Saturday, January 06, 2007

Whispering to Dogs….

If you’re a dog owner, and have cable television, chances are you’ve at least seen the show “The Dog Whisperer” in the listings. Even if you haven’t yet taken the time to watch an episode or two and check it out.

In talking about the show with friends and acquaintances, I’m finding that folks seem to be divided cleanly into two distinct camps over the show, and the man, Cesar Millan.

It seems people love him, and his methods, or they absolutely hate him.

I found myself fairly baffled, especially at those folks who clearly do not like, or agree with, his methods. His methods never include any sort of mistreatment, or any of what I’d call ‘aversion’ conditioning, but rather, a more proactive, direct, firm, but gentle, approach.

Those of you who know me, know I’m not a fan of using ‘corporal punishment’ to train a dog, I’d rather the dog simply understand what I want, and just do it.

I’ve had moderate (I say moderate because I now know so much more is possible) success in the past, and have often told folks who’ve asked why my dogs were so well behaved that it was because I expected them to be. I’ve also always treated my dogs, like dogs, or at least how I used to think dogs expected to be treated. I’ll admit to projecting human qualities to them at times, it’s often just hard not to, but in the end I’ve always reminded myself that they’re dogs, and not humans.

I think, that most of the dislike people have of Cesar, and his methods, stems from his core belief that the ‘owner’ is at the root of all undesired dog behavior.

Most of us, including me, hate to be told that something is our fault. It’s much easier to project the problem back on the dog (in this case) than to accept responsibility for the problem and therefore responsibility for what’s needed to correct it. Strangely enough though, I think that’s what I like best about his methods, they put me in control of obtaining the behavior I want, and work quickly, almost effortlessly, compared to anything I’ve done/tried before.

My wife and I have been experimenting with the methods we’ve seen on the show. Especially using a leash correctly, and taking control of the walk.

His philosophy of exercise, discipline and then affection it so simple, it’s hard to believe the difference it makes.

As my regular readers know, we rescued our dog Lulu from the local shelter. When we first brought her home, she would roll over and pee if you tried to pet her… She was especially afraid of me and would normally roll over on her back, tail tucked between her legs, when I entered the room she was in.

Outside the house she was very difficult to control on the leash, off the leash she’d tear off across our yard, then the neighbor’s yard(s) and I’d end up down the block before I’d be able to get her back.

Both Maryan, and I were very concerned about our inability to control her, and that she seemed interested in the cats more as a meal (or a snack), than in having them as friends.

As we’d both seen “The Dog Whisperer” show, and had been impressed with what we’d seen, we decided we’d try out a few of his methods.

Two in particular stood out to me (us). The first was the “Tshhhst” sound he makes, on the show; it always gets the dog’s attention, and nearly instantly. The second was using the leash, but up high, right behind the ears, instead of lower, near the base of the neck.

A third method, using a treadmill, to provide exercise when you’re otherwise unable to take the dog for a walk, seemed like something we’d like to be able to use (as Maryan has had great difficulty walking for any extended period of time) “if” we could figure out how to get her to do it. It seemed nearly impossible to us initially as just the sound of the treadmill seemed to scare Lulu.

I’m happy to report, that in just a few short weeks these three, seemingly small, techniques, have transformed our life with Lulu. She’s far more confident, calm and far less of a ‘handful’. Maryan is now able to take Lulu with her when she walks to the mailbox; Lulu is attentive, calm and incredibly gentle on the leash now. No longer tugging, or refusing to move, but instead she’s become a great walking companion.

She, and the cats have made friends, and we’ve all become “a pack”... my only real wish is that these same methods would work on the cats!!

As for that “Tshhhst” sound... I can attest that it works and it works so well that I’m amazed each time we use it. I think it works on two levels, first, the sound alone triggers something in the dog, but second, and maybe more importantly the sound is free of any vocally inflected emotion. The dog hears the sound, knows where it came from, and simply focused his/her attention on the sound and the person who made it.

More importantly, there’s that lack of vocal emotion... One of the things I picked up from the show was that dogs quickly pick up emotional clues from us, if we become agitated or excited, they become agitated or excited (or more, if they already were). So when we ‘yell’ at a dog, we get exactly the opposite of the effect we’re looking for.

I don’t know what your position on Cesar, and/or his methods are, but, I can tell you this, they work. They work without either of us becoming agitated, frustrated or angry. We’re able to have the dog we wanted, without any sort of traditional discipline... just walks and consistent expectations on our part.

Getting Lulu on the treadmill was the most difficult of the three, the first time we tried it literally scared the crap out of her. We persisted however, initially just getting her up on it (with it off), sitting on it, and laying on it etc... Then once she’d get up there without any fear, we started it up. Initially she’d try and get off, but with her on the leash, and keeping her up there, she eventually started walking. Today, she’ll actually get our attention and then go to the treadmill as if she’s asking for a session. It has been a truly amazing transformation.

Our cat "Precious" and Lulu have become such good friends, they acually will sleep next to one another at times! They were both pretty comfortable until Lulu decided she needed to take a closer look at the camera!

One last observation... When we first got Lulu, I found myself comparing her to ‘Maxine’ a Sheppard/Husky mix I had years ago. Maxine was really a great dog, she was loving, loyal, great with kids, essentially just a joy to have around. What I realized though, was that I was remembering Maxine, as she was, not as how she started out. In the beginning she’d been nearly impossible to house train, she’d run off if she wasn’t closely watched, but, eventually she became a member of the ‘pack’ and a valued member at that.

