It was Malcolm Gladwell who first introduced me to Cesar Millan in his 2006 New Yorker piece. Soon afterwards, I saw Cesar Millan featured on Oprah. Intrigued by the endorsements of two very different people, I started watching The Dog Whisperer. From the first episode, I was hooked. Everything Cesar did looked so effortless. Everything he said sounded so simple. “What was wrong with all of these dog owners?” I thought. “It looks so easy! Anyone could do that!” With just a few catch phrases, “Exercise, Discipline, and Affection” and “Calm and Assertive Energy”, even I felt like I could rehabilitate troubled dogs. Clearly, this was before I got Loki.
Throughout Loki’s first year, I ardently stuck with Cesar’s philosophy and defended it. I watched his show and read a couple of his books. I had faith in his philosophy and raised Loki on his principles. However, when Loki’s behavior didn’t go according to plan, I was crestfallen.
Cesar teaches that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. “Well, what about me?” I thought. I am typically neither calm nor assertive. I’m often stressed, anxious, and submissive. Does that mean I should be barred from owning a dog? Maybe. But my emotional states aren't that out of the ordinary.
When Loki began to exhibit aggressive behavior, I felt terribly guilty. In fact, to this day I haven’t been able to fully let go of that guilt. We’ve had Loki since he was 8 weeks old. All of his behavior problems must have been caused by us. If some other people adopted Loki without knowing his history, they probably would think that he was abused. I’ve tried to reconcile my guilt by telling myself that we did the best we could, that I put in tremendous effort, and that we are still continuing to do what we can.
Of all of Cesar’s teachings, the one that has most drastically changed my opinion about him is the touch, otherwise known as the hand-bite. Cesar claims that the touch is supposed to replicate a dog bite, and it is supposed to snap a dog out of it. We tried it and tried it, but in retrospect, both my husband and I think that this technique actually caused more aggression issues with Loki. Interestingly, we disagree on how it caused more issues with Loki, but we both agree that it did more harm than good.
The touch does not and has never snapped Loki out of anything. Instead, it has caused him to react with more aggression, and if I remember correctly, it might have even caused some bites. I think that every dog and owner combination is unique, and perhaps the touch works for Cesar and most dogs. Maybe the touch works for you. But it doesn’t work for all owners and it doesn’t work for all dogs. It definitely doesn’t work for us and Loki.
After I started becoming disenchanted with Cesar Millan, I also started becoming more critical of his TV show. Most dogs’ behavior problems cannot be neatly packed into 15 minute clips. Most dogs’ problems are not TV-material; they are not sensational enough to capture an audience’s attention and cannot be resolved quickly.
Additionally, the more episodes I watched, I realized that Cesar gets bitten quite a lot. To his credit, he does take on some serious aggression cases, and he doesn’t care about getting bitten. But I don’t want to get bitten at all.
Every time a dog bites, it learns a little bit more about how to bite -- about how hard to chomp down, about whether to shake its head side to side, about how long to hold the bite down for. The dog learns exactly how to perfect that bite to get the response it wants from you. It’s always in your best interest to minimize the chance of a bite, if not for your own sake, then for the sake of not giving the dog the opportunity to practice its biting skills.
At this stage, I am not anti-Cesar Millan. I am still a fan, albeit a lukewarm one. Many of his teachings are innocuous and many of his teachings transcend the realm of dogs. You can’t really go wrong with trying to project a calm and assertive energy. This is good advice for everyday living whether or not you own a dog. Similarly, you can’t really go wrong with exercising your dog more. Everyone could use more exercise, not just dogs. We could all be healthier both physically and mentally if we got an hour’s worth of exercise everyday. But, although his catch phrase sayings are helpful, they are also not solutions to any serious canine behavior problems. You aren’t going to be able to fix an aggressive dog with exercise and positive energy alone. Yes, exercise helps, but you’ll need a whole lot more. Cesar is a charismatic speaker and he’s easy to love, but take him with a grain of salt.