat garden bulbs, have sex, chew up sofa pillows, eat the stuff in the litter box. It is a kind of war from the beginning. A good dog is one we have intimidated or manipulating into giving up what he or she most naturally loves. It is not a simple, peaceful or always loving process.
And this is the great dilemma of dog training books, the people who write them live in another dimension, perhaps across the Rainbow Bridge, they live with saintly and agile and ever-patient aliens who are not like me or anyone I know with dogs I can't imagine and have never seen.
As many of the people reading this know, I am not always, or even often, the most positive of people. I was not positive when Fate grabbed a bar of soap out of the bathroom shower and ran through the house with it, foaming at the mouth and scaring the wits of out of me. Nor was I positive when she pulled a pair of my underpants out of the hamper and deposited their shredded remains at the feet of our dinner guest. Or when she took the contents of the bathroom wastebasket, transported them upstairs, and spread them over the quilt on our bed.
I was not positive when my border collie Rose ran a block of sheep right up my ass, knocking me to the ground, or when my border collie Orson decided to herd a school bus in New Jersey with 50 grade school children inside and their hysterical Boomer moms and dads outside. In fact, I have not been positive countless times around dogs, and this is the complex thing about positive reinforcement training. For it to work, it often asks the human to be something humans are generally not- calm, patient, loving.
Just look at the presidential campaign. If they can't do it for two hours on national TV, what makes anyone think we can do it with a headstrong puppy, an animal – the perfect dog – throwing up on our shoes or peeing on the carpet?
Cesar has page after page in his book about how to be polite to your puppy. Touch a puppy on the side of its neck or on the side of its hindquarters. Use a claw-shaped hand, which mimics a mother's bite on the side of the neck, on the muscle, not the throat. This hand doesn't "pinch," it is firm, but it doesn't have to use much pressure. The pressure should be proportionate to the level of behavior (for instance, an adult dog that has escalated into a red zone will need more pressure than a puppy that has just begun chewing a shoe, which will need only a light touch.)
The timing of the touch correction, cautions Cesar, "is crucial it has to take place at the exact moment of the transgression and end the moment the puppy relaxes and changes her behavior. Use the "tsssst" sound to represent displeasure, he says. Use a "kissing" sound to represent a positive action.
Good advice, I'm sure. Over my dead body. I'm not walking around Main Street making "tsssst" and "kissing" sounds to a puppy.
I read this and was thinking "who are these amazing people?," who can be so vigilant as to catch a puppy at the precise moment of transgression (I never saw Fate go near my underpants or the bathroom trash), or form their hand into the shape of a claw and quickly run down a shrieking puppy scrambling for its life, and estimate just what was proportionate for eating trash as opposed to gnawing on a shoe.
How fast can they move, as opposed to me, who could not easily get under the dining room table to try to strangle the border collie puppy who just stole my biscotti from the table? What kind of legs do those people in the book have? Which muscle am I supposed to gently press again?
With all due respect to Cesar, these books seem like a shell-game to me, a pyramid scheme. They do things you cannot possibly do in most cases, they make you feel small and incompetent with your dog. Dogs pick up on stuff like that.
You read these books and can't possibly be the kind of person you read about, and can't possibly do what the people in those books do. So you feel stupid, and you decide you need another book to help you get to the next level, even though you never got to the first. After awhile, you may realize that the real point of the books is to make you feel like a failure, so you will need more books and a video or two as well.
I am a fervent supporter of being positive with dogs and all of my animals, but I am a passionate supporter of acknowledging reality as well. I am a human being. Look around you.
When Fate came down the stairs with my underpants, I stood up and shouted, I did not think much about it, I surely remember the horrified look of my guests, and she took off and ran under the dining room table. I glowered at her and mumbled, blushed a bit and threw the underpants in the garbage. Even if I could have caught her, which I could not, I would not have remembered how to do the claw hand, exactly where to place it, or just how much pressure to apply. Which muscle? What age?
Books like this make us feel dumb and inadequate. Dogs are very pliant and adaptable creatures. They know right away when we are displeased, and they are not made of crystal. Displeasure often rolls off of them like rain off a seal. I do not ever hit my dogs, I have tried to kick one or two in my time and missed. I would not dare to even show Cesar's book to a farmer, and they have some of the best-trained and behaved dogs I have ever seen.
My mistake with Fate was in not containing her that night when she was so young and we couldn't pay attention to her. She should have been in the crate with a bone. There would have been no trouble, no bad habits to form.
Sometimes I lose it and shout at her. That is rare. Mostly I love her and play with her. She is quite a happy dog.
Sometimes I stomp my feet. Once in awhile, I throw a throw chain over her head to startle her. She has not been damaged by any of this, she is eager and responsive, and is even becoming obedient. Sometimes the best training is to let them grow older. Fate will not be a perfect dog, and was not, not through puppy hood or beyond, whatever that is. And she does not have a perfect owner.
Those are the cards we both are dealt. We are partners in the joys and travail of the world.
Our training goals are positive and realistic, within reason and ability, and we are achieving almost all of them. She is teaching me a lot all of the time. I yell at her about a half dozen times a week, and once in awhile, she even takes notice. Do not let them make you think you are stupid, try being your own guru and see what happens. You'll save a lot of money too and you might even feel good about yourself as the owner and lover of a dog.