Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Way of the Dog Whisperer

I just finished a great book, "Be the Pack Leader". It was written by Cesar Millan, known by many from his TV show, "The Dog Whisperer".

"The Dog Whisperer" is not a show where you'll find tips on potty training or teaching your dog commands or anything of that nature. Cesar will tell you himself he doesn't train dogs. He rehabilitates dogs, he trains people.

Cesar is more of a dog psychologist. He shows you how dog behavioral problems stem from being psychologically unbalanced and how those problems can be solved by attaining balance. His philosophies make a lot of sense to me, and that's why I'm such a big fan.

Cesar reminds us that dogs are not people, that dogs need to communicated with on their level, a dog level, not a human level. Spoken language does not exist amongst dogs. Their brains are not equipped to learn any language spoken by their human masters.

While TV commercials, TV shows, and Hollywood movies have done a great jobs of portraying dogs as smart, loyal, and funny companions, they've also given us unrealistic expectations for our own dogs to live up to. A scene from the movie "The Jerk" parodies this. Now, I don't remember word-for-word exactly how this scene plays out, but it goes something like this:

Navin (played by Steve Martin) is sleeping in his motel room along with his dog, a mutt, named Lucky. Suddenly, Lucky awakens, alert. He begins barking excitedly, waking Navin in the process.

"What's wrong, Lucky?"


"Are we being robbed?"




"Is the building on fire?"

"Ruff, ruff, ruff!"

"Oh, my God, the building's on fire!"

Navin and Lucky rush out the door. It's the middle of the night. He's in his pajamas pounding on everyone's door.

"Wake up! Wake up! You have to get out! The building's on fire!"

Cut to a shot with outside the motel parking lot. A large number of people are outside having exited their rooms, everyone in PJ's looking annoyed. Firefighters mill around but no actual firefighting taking place. No sign of smoke anywhere. Navin, hugging the dog, says, "Thank God for you, Lucky. You saved everyone's lives!"

A motel guest walking by says to him, "Lucky? You call him Lucky? There's no fire. You should call him Shithead."

From that point on until the end of the movie the dog's name is Shithead.

The sooner we accept the fact that our dogs, no matter much we love them, no matter how smart we think they are, will never learn to understand the English language the better off you all will be.

Dogs live their entire lives never having to speak to each other, yet it is clear that do communicate with one another. How could they, or any animal, survive as a species if not so? Elephants, packs of wolves and hyenas, and primates all live in structured social hierarchies with complex relationships. If they weren't able to communicate with one another to maintain structure there would be anarchy. How do they do it? Body language.

Because we humans rely on words we have come less attuned to body language, but it's not like we have completely lost the ability to do so. For example, if we see someone walking towards us dragging their feet, shoulders slumped, with a deflated look on their face, you'd be able to tell that they were feeling sad, wouldn't you?

Dogs are pack animals. Every dog pack has a leader. Dogs brains are hardwired to think in terms of packs, pack structure, and pack leaders. A dog's owner and the owner's family are all a part of the dog's pack in it's own mind. The dog looks for someone to step up and assume the role as pack leader. If no one demonstrates the leadership behavior that it expects and needs, the dog itself will assert itself as the leader. This manifests itself in the form of behaviors such as excessive barking or nipping, peeing all over the house, and other "bad dog" mannerisms.

What a good dog owner must do is establish and maintain the position of "pack leader". That is what Cesar's book is all about.

I've begun practicing some the things I've just learned from Cesar. For example, when Charlie and Zoe are playing a little too rough, instead of yelling, "Hey, cut it out, you two!", I mentally achieve a "calm-assertive" state, physically separate them with a firm but gentle hand, and look at each of them saying, "Cut it out", in my mind, but never verbalizing it. I try to express it with a look and with body language. And believe it or not, they actually seem to get it!

With continued practice I believe I will be able to master it.

Potty training begins again next week. I am hopeful that these things I have learned will help with that.

No comments: