|By Becky Turner||Discuss This Article at our Sheltie Forums|
This is my Dog Whisperer: Season One review - a TV show hosted by expert dog rehabilitator, Cesar Millan, who teaches people how to build better relationships with their dogs. In turn, their dogs exhibit much healthier behaviors and both humans and canines can live a better lifestyle together.
Cesar Millan, Dog Whisperer
Cesar deals with a range of problems in the first season, from excessive barking to dog aggression. Each episode typically features two misbehaving dogs who seemingly undergo massive personality changes. The dog owners are left chanting "oh my god, that's amazing" while Cesar exudes a calm confident energy over the problem pet.
So how does he do it? Are we dog owners missing something completely obvious? How is it that, as a nation of dog lovers, we are all so terrible at raising calm, obedient, well-adjusted dogs?
Of course, we're not all that bad, but with a small adjustment in our perspective, we can vastly improve our relationships with our pooches.
"My job is to help people understand what dogs really mean.
When a dog is balanced, you are going to enjoy a true friend.
My dream is to share the knowledge that I was born with to the rest of the world. I love what I do." - Cesar Millan
Cesar Millan's philosophy is based on the fact that dogs are pack animals - and your little Sheltie dog has a genetic instinct to join a group and follow a leader. This is tens of thousands of years of evolution at play and is still well-ingrained even after the domestication of our pets. Cesar uses this knowledge to project his firm but benevolent approach to rehabilitating problem dogs.
The running theme of Dog Whisperer is that it's not the dog's fault when it exhibits neurotic or aggressive behaviors; it's the owner. We love our pets but we don't naturally act like the pack leaders they seek to follow. And so our dogs feel the need to assume this role even when they don't have the calm, assertive leadership skills required for an alpha dog. The result is damaging and unpredictable behaviors like excessive barking, anxiety, growling and biting.
"But my Sheltie doesn't care about being the alpha dog!" I hear you cry. According to the Dog Whisperer, Shelties are no exception. Early on in Season One, Cesar deals with a highly strung Sheltie who barks at anything - from toasters to telephones - and it seems a completely irrational behavior to his poor, frazzled owners.
Cesar theorizes that this frustrating behavior is caused by the owners treating their Sheltie like a little baby all the time. They shower him with affection but never show him discipline or curb his unwanted behaviors. And when that happens, you get a very unruly dog. Just like an unruly child who is left to run wild and never shown discipline, the dog can also become an unmanageable member of the family.
Rana The Sheltie on Dog Whisperer
As a result, the little critter had (in his mind) designated himself as top dog - after all, there was no-one else telling him what to do! But because he didn't have the calm-assertive qualities of a leader, he felt extremely anxious about any new sights or sounds entering their domain. It was all he could do to sound the alarm and whip his owners into a frenzy. This was the watchdog tendency in overkill mode.
Sound familiar? :P
Cesar treated the little guy by putting him on a leash, thereby immediately telling the dog "I'm in charge now - you can relax" and entraining a submissive state of mind. Then he calmly stood by the toaster and had it pop in front of the Sheltie. At first the dog's desire was to bark because this had become such a natural response to sudden stimulus. But with several repetitions, the Sheltie began feeding off the energy of the Dog Whisperer and submitting to his toast-popping whims.
After that, the Sheltie had so many calm, positive experiences of the toaster, this became a new learned behavior, and he no longer felt the need to bark at it anymore. All because this new dominant animal showed the dog it was ok to let the toast pop and be calm. It was then a case of teaching his owners to behave this way as well and reinforce the new state of mind until it became second nature.
We all love our dogs and don't want to see them suffer on any level. Perhaps this is why Cesar Millan has attracted some critics, who say that using the alpha dog psychology, he sometimes has to drive dogs into a submissive state of mind, using both mental and physical force. To some casual viewers it looks quite intimidating.
In Season One, Cesar deals with a number of problem pets but nothing too extreme. He certainty doesn't use that much physical force on them. In later seasons, as I understand (but haven't yet seen) he deals with severely psychologically disturbed dogs and on occasion has to take much more stronger courses of action - in some episodes, the use of electric shock collars. But that is the extreme scenario.
The basic misunderstanding, I feel, is what a submissive state entails. For packs of dogs to function effectively and survive in the wild, they evolved to have a natural social hierarchy - one dominant alpha male and a group of followers. The alpha rises to this position naturally because he is the smartest, bravest dog. He is neither neurotic nor cocky. He is the best leader available and exudes confidence which makes all the other dogs feel safe and secure.
