Thursday, February 12, 2009

Book Review: Cesar's Way by Cesar Millan

Title: Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems
Author: Cesar Millan
Year published: 2006

I need to start with a bit of a disclaimer about this one. I read this book as a sort of "know thine enemies" thing. I have seen enough of Cesar's show and read enough about his techniques to know I don't agree with him and I find his ideas about dogs sometimes old and out of date, sometimes simply wrong, and sometimes dangerously wrong. But I opted to read the book to give myself a more complete picture of his techniques and so that I'm more informed when it comes to refuting those techniques I disagree with. I did, however, approach it with an open mind and made sure to take notes on the things I agreed with, as well as those things I didn't agree with.

So all that being said, here are my thoughts on the book.

The good
One of the major things that Cesar advocates is exercise. Dogs need exercise. They need to walk or run, to explore, to get out of the house. A lot of dog owners seem to forget this, especially during the harsh winter months (I can't tell you how many more dogs I've seen out walking since the weather turned milder the last couple days). So yes. Exercise. But not the way that Cesar seems to want one to. He has this idea that it's "migrating" that dogs need. Dogs do not migrate. Dogs need to explore the world, generally with their nose. He tells people to get out and not let the dog sniff, keep their head up and walking, only allow them to sniff occasionally when YOU want them to. This means the dog is missing out on all the mental stimulation of the walk and leads to the people I once saw who practically choked their dog if it so much as put its nose down to sniff.

He also makes a point of telling people that dogs live in the moment. It's a common theme throughout the book and that is accurate. I wish he went more into it, like mentioning that because they live in the moment, shoving a dog's nose into their pee, shouting at them, and hitting them, when you come home from work to discover it does not do anything except make the dog scared of your coming home.

Dogs are not human beings is another common theme throughout the book and like the last one, it's absolutely accurate. He talks about people who baby their dogs, carrying them everywhere and who treat them like babies with fur. He specifically cites Paris Hilton, which amused me. And he points out that doing such things can create an imbalanced dog. I'm sure many of us have seen the little dog that growls and snaps at people and is picked up by its owner and babied. He's talking about this sort of thing.

Other good points: Dogs need boundaries and rules. A dog without them is out of control, though for different reasons than Cesar cites. Fearful dogs often escalate into aggression which is why people need to nip that fear in the bud before it gets worse. When choosing a dog, people need to pick out a dog that matches their lifestyle and energy otherwise they can create problems for their dog. And he makes a point to tell people to work on getting their dogs used to the sorts of things they'll endure at the vets and groomers. I think if more people did this, there would be less issues at both places.

Also on the good side, he comes out against dog fighting and breed-specific legislation.

The bad
Cesar's entire book and indeed his show and life are based on the idea of dominance. If the person is not the "pack leader" then the dog will become the pack leader and then you have a very unbalanced dog. This was a fairly common theory back about 20 years or so ago after a study on wolves showed that there was an alpha who everyone deferred to and because of this, there was harmony in their pack. Except...the study was flawed. Seriously flawed. It was based on a captive group of wolves who were not from the same pack (a wolf pack is generally made up of relatives -- mom, dad, a few other relatives, and the pups) and who is the leader is very fluid. It changes from one activity to the next, depending on each wolf's strengths. And so the conclusions drawn were simply wrong and later studies show a different pack structure. Unfortunately, Cesar has bought entirely into this.

The other problem with this, of course, is that dogs are not wolves. They're closely related genetically, but they're not the same. Wolves grow and mature into adults. Dogs remain as if they're perpetual puppies. Wolves are wild animals. Dogs are not. They've been domesticated for thousands of years.

Because Cesar believes dogs are always trying to be the dominant one, he labels everything as dominant: when your dog jumps on you when you come home, he's being dominant (or maybe he's just happy to see you and has a lot of pent-up energy from being cooped up for a time); when your dog puts her paw on you, she's being dominant (or maybe she just wants some reassurance or is asking for petting); when your dog wakes you up at 5am to go out, he's being dominant (or maybe, since you've trained him to go outside to pee and he has to pee, he wants to be taken outside because he knows he's not supposed to go in the house). I'm amazed at the amount of things that are labeled as the dog being dominant and unbalanced.

