My readers already know that I don’t exactly have an “I absolutely love this” relationship with Cesar Millan‘s TV show, “Dog Whisperer“, or any of the other television dog training shows, for that matter.
I think most programs and books on dog training do give us some worthwhile information. Sometimes this comes in the form of a method or approach that is thinking outside the box or gets us moving in the right direction when we’re stuck working on a particular issue or item or with a particular dog. Sometimes it comes in the form of things to add to the list we’d never, ever do to any dog we’re training. Sometimes it’s a little snippet here and there that’s useful, sometimes a lot. Often, it’s a lot of stuff that needs to go into the garbage and certainly should come with a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer.
The problem is that many dog owners and many dog trainers really don’t have the experience to pick out the good and leave the bad, or tell one from the other, which, I think, is what accounts for the popularity of Cesar’s TV show. Many people watch his show and say, “Wow, this guy really knows dogs and knows how to get them to do what he wants. It’s amazing how he fixed that dog.” Believe it or not, that’s exactly how his show looks to many dog owners who then go out and try those methods (even though Cesar’s show does have a disclaimer) on their own dogs.
The thing people need to realize, first and foremost, is that what they see is not what is actually happening. Like any reality television show, Cesar’s show is highly edited. You see what the editors want you to see – like a dog getting fixed in a short period of time and being perfectly well-behaved on Cesar’s return visit. What you don’t see is that this dog’s owner just went running with his dog for an hour, completely tiring him out, before that return visit segment was filmed. A tired dog is pretty much always a good dog. And you hardly ever hear about the ongoing, lengthy, daily commitment these owners have to make in order to keep their dog “fixed”.
The other thing people need to realize is that Cesar Millan honestly knows very little about canine body language. He’s frequently talking about dogs being “calm submissive” when in reality that dog is giving him just about every calming signal that is in its repertoire – and dogs have many of these calming signals, meant to appease in a situation that is uncomfortable, frightening, threatening to the dog.
There are many good publications on canine calming signals and canine body language available for those wanting to learn more about what their dogs are really saying. A good place to start is Turid Rugaas’ article, “Calming Signals – The Art of Survival” or her book, “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals.” Another good book is Brenda Aloff’s “Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide,” which shows photos of common behaviors and helps you learn more about what they mean in those contexts, helping you learn more about canine body language in general and reading it correctly. If you’re more visually oriented, I recommend the video “The Language of Dogs” by Sarah Kaljnas.
Let’s look at some of these body language “stress signals” in this video.
As you can see from the clip, my cat Ratchet is trying to interact with Ronja, my Belgian Malinois. Ronja isn’t quite as interested in this interaction as he is and is giving a lot of signals that communicate her discomfort.
At 11 seconds, you can see her quick tongue flick and “whale eye”, as well as her looking toward me (her handler) to come and take her out of this uncomfortable situation. At 35 seconds, she is beginning to remove her paws from the situation in hopes that Ratchet will leave her alone. A look back to me at 41 seconds, followed by another quick tongue flick at 51 seconds. As Ratchet begins to rub on her face at 1 minute, she turns her face away to avoid him and again licks her lips.
Now, Ronja is used to being around cats and doesn’t mind them as long as they leave her alone. She doesn’t seek interactions with them and takes it well when they chose to interact with her, as seen in this video, but she’s clearly communicating that this is an uncomfortable situation for her and that she’d prefer it if Ratchet just left her alone.
Now let’s watch the following video from Cesar Millan’s show, a clip titled “Showdown with Holly.”
When you’re watching this video, I’d like you to do so with the sound off and focusing only on the dog’s body language – not on Cesar’s body language or the sound. Then watch it again and focus on Cesar’s body language (and, if you must, the sound).
I see a dog here that is extremely uncomfortable with the interaction and is giving a whole host of calming / stress signals.
At 0 seconds in the video, as Cesar prepares to put the dog bowl down, we see her first tongue flick. She is positioned with ears back, shoulder turned toward Cesar with her body being in a slight c-shape, tail low. At 2 seconds, as Cesar puts down the bowl, she is turning her head to the side, lips pushed almost all the way forward, with a low tail wag, and then looks up at Cesar and squints. This is a dog who is uncomfortable, doesn’t like the interaction, and finds Cesar threatening.
Holly continues to turn her head sideways and squint her eyes at Cesar, giving him quick flicks of the ears. As she carefully begins to eat, Cesar leans forward (which is an intimidating gesture to this already uncomfortable dog), and Holly tenses and stiffens at 16 seconds. Stiffening or freezing is often a last way for a dog to communicate “this is really, really uncomfortable” and they may go from there into a fight or flight mode – either run away or, if they have no ability to, chose to fight. Cesar keeps getting closer, so Holly chooses to act defensively. However, look at her body posture at 18 seconds – she is growling and trying to grab the last of the kibble, but her body is leaning away from Cesar, tail tucked, hackles raised.
