“The Dog Whisperer”

Normally I do not watch “The Dog Whisperer”, but sometimes I get unwittingly sucked into an episode. One episode was about a dog that was fearful around strange people, and I wanted to watch it from a critical standpoint to see how it was handled.

All in all, I liked the methods he used. Socialization of dogs is a very critical step to take when they are puppies, so critical it led the AVSAB to issue a position statement on the issue approving socialization and experiences with new people and places very early in a puppy’s life. Unfortunately, this dog either had limited or bad experiences in socialization and had a lot of fear responses to new people and stimuli. Cesar took the dog to his “Dog Psychology Center” and let the dog socialize for an extended period of time with other dogs, as well as undergoing some additional socialization training. It was obvious this helped the dog, and Cesar also helped the family adopt another dog with a similar energy level so the fearful dog would stay socialized. A good step, I think, as in my experience dogs almost always do better with other dogs in the household. The dog seemed to feel better and enjoyed his new companion.

However, it was the second part of the episode that made me change the channel.

Cesar was dealing with a Jack Russell Terrier that was aggressive towards motorcycles, and anytime the JRT’s owners started up their motorcycles, the dog would bite and chase. Cesar put the dog on a prong collar and took the him out to the family’s garage to the motorcycle. Without barely any hesitation at all, Cesar starts the motorcycle and the dog goes mad. His response is to lift the leash up and let the dog spin at the end of the leash, not allowing the dog near the motorcycle, until the dog screams in fear and pain.

I wish I could find a clip of this because it was so inhumane it was almost shocking, and it was definitely heartbreaking.

So the dog, panting, subsides at the end of the leash, shaking in fear. Cesar explains this as “We have stopped the aggressive response and so that’s why he yelped like that. When you cut short an aggressive response you get that quivering that he’s doing.”

Oh really.

First of all, it should be obvious to anyone that the reason the dog screamed was because of pain and fear (after all, if a stranger shoved you in a prong collar and then hung you from the end of a leash, you wouldn’t be afraid at all, would you?). It looked like perhaps the jerking upward motion Cesar was employing may have caused the dog to bite his tongue. Either way, it looked very painful. And of course it ‘worked’ – the dog was too busy recovering his breath and being afraid to get feisty over the motorcycle.

I had to turn it off at this point. I agree with Cesar that dogs need exercise, they need consistent training, and they need to be socialized. I do NOT think that putting a dog in a painful or scary situation will ‘fix’ them (if it did, we wouldn’t see so many animals in shelters with severe aversion and fear issues, would we?), or trying to ‘dominate’ them will do any good.

I got to thinking about how I’d handle a situation like that, where the dog was obviously very keyed up over a certain subject. Here’s what I’d do:

Using a clicker and treats (NO choke chains or prong collars), teach the dog the “Look At That!” game. It’s a simple game, and can be employed in a number of situations where the dog fixates on a specific animal or object. You play it by telling the dog to “Look At That!”, pointing to the object. You are a very far way away from whatever they might fixate on so that the object of the game is to look at that object, but you can still easily get the dog’s attention because it’s so far away. Then, using a high-value treat, get the dog’s attention back to you (best accomplished if you can tell the dog to sit, lie down, or ‘watch’ you reliably). Click and reward for the dog paying attention to you and no longer paying attention to the object.

Of course, in subsequent sessions, you get closer to the object in question – the motorcycle – and continue to reward for the dog’s attention being on you (if the dog will not stop fixating on the object, move back to a safer distance and try again). You may even choose to desensitize the dog by playing a CD of motorcycle sounds in your home and rewarding for calm or no response. The whole key of this is to desensitize and familiarize the dog with the motorcycle, so it becomes a non-issue.

I had a similar issue with my dog, Bean, and the cat. She was very much interested in taking a nibble of the cat when I brought her home, and so I employed a similar ‘game’ to help desensitize her to the cat’s presence (it helps that my cat is the least aggressive cat I’ve ever known – she only wanted to rub up against Bean and be friends). “Look at the cat!” and rewarding for a calm response/looking back to me was helpful, but even more helpful was having another dog (Sam) that didn’t react at all when the cat was around. Dogs learn a lot from each other, and having an ‘established dog’ in the household was incredibly helpful. Bean picked up many behaviors from observing Sam, including ignoring the cat. Between a combination of the two, Bean got over her cat-interest within a couple of months and will now sleep happily on the couch with the cat.

The point of this training is to desensitize and normalize the subject with the dog, to where the dog becomes a willing participant. It takes much more patience and time and isn’t as dramatic, of course, but you end up with a dog that is happy and reacting normally around whatever they used to fixate on. Dogs trained this way don’t have any of the issues of a dog trained using ‘dominance theory’ (which is what Cesar employs).

There are many other tactics for helping a dog get over fear and aggression issues (usually the two are linked in some way), but I can say with confidence I have never seen a dog trained the way Cesar was training the JRT as having been ‘successfully trained’. In fact, I would be surprised if the dog acted normally around motorcycles, or its owners (should they employ the same tactics) from that point forward, or didn’t have a negative association with the prong collar or strangers.

The methods Cesar uses sometimes make sense – like exercise, attention and love for good behavior, providing a stable household for the dog, and consistently training the dog – but more often, I wonder what they DON’T show. Do they show the other issues the dog may have had as a result of their ‘training’? The follow up is always mellow, where owners smile and say that the dog was ‘cured’, which makes for good viewing. I suppose there’s a reason that National Geographic always tells you to ‘not try these methods at home without consulting a professional dog trainer’… hopefully no professional dog trainer would recommend these methods, ever.

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About Mel

Likes: Canada, spelunking, shiny objects, painting her living room a different color every couple of months, animals, dogs, clicker training Dislikes: Canada, styrofoam packing peanuts, snoring, crazy stalkers, failure of google-fu Favorite sports: hockey, marriage, agility, curling, hockey, snooker, hockey Noted for: participation in charities, antique furniture obsession, not-entirely-appropriate sense of humor, obsession with dog training
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