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Cesar Millan and dominance theory

There used to be a time when I would watch The Dog Whisperer religiously. Partly because I just liked to watch anything involving dogs, and because I was interested in his training. I have one of Cesar's books, and have adopted the mantra "No talk, no touch, no eye contact" when meeting new dogs in a new environment. I was amazed at the results his clients experienced, although some of his methods for certain dogs were questionable in my opinion. Independent of his training methods, he has a certain respect for dogs and their owners, and he is a wonderful advocate for anti-puppy mill movements and bully breeds. Even his most avid detractors can admit this, or so I would hope.

However, as I learned more about dog behavior (not just dog training, which is different), I found that Cesar's techniques and philosophies are not always in line with current literature, are not endorsed by the AVMA, and revolve around dominance training. In fact, his entire "dog psychology" approach is based upon out-dated dominance theories. With this in mind, I now watch The Dog Whisperer and formulate an alternative solution that would better address whatever problem the dogs are having. Of course, I can't do this with every case because I only have experience with fear-based aggression rather than full-out "I want to kill every other dog" aggression, which is the typical case Cesar will undertake. Yet there are many problems that some simple positive reinforcement, counter conditioning training wouldn't help, along with consistency and realization of the dog's needs when it comes to attention and exercise. I believe this way of watching the show is really good practice for me.

The dominance theory has its roots in studies done on captive wolves decades ago. The use of "alpha" as a descriptive term of the "leaders" of a wolf pack began in 1968, when the pioneer of wolf study David Mech published a book about his studies on the wild wolf. Since then, he's asked the publisher to stop publishing this work because of his regret for beginning the adage that is the basis of dominance training. Instead, he prefers the term "breeding pair" because that is truly what an alpha male and female is, a breeding pair. In the wild, a wolf pack is a family unit, where every member beside the breeding pair is usually offspring of the breeding pair or related to them in some way.

The studies done on captive wolves demonstrated much of what we think of when it comes to dominance, alphas, and leadership roles. If you take a handful of unrelated wolves, shove them in an enclosure with limited space, and add food, you can imagine what the result would be. Physical fighting, aggressive displays, resource guarding. All of this usually amounts to what is referred to nowadays as the alpha roll: the physical pinning of one wolf to the ground by another. Fights for dominance, you might say. It would be easy to think these things are normal in the wild, but it is not. Actually, I take that back-- it's normal between wolves who are insecure with their position in the pack. The "alphas" do not need to resort to such physical violence because lower ranking wolves voluntarily submit.

Unfortunately, many dog trainers incorporated the results of these studies into dog behavior analysis. Since dogs and wolves are related, obviously they behave in the exact same way with pack dynamics and all, right? Wrong. While I'm not as well-versed in the areas of pariah dogs and feral dogs in urban settings, it is generally accepted that they are typically solitary animals. Yes, they might travel in groups, but they only depend on themselves for survival, unlike a wolf pack which is interested in the well-being of the pack as a whole. A wolf pack must cooperate together in order to hunt. Feral dogs can get by with just scavenging. Cesar Milan based all of what he knows about "dog psychology" from observing feral dogs in Mexico. How he can extrapolate this to the world of the wild wolf and go on to apply it to pet dogs is beyond me.

Trainers who ascribe to the dominance theory, like Cesar Milan, believe that just about every inappropriate behavior stems from a dog trying to "take over" the alpha role in the house. Whether because a trainer actually believes this, or because a trainer needs an excuse to cover up his lack of knowledge about certain behavioral issues, is hard to tell.

The most glaring problem that arises from the dominance theory is that it immediately sets you up in competition with your dog or dogs. If you view your dog as trying to take over the alpha position every second of every day, you are not going to foster a bond with your dog. You will overlook the fundamental needs your dog has because you are too concerned that he is plotting against you. Dogs cannot think symbolically, therefore concepts like "alpha," "beta," or "omega" mean nothing to them. Besides, do you think your dog is looking at you as if you're another dog?

For example: Your new puppy nips your hands and feet? He is labeled as dominant and aggressive. But this is not the case. This is natural puppy behavior, and instead of fixing the issue with alpha rolls, simple positive reinforcement and redirection would do the trick. A dog who walks ahead of you on walks isn't in charge. Perhaps that is the dog's comfortable pace, and you just happen to be walking too slow. Perhaps the dog is simply enjoying its walk, while you are fretting over whether or not your dog is trying to dominate you. You might have a young dog who is pushy and mouths you, and jumps up on you, and growls when you tell him to get off the furniture. Do you have a dominant dog who is challenging you for leadership in your household? No! You have a dog who knows no boundaries and is used to getting his way-- probably because you spent so much time caught up in showing him "who's the boss," not actually training him and teaching him impulse control.