Back on the exercise thing, Cesar talks a lot about "mastering the walk." What he means by this is that you walk at a brisk pace with the dog either at your side or behind you. The dog is not allowed to sniff unless you stop, allow it to for a moment, and then continue on. The dog can never ever be in front of you, even if it does not pull, because that means the dog is, of course, being the dominant one ("the pack leader does not follow"). I find a lot of issues with this. For one, I like to be able to see my dog. If she's behind me, I can't know what she's doing. Is there a chicken bone or a piece of cat poop on the ground that I didn't see (which I wouldn't see because, of course, I'm walking tall with my chest puffed out and looking straight ahead like a good "pack leader" should) that she scooped up to eat as we walked? Is someone coming up behind me that could threaten her in some way? walking along side me is fine, but I never ever want her behind me. I also find a lot wrong with his not allowing the dog to sniff and here's where I think he goes really wrong. Physical exercise is important. There is no doubt of that. But mental exercise is just as important. He doesn't really bring up the idea of mental exercise until page 228 and even then it's glossed over. He looks down on the idea of obedience training (it won't bring balance to your dog/show them who's leader/teach them to be "calm submissive").

Cesar believes that in order to have your dog balanced, you have to give the dog exercise, discipline, and affection. Three very good things, but he believes that it should be 50% exercise, and 25% each of discipline and affection. And to push this even further, he says you should give the dog them in that order. In other words, exercise the dog first, then give it discipline, then finally give the dog affection. He thinks that new owners should not give affection to their dog for the first two weeks they have it, that somehow the exercise is enough for a bond. I really heartily and strongly disagree with this. Affection IS important. The other two are as well, but I think they're all equally important. Giving a dog affection before exercise is not going to create an unbalanced dog. All things in moderation, including exercise.

There are some more minor things that he gets wrong, though some of those are common miconceptions, like the "don't comfort your dog during a storm; it'll make her more fearful" thing (for a good description of why that is wrong, check out this article by Patricial McConnell).

The ugly
Some of Cesar's techniques are downright dangerous, not just merely irritating or against what is natural. Two of the most controversial are the alpha roll and flooding.

The alpha roll is a technique where you take a dog that is acting "dominant" (or, to put it closer to what he really does, aggressive) and force it down and onto its side or back. The idea here is that a dog showing its belly is submitting to the pack leader and in order to show the dog who's "boss" one has to get it down into that position. If a dog is "too dominant" and will not do it, then it is up to you to force the dog into the position where, Cesar believes, they will then become a "calm submissive" dog and accept your leadership. I saw him do this once on an episode with an aggressive dog. He did it by grabbing the dog by the leash, pulling it up until it was hanging with its front feet in the air, and then shoving it down and onto its side. At the end, he said "see, calm submissive dog, ta da!" Except it wasn't. It was a dog who had shut down out of extreme fear (and who was most likely fearful to begin with). I'd be scared too if someone hung me and then shoved me over. This whole alpha roll idea came, again, from that study of captive wolves and is as flawed as the study was. In nature, a more dominant wolf does not force a dog into submission -- submission is granted (for a good example of what really happens, see this video of a wolf submitting to a higher member of the pack). The alpha roll is dangerous to the dog's emotional state -- an aggressive dog is likely to become more aggressive. And it's also dangerous to the human attempting it. He claims it should be used only by trained professionals (which, mind you, he is not), but then in the epsiode referenced above, he teaches the dog's owners to do it as well.

Flooding in a concept wherein if a dog is afraid of something, you flood them with it in order to somehow make them more comfortable with it. In one episode, which he discusses in the book, he forces a Great Dane who is scared of shiny floors across one. He drags the dog onto them and forces him to stay there. Then, when the dog "submits" he calls it cured. Unfortunately for the dog, he had simply shut down out of extreme fear. Flooding is not a technique anyone in psychology would recommend. Imagine if you were afraid of snakes being forced to have a bunch on you. Would that cure your fear? I think it would make mine worse if I were afraid of something. I know it would with my particular phobia. Counter conditioning works much better in these matters than flooding, but Cesar stands by his stance on flooding and on how the dog reacted.

He also advocates the use of a treadmill for exercise if you can't get out and walk the dog enough. Yes. He's talking about putting your DOG on a treadmill. This can work in certain situations and some people use them. But the way he uses them is downright dangerous. First of all, he ties the dog to it with a leash. If one is going to do this, it would be best to put a harness on the dog so that the dog cannot choke if anything happens. Then he says that once the dog is used to it, you can leave him alone on it for short periods of time. No. Never. It's an electrical piece of equipment that your dog is tied to with what could easily turn into a noose. It's a BAD IDEA to leave the dog alone on it. And then there's the issue of this being proper exercise for a dog. Dogs need to sniff and explore and a walk is great for this. Just running in place on a treadmill is not. I'm surprised that he advocates this after he was sued for damages to a dog who was slapped on a treadmill with a choke collar on.