A lot of people automatically assume that raised hackles equal aggression, but they can mean many things. Many dogs hackle up when they’re aroused, which can be from plain excitement or from the uncertainty of greeting an unfamiliar dog, for example. It can also be from fear and yes, aggression. That’s why it’s important we look at the whole dog, not just the hackles before we jump to conclusions. Look at Holly at 21 seconds. She’s backed up and then lunged forward at Cesar again when he kept coming, but look at her posture. She’s leaning away, her body sideways to his, her tail tucked.
26 seconds gives us a side-by-side of Cesar and Holly’s face. Look closely at her face. Tongue flick after tongue flick, squinty eyes, flicking ears, stiff body. Holly is communicating that she has nowhere to go and is frightened. She’s also communicating that she doesn’t want to bite him – if she were an aggressive dog, rather than a dog on the defensive, she would have bitten him already – but she is letting him know that if he keeps pushing her and she has no place to get away from him, she will bite to defend herself. At 49 seconds, Holly lays down. Cesar hasn’t moved and she’s letting him know she’s okay with this if he leaves her alone and doesn’t keep pushing toward her.
As Cesar begins to talk, Holly is looking around herself, continuing with the largest signals of tongue flicks, ear flicks, and eye squinting. Contrary to what Cesar says at 1:10, Holly isn’t relaxed, and when Cesar pushes into her space, first with his hand and then with his whole body, she goes into defense mode and bites him.
When Cesar at 1:23 says, “I didn’t see that coming!” I have to wonder whether he suffers from some kind of sight impairment, or whether he really does not understand canine body language. Holly has given him nearly a minute and a half of signals that communicated distrust, discomfort, fear, defense, and a potential that she will bite if she felt cornered. The only way Holly could have been any more clear would have been to hold up a sign, “Get away from me or I will bite.”
That all said, Holly’s behavior over the food is called “resource guarding” – meaning she is protective of a resource, in this case her food, and uncomfortable with anyone approaching her while she’s eating. It’s not uncommon for dogs to be defensive over being approached when they’re eating or drinking – after all, they’re in a vulnerable position with their heads down – but resource guarding is more than that. It’s a fear that the person (or other animal) who is approaching is going to take their resource away. An excellent resource (no pun intended) on resource guarding is “Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs” by Jean Donaldson for those wanting to learn more about this particular behavior and how to address it.
Now let’s see another television trainer, Victoria Stillwell, address resource guarding behavior. (Again, just to reiterate, I don’t agree with everything Victoria advocates or says on her show, either – this isn’t a Cesar vs. Victoria debate. However, these two videos do well illustrate working with a resource guarding, unsure, uncomfortable dog and the contrast in methods.)
In Victoria’s video, a dog named Mr. Black is being given a bowl of kibble and then approached while eating by his owners so Victoria can observe his behavior. As his owner approaches him, he growls and gives stress signals. At 25 seconds we see the “whale eye”. His body is stiff and turned sideways from the owners. He actually moves away from being touched. At 52 seconds, the dog’s owner has moved to the side of the bowl the dog moved to in order to get away from the people, and as he tries to approach the dog from that side, the dog urinates. This is a behavior called submissive urination and yes, it’s another type of calming signal in dog/dog and dog/human interactions.
As you continue on with the video, you can see the difference in Victoria’s approach, which is dog-friendly, and Cesar’s approach, which is, for lack of a better term, dog-aggressive. While Cesar pushes and bullies the uncomfortable, unsure dog into biting him, Victoria begins teaching her dog’s owners to teach the dog that he doesn’t need to feel uncomfortable about being approached while eating because good things happen when he is being approached while he’s at the food bowl. (I kinda wish Victoria’s video continued longer than it does, but she shows how to get started on making a dog that is resource guarding comfortable about being approached.)
Which dog do you think will be trained out of their behavior and happy to be approached by people? The dog Cesar worked with or the dog Victoria worked with (providing that either set of owners follow through on either method)? My guess would be that it would be the dog Victoria works with – who’ll not only be comfortable being approached, but will also go through a lot less stress in training in the process.
Now check out this video of dog/dog interactions by trainer Michael Burkey, which breaks down the behaviors of the two dogs, both the positive behaviors of the Rottweiler and the warning signals given by the Belgian Malinois, to reinforce the importance of looking for and reading canine body language when interacting with dogs and when dogs interact with each other.