Which leads to another fundamental problem-- training your dog with the dominance theory can actually create more issues than you think you are solving. Many people see Cesar alpha rolling an aggressive dog to try to get the dog to submit. These people try this on their own dogs who show aggression, and they end up getting bit. Yet somehow the dog is still at fault. Once again, subordinate wolves voluntarily submit to the alpha wolf. They are not forced to the ground by the more dominant wolf. As another example, a dog who is nervous around other dogs will inevitably show an aggressive display if brought to Cesar's dog psychology center and plopped in the middle of his pack. What does Cesar do to the nervous dog? He pins the dog on its side, and makes the dog "submit" to the very dogs it is afraid of. If you think this will cure your unsocialized dog, you are sorely mistaken. You will most likely only exacerbate the problem, or at the very best, suppress it, until it resurfaces at a later time even after you think your dog has been "fixed."

Finally, here is an example of dominance training in action, and in a ridiculous manner at that. A couple has a dog who has been in the family for a few years, and the couple decides to introduce a puppy. The couple was advised to choose which dog would be the alpha dog in the household and treat this dog more favorably. Needless to say the couple chose the dog who was there first. They feed this dog first, give this dog more attention, give him all the treats. Well, surely this means this dog will be the alpha, and the new puppy will realize this and accept it. To the couple's dismay, the puppy just will not have it. The puppy barks at the older dog, the puppy is constantly jumping on the older dog-- surely the puppy is challenging the older dog's alpha status! Why is the puppy not getting the idea when the couple has worked so hard to make sure the older dog has been established as the alpha?! And that there folks is the reality-- they have worked hard, and all those efforts were wasted. Simply because they couldn't realize that the puppy was being a puppy, and trying to play. The puppy's play was misinterpreted as dominance, just as many normal or inappropriate behaviors are misinterpreted. If the couple had not sought out help, they could have ended up punishing the puppy for his unruly challenge to the older dog's leadership. Thankfully the couple realized their approach was all wrong, and that the dominance theory is unfounded in pet dog training. They were quite relieved to know they didn't have to keep up the hard, time-consuming routine of treating one dog as the alpha when no such thing exists in their dogs' minds. Then they could simply enjoy having their new puppy.

Further reading:


stole from kelley

Name your top six TV shows right now, before reading the questions.

1. Real World
2. Family Guy
4. I Love New York
5. The Hills
6. Cowboy Bebop

1. Who is your favorite character from #2?

2. Who is your least favorite character from #4?
NEW YORK hahaha.

3. What would a crossover between #1 and #5 include?
heidi, spencer, audrina, brody, and lauren all living in the same house. and there are no unlocked doors.

4. What is your favorite ship from #6?
Spike and Julia. sighhhhhhhh, so sad.

5. If you were to set one person from #3 and one person from #6 on a blind date, who would they be?
Nick and Faye.

6. If you could meet one person from #4 and spend the day with them, who would it be, and what would you do?
Midget Mack! first, he would take me shopping. :] then uhh i would probably just sit and listen to the hilarious things that come out of his midget mouth.

7. If you could change one thing about #2's plot line, what would you change?
that they would be nicer to Meg :[

8. Explain a relationship between two people (not necessarily romantic) from show #5, and why you like the relationship between them?
Lauren and Brody... Lauren always dates loser guys but Body doesn't seem to be a loser guy, at least from what you see in the show. and you can totally tell he likes her even though he kept denying it. and lauren wouldn't admit she still liked him either.

9. If the lead title characters (first name in the credit sequence) from #1 and #3 were both drowning, and you could only save one, who would it be?
duh, Gil Grissom.

10. If you could change the title characters' order in the credits for #4, what order would you choose?

11. If you were able to add a new character, any kind of character you wanted, to the storyline for #6, what would the character be like, and what would their role be?
uuuuuummmmmmm someone to bring spike back to life? :[

12. What happens in your favorite episode of show #2?
it's the episode where peter gets a free maid. and she falls in love with quagmire, and they get married, and she completely changes quagmire into a GENTLEMAN. then he tries to break up with her because he knows he made a mistake, but whenever he brings it up she talks crazy about killing herself. so peter and quagmire and cleveland and joe make this video about quagmire getting killed by a nazi, a robot, and a t-rex. which is the funniest part of the episode. and then other stuff happen like quagmire shits his pants.

13. If you could kill off one of the characters in #1, who would it be and how would you do it?
i would kill off trisha by having her get an STD.

14. If you got the chance to visit the set for either show #3 or show #5, which would you choose?

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