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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Twenty Six, in which your Bibliothecary is Calm Assertive

Dear Readers, if either of you are not interested in something that doesn't have to do with books, feel free to skip this post and click over to one of the fine blogs listed along the right. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy something incredible.

A few years ago we found ourself in the position, for a variety of reasons, of needing a dog. After looking around for a little while, we finally splurged on a purebred beagle puppy. He is a beautiful dog and a warm companion, and he brought joy and comfort to our life. He also enjoyed chewing the couch. We had limited experience with dogs, though the Silent Partner had veterinary experience. The extent of our training was the common steps: No, Sit, Stay, Come, and Good Boy. This was adequate until last year, when another puppy became available, and joined our family.

Our second dog was reputedly a cocker/springer mix. In appearance and behavior he quickly contradicted this lineage, proving himself much more some sort of collie/wolf mix. He introduced a more aggressive dominant trait into the family, manifesting itself in jealousy over toys and bones or affection given to anyone else, and a determined willfulness. He also enjoyed chewing the couch. The extent of our training was the common steps: No, Sit, Stay, Come, and Good Boy. This was adequate until last week, when another dog was spotted at the shelter, and joined our family.

The first two dogs were Good Boys sometimes. They played together well. They would dart out the door given a chance and run around the four surrounding houses. The first particularly enjoyed ripping things apart, and they often growled over a favorite blanket. We did the best we knew how in raising them.

Some time last winter we were surfing across the vast wasteland of television and happened to see a dog, so we stopped to watch. The dog was appearing on the National Geographic Channel program Dog Whisperer, by Cesar Millan, who "rehabilitates dogs and trains people". We were immediately hooked.

The first thing that amazed us about Cesar was the ease with which he took control of any dog in any situation. He would literally walk into a home and break a dog of an unwanted behavior--something the owner had fought for over a year--within two minutes, with a look, a finger, and a "Shhhh." Based on a life lived among dogs, and the experience he has gained operating his Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles, Cesar has an uncanny ability to identify symptoms of imbalance in a dog, figure out what is causing the imbalance, and offer a prescription for returning the dog to a balanced state.

His theory of dog happiness boils down to three things: Exercise, Discipline, and Affection. Given in that order, he believes all dogs will be able to achieve the balanced life they lead in their natural state. Issues that he sees in dogs typically arise because dogs are given affection first, or exclusively, with little or few rules, boundaries, and limitations. Dogs also follow only calm assertive leaders, and in the absence of one will attempt to fill that role. The centerpiece of this theory is the Walk. A twice-daily walk of one hour replicates for a dog the natural process of migrating in a pack for food and water, followed by a period of play and rest. A tired dog is a good dog.

Cesar does not teach the common No, Sit, Stay, Come, Good Dog commands. Those are more like skills a dog can learn. He simply brings a dog out of any issues it has developed, and then teaches the owner to be a calm assertive leader. People go wrong when they try to apply human psychology on dogs. For instance, petting a dog that jumps up on you reinforces its dominant behavior. Picking up and soothing a frightened dog nurtures its frightened state of mind. Pack leaders do not tolerate fights, or weakness; they do not ask their followers if they are ready to go, or threaten to withhold dinner if they misbehave; they do immediately correct any unwanted behavior and then move on. Time and again Cesar demonstrates, almost exclusively by the energy he projects, any dog will follow in a calm submissive manner any calm assertive leader.

Well-behaved dogs are a joy to see and be around. It is the transformation of the owners that is truly amazing and wonderful. In nearly every episode of his program, there is a revelation for the owner, and from the moment they understand and accept his theory, everything falls into place. Could it be tricks of television, crafty camera angles and lighting effects, or careful editing so the audience only sees the success? Possibly. The absolute proof would be witnessing Cesar in action.

Small business owners do not typically have a lot of spare money with which to purchase triple-digit tickets to dog-training seminars. Our situation is no different, but when we saw on the Cesar Millan Center website that one of the stops on his 2006 Summer Tour would be only 100 miles away, we had no choice but to splurge.