The other dogs don't resent their leader - they respect him. And they don't resent the fact that they may be bottom of the pack. For any dog, simply knowing his place in the pack is what makes him feel at ease. As long as he has a calm-assertive leader to follow, life is good. Cesar gives our confused and unruly pets a clear understanding of their position and they quickly return to a calm-submissive state of mind, just like when they were puppies. "Thank Woof!" they are saying, "This guy wants to be leader now. Take it! Take the job! I never wanted it anyway!"
The idea of a pack leader is actually a very traditional theory of dog psychology. However it is not the only dog training method and there are alternatives - for example only ever using positive reinforcement. Some dogs can learn just fine this way because they never challenge the rules laid down when they were young. They sense their human has taken the role of alpha and they needn't challenge that.
It's only when we come across these maladjusted, aggressive dogs who can and will attack humans that a stronger course of action (negative reinforcement) may be needed. This includes physical domination and choke chains, for which Cesar teaches us the correct and proper use to control the dog without hurting him or putting him under undue stress. Cesar is a dog lover, after all!
Nunu The Chihuahua on Dog Whisperer
Dogs that are abused, mistreated or simply lacking leadership can develop abnormal psychological habits. They can be confused and neurotic. They can be aggressive. When these factors are combined, dogs can be very dangerous to children and adults. If they can't be treated, these dogs may eventually be put down. It's dog trainers like Cesar Millan who have the knowledge and the courage to approach these dogs and rehabilitate them. I don't believe we should be stringing Cesar up for that. He saves dogs' lives.
The aim, of course, is never to hurt the dog. It's to show the alpha's capacity to be physically superior - its just a display of dominance. If Cesar really were to fight against a large angry dog I'd dare say the dog would win.
Man and dog have a fantastic symbiotic relationship where the two species working together is advantageous for us both. Recent scientific studies show that dogs' brains have actually evolved to interpret our facial expressions. So deep down, it is a dog's instinct to please his human companion. He doesn't want to fight you. It's only when the dog is severely confused and lacks good leadership when problems occur.
I heard that, in later seasons, Cesar uses physical and psychological dominance over the dogs and when they fight back he has to use force to control them. However, many of them are in serious need of rehabilitation, believing they are superior to humans (which is a dangerous state when they are also mentally unbalanced) and so this is not a typical dog training session. I also believe Cesar uses the level of force necessary to match the dog's aggression, and that he has sufficient experience of dogs to know if he is overstepping the mark.
Now, back to most pets - and Cesar's typical dog training recommendations.
Of course! The Dog Whisperer is not all about commanding discipline of your dog. This just a small but important part of your dog's development which most people just don't get. It truly is the key to unlocking a healthier relationship with your dog, with so many dog issues arising from poor pack leadership. Unfortunately, many people forget to reinforce the discipline element - they figure that stops after their puppy is housetrained and can walk on a leash. But a dog will continually test the boundaries if they sense you are not behaving as the alpha.
If you get the discipline element right, you can of course get all those snuggles from your pooch and have a very psychologically healthy dog. Cesar shows that while you should always have discipline in the back of your mind, it is totally fine to give your Sheltie as much affection as you want - as long as it's on your terms.
So what are the terms? Take a look at this classic example. Many of us pat and play with our Shelties as soon as we get home, when they are very excited - but that will only reinforce that hyperactive state of mind. If you think your Sheltie already has too much nervous energy, why would you praise and encourage that behavior?
The Dog Whisperer tell us that the best time to give your dog affection is when he's already calm and submissive, thereby reinforcing that nice lovely temperament. Overall, it's better for you - and for your Sheltie. So leave your pooch alone for a few minutes after you step in the front door and allow your Sheltie to calm down before praising and giving them all the attention in the world!
I recommend The Dog Whisperer for any dog owner. Even though I feel my Shelties are relatively well-behaved dogs, they do still give me moments where I feel I am not in control. This is frustrating. As dog owners, we need all the help we can get to nurture the beautiful relationships we have with our dogs. It's also in the interest of our own safety and sanity; living with an unruly dog is very stressful and can negatively impact on everyone in the house. We owe it to our dogs to train them properly - and we owe it to ourselves and our families who live with them.
Becky Turner is the creator of Sheltie Planet. She lives in New Zealand with her partner, Peter, and their son, Fox. Becky is 100% owned by Howard and Piper Woofington Moon, the Shelties who inspired this site. Visit them on Facebook or The Sheltie Planet Forums.