Right in the beginning of the book he talks about how he walks into his dog pack (30-40 dogs he keeps at his "Dog Psychology Center") and shows he is the pack leader by looking away, not meeting their eyes. That meeting their eyes is a sign of weakness. Unfortunately for Cesar this is pretty much the absolute OPPOSITE of how dogs really work. A dog who is confident is one who is leaning forward on his front legs, ears forward, eyes staring into the eyes of another dog. A dog who is deferential turns his face and eyes away. Cesar is giving off the complete opposite of the signals he claims he is. He also allowed his very young, toddler-aged, kids to walk through the pack all alone. He's very lucky nothing happened to those kids.

Cesar, really, is not a master of reading dog body language. I suppose this is because he believes it's about his energy and so he's never devoted his time to reading dogs. At one point in the book he shows a picture of a very frightened pit bull: tail down, head down, fearful set to the face with the mouth pulled back. The dog IS clearly in a fear position. But I've seen other dogs show that same body language on his show and he calls it "calm submission." Hint: he's right about it in the book, wrong on the show.

The weird
Cesar talks a LOT about "energy" and how dogs can feel your energy. If you're not projecting "pack leader" mentality, the dog will know it. Not by reading your body language, but by your energy. He gets far too New Agey in much of this book and sometimes I kept thinking "is he going to tell me my dog can read my aura next?" Dogs are masters of reading body language, theirs AND yours. It's not about energy. It's about how you move and what the look on your face is or where your hand is positioned.

Cesar: How to Write a Book with So Many Contradictions that No One Should Take it Seriously
It's hard to believe a person could contradict themselves so often in just 320 pages. Here are some of the contradictions I noted:

1. Dogs do not want to be the leader. They do not want to be the dominant one. But they're always looking for weakness in their humans and trying to become the dominant one. Either they want to be leader or they don't. Pick one and stick with it.

2. He says that you cannot blame a dog's breed for the way it is acting, but then goes on to talk about shutting off a dog's "pit bull genes" and talks about how a Siberian husky is not a good city dog because it needs to roam. Either the breed is important or it's not.

3. Dogs must always walk behind the owner or next to the owner, but never in front. But then he goes on to say that he allows the dogs in front sometimes. Does that mean they become the pack leader in those moments?

4. Dogs must always walk behind the owner or next to the owner, but never in front. But then he goes on to say that dogs who are guiding the blind must be out in front, yet the person walking them is in charge and they know it. So why can't a dog who is out in front of a seeing person know the person holding the leash is "in charge"?

5. He talks about a dog being submissive a lot, "calm submissive" (which he touts as being the ultimate state of mind for a balanced dog), but then goes on to says that submissive dogs are weak and have low self-esteem.

6. He talks about wearing your dog out from exercise. He thinks that the ideal amount of exercise is 8-10 hours! I'd be in great shape if I could walk that much, but I think my dog, who loves affection, might not be too happy if we walked THAT much. But then he eventually says that you should walk your dog twice a day, ideally for 30 minutes each time. That's not very long at all and isn't enough to exhaust a dog.

7. You should position your dog's collar high up on their neck, where it's in the most vulnerable place on their neck. Keep their head up on the walk and give a correction when they put it down (I've seen someone doing this before -- it's not pretty). A couple contradictions here: According to him if you just exude the right "calm assertive" energy the dog should naturally follow and a dog should be walking with its head down because that shows a "calm submissive" state instead of a dominant one.

In conclusion
Cesar ends his book with this: I sincerely hope that, with this book, I have helped you find a place to begin in your quest for a better, healthier relationship with the dogs in your life.

I do believe he believes this. I do believe he is sincere. Unfortunately, this book contradicts itself too often and when the advice is clear, it is not anything based on the reality of dogs. It is based on a flawed study about captive wolves. You can get some common sense things out of this book (exercise, boundaries, etc.), but you can get those from any book on dog training or psychology. I really recommend against this book and would suggest, if you want a book that is more positive and gives you some good idea on what to do with dogs, check out Patricia McConnell's The Other End of the Leash.

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