I decided that the sort of comparison I was doing was unfair... after all I’d had Maxine for almost 14 years, nursed her back from near death twice... and we’d formed a real bond. We hadn’t done that overnight, in reality it took years... and just grew naturally. I think that right now, I’m only a few weeks with Lulu, from being where I was with Maxine after a couple of years.

Last, if you stop in here often, you might remember that initially, I thought adding a dog, especially one that was pregnant, and had spent over half her life in a shelter, to the ‘mix’ at home was not a good idea. I was 100% wrong; adding this animal to our home has been a wonderful experience. It’s allowed us to focus on something other than illness, and to focus on the dog. This animal has not only been fun to have, but, in the process of working with her, she’s helping to rehabilitate us as well!

If Cesar lived locally, I’d head over to his place to personally thank him. His techniques are so simple, so basic, and so gentle that my only regret is that I didn’t know about them 20 or 30 years ago!!

His overall philosophy, one of balance, ties closely to my own. I’m of the belief that in order to achieve balance we need to live, “in the now”. It’s a belief most often touted by eastern religions, but, that once it’s examined, causes you (or at the very least it caused me) to realize that the ‘now’ is all we ever have. The past is gone, and nothing about the future is guaranteed, all we ever have is the moment we’re living in, right now.

Discovering that dogs, very much live in the moment, has altered a lot about how I not only interact with Lulu, but with my life in general.

While Maryan and I are very happy we found homes for all of Lulu’s puppies, I find myself, at times, a bit sad that we couldn’t have just kept them all. Unfortunately, our town has a law that no household can have more than two dogs over the age of four months. If I thought I could make a living at it as he has, I’d buy some land and start my own large pack. When I see the love Cesar’s pack has for him, I’m honestly a little envious. I’d love to have a dozen or more dogs, living together, balanced like that, and share the ability to create that environment with others. Who wouldn’t??

I think the most important thing that’s coming out of his show, and his interactions, is that parents, and children, are learning how to interact with dogs. They in turn can show others, and eventually the children will grow up show their children… This guy will have an impact far beyond his ability to touch people personally, and will continue to have a positive impact on future generations. What a great legacy to leave behind.

I’d love to hear from you, what’s your stand? Do you love this guy, and his methods, or hate him? If you’re opposed to what he’s doing, I’d really like to know why. If you’ve got a success, or failure, story of your own, I’d love to hear it.

As always, thanks for stopping in!

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10 comments: said...

Hi Bill!
I picked up your comment thanks to google alerts. I happen to be one of Cesar's executive producers and also his co-author, and you totally GET IT!

Would I be able to use your LULU success story in the second book (which we are just finishing this week!)? I am collecting success stories that aren't necessarily from the show, and yours is so well written!

Thanks for your great comments, and congrats on Lulu,

Melissa Jo Peltier
MPH Entertainment/CMI

Comfort Addict said...


I haven't checked out the show yet (although I think that Mrs. CA has). I'll have to catch it.

beepbeepitsme said...

RE: belief
Belief Puzzle

Bill said...

Melissa, Thanks for you comment! I've emailed you about your request.

Hi CA, damn good to see ya son! Please do, I'd really like to know what you think.

Thanks beepbeepitsme, I'll check it out.

Cyli said...

Awwwww Bill you two make such good furbaby parents!!!!! this was so sweet to read!!! It's National delurking week so I had to swing over and say Hi and check on you. Wishing you both the best of 2007 as well as the best to Lulu andprecious

Bill said...

Cyli! Damn good to see you again... I hope you're home now, safe, sound and for a bit more than a couple of weeks! I like the new place... I'll stop in later and actually leave a comment!

Lorna said...

I am terrified of dogs---for no good reason that I know of. I need a people whisperer

Bill said...

Hi Lorna, I've always had a love of dogs, and they of me. From the time I was a little kid, dogs always seemed to like me.

Well, there was that one 'junkyard dog' (really!) but that wasn't personal, and despite a rocky start, as he attempted to chew off my arm, within 10 minutes we had made friends. (Fortunately it was winter, and as I was wearing a heavy coat, and all I got from the attack was a bruised forearm.)

I think the best advice I can give you, is to try and lose that fear. Dogs will sense your fear, and I believe, they interpret that fear as a potential threat... which just makes things worse...

Regardless though... I'm always happy to see your pixels :)

Dizzy Ms. Lizzy said...


Never watched him, but have heard of him and have heard that he is really good with dogs.

We are CAT people at our house - - all the way - - wonder if they have a "Cat Whisperer" out there anywhere (not that it would do any good! 8laugh*)

"Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should just get just get used to the idea."


WooleyBugger said...

Great story you did up there. I also enjoy watching that show. Not only is it entertaining but but most informative as well.

You might like to read the book by Barbara Woodhouse called "No Bad Dogs the Woodhouse way"

When I was with animal services one of the things I had to learn was when a dog was actually a threat or just trying a bluff and how to approach them.
Not that it has anything to do with what you wrote but never ever tell anyone your dog won't bite. No matter how friendly a dog is; it does have teeth. Can't begin to tell you just how many freindly loving dogs have bitten someone. I remember a family pet here in town that bit the child of the family in the face. The older dog had been sleeping and the child fell on the dog which startled it and a reaction bite occured. It was just a reflex action by the animal.