So we now take you back to Saturday 10 June. The scheduled four-hour seminar also included a half-hour lunch of chips, beverages, fruit, bread, and muffins. The event was held in a performing arts theatre that was filled to its approximately 700-person capacity. When we arrived we purchased a "Pack Leader" shirt and a training DVD. We also met Cesar's wife as she walked among the vendors and volunteers to encourage and thank them. Programs were distributed, announcements were made, and a brief introductory video was shown.

Cesar came onstage to a round of applause. He is in person exactly as he is on television. What we only glimpse on television, though, is his wonderful sense of humor, and his uncanny talent for impersonating dogs. Throughout the seminar, he acted out the various moods of dogs which he described, to great fanfare. He talked about his theory and methods, and gave specific relatable examples of every situation. He revealed much of his own life, in story as well as in following the cues from his wife, who sat in the front row with head set and watch so she could keep her husband on task and on time. And finally came the proof: a dog from the local pet rescue that was hosting and benefitting from the event was brought onstage. The volunteer walked around with the dog as Cesar talked, and then he began to point out what he saw as the problems in the volunteer's behavior and the resulting issues with the dog's behavior. The volunteer had her head down and her shoulders drooping. She was being led by the dog. The dog was curious but a bit unsure of his new surroundings. Cesar took the leash and walked across the stage chest out, shoulders high, head up, and the dog was immediately in step right at his side. He stopped, and the dog sat beside him. Then he imitated the posture, and more importantly the energy, of the volunteer; the dog immediately was pulling on the leash and wandering as they walked. He explained what was happening, demonstrated once again, and when the volunteer took the leash back to take the dog offstage, the dog took her. She hadn't learned a thing. But we had!

The third dog to join our pack is a cocker spaniel rescue. Though not a puppy, Cesar reminds us that dogs live in the moment, and this new member is being treated from the start the Dog Whisperer way. We have improved our relationships with our other dogs, and are all melding into a nice pack. After only a week of daily walks, we can now allow our dogs to walk with us without touching the leash. The walk beside us, pay attention to our calm assertive energy, and if they need a correction, they are still dragging the leash behind them, and a step on the end snaps them back in place. Amazing enough, especially for the second dog, who bucked and resisted the leash like a wild stallion when we first began walking him.

Poeple on the television program are typically speechless, amazed, awed, embarassed, and always thankful. One woman called her experience with Cesar "personal and spiritual growth". To us, this is the strength of Cesar's methods, that he does not merely train one's dog, but he empowers one, builds one's confidence, and makes one not just a better pack leader, but a better person as well. Our experience of him is totally uplifting, a complete joy. We watch his television program every time it is on, reruns too. And as in one episode, when he helped a dog overcome its fears and begin to socialize with special needs individuals, both people and dog learning from and being enriched by the experience, Cesar's unabashed joy is obvious, as he commented with tears barely held back. He shows how dogs are here not just to be our companions, but also to teach us about life and to help us become better human beings. That is what makes him special.


  1. My family is, unfortunately, guilty of being among those who have horribly-behaved dogs but find it delightful. Don't misunderstand: we've had the pleasure of owning the sweetest dogs in the world, but for a very long time (until I got a bit older) I couldn't understand why people got so frustrated with our dogs. Who wouldn't want slurpy puppy kisses? Who wouldn't want a fifty-pound hound dog on their laps to watch TV with? We simply don't have events at our home anymore. **laugh** Sounds like you have a wonderful puppy family.

  2. After seeing Cesar's video for myself, I am happy to hear that his methods seem to be working for your doggy parade. I do believe that his exercise, discipline, affection routine would be the best for dogs. But I must confess that I still love the sloppy doggy kisses and a dog (or two) on my lap.

  3. I've never heard of this guy. I'll have to check out his show!