In this interesting New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Pack of Lies,” dog expert Mark Kerr finally issues a critique of the mighty Dog Whisperer and questions the validity of his techniques.
Cesar Millan is, without a doubt, charming and engaging, the embodiment of “tough love.” His results, as depicted on his program, are simply amazing. Yes, his techniques seem a little hard-assed at times, but if he can prevent a wayward dog from being disowned or euthanized, great. If he can prevent an aggressive dog from causing harm and mayhem, so be it. If he can encourage more people to work with their dogs rather than give up on them, well, that is simply wonderful. I enjoy watching The Dog Whisperer, perhaps because there is something satisfying about seeing hopeless cases rehabilitated, especially when they are cute and furry. Also, I believe that it is a noble endeavor to attempt to better understand animals and communicate with them.
But Kerr argues that Cesar doesn’t really understand dogs and that his philosophy of dominance and submission is highly problematic. He cites a wolf behavior expert in arguing that not all wolf packs are structured the way that Cesar suggests and that dominance contests are rare. Furthermore, he says, domestic dogs are not wolves. Their collective psyches have been irrevocably altered by 15,000 years of selective breeding and association with humans. They are more psychologically complex than wolves in a pack, more like individuals with individual “talents and limitations.” He argues that Cesar’s techniques, although mild compared to some, are punitive, regressive, and quick and dirty. Dominance and intimidation might work in the short run, he says, but much is sacrificed and overlooked in the process, including subtle factors that might be causing the unwanted behavior.
I admit that I have always felt a tad uncomfortable with Cesar’s methods and ambivalent about his results. In changing a neurotic animal into a “calm, submissive” one, how much of its spirit is broken? Since they can’t talk to us, we will never know for sure. While it is true that most dogs respond well to authority and clear limits, most also need the latitude to be the goofy and exuberant creatures that they are.
And the phrase “calm, submissive” often troubles me. I worry that these little reformed miscreants have become lobotomized zombies. And is a jumping Min Pin so bad any way? Is a feisty Chihuaha so out of the ordinary? I always thought that feistiness was part of the small package. And is it possible to control that feistiness rather than subdue it? Cesar’s results may make the dog’s people happier, but do they make the dogs happier? And I wonder about the recidivism rate of these creatures. A year later, are the animals back to their old tricks?
I was highly amused when I observed Cesar trying to settle a long-standing dispute between a family cat and dog, and, when he finally got them settled, he stated, “Now you have a calm, submissive dog and a calm, submissive cat.” I have known many, many calm cats, but I have never known a submissive one. The most passive of their kind will take their chances on the street rather than submit to your will, and this is only one of their many charms, in my opinion. What Cesar did not understand is that the cat was probably just weary of the whole game.
The notion of a “quick fix” is highly addictive. There is something appealing I think, even to the most liberal and independent among us, about having a strong and gentle authority figure come in and quickly and decisively set things right. There is something enormously comforting in knowing that no matter how tough the problem, there’s a big, strong guy out there who can solve it for you, even by using force, if necessary (and there is a political point mixed in here, in case you haven’t noticed) so that you don’t need to think about it anymore, so that you don’t need to wrangle and wrestle with it. Perhaps this is the fundamental appeal of The Dog Whisperer.