I read that if I want to prove Cesar wrong I should film myself working with dogs that have the same problems. Passing over the obvious logistical and production issues, my real answer is this: I don’t have anything to prove. I’m not the one questioning behavioral science. I’m watching the show, providing commentary, and explaining what many other trainers would do in these situations. (In addition to pointing out the things I do like.) Filming me working dogs would make it small-time trainer from Jersey vs. big-time Hollywood trainer.
If you doubt the methods I propose, feel free to do your own research. But keep in mind, watching more of the reality show with a dog trainer in it isn’t really research. And please, tell me where I am wrong in the comments. Unlike some, I am willing to publicly confront criticism and learn from it.
There was another criticism, one that made me literally laugh out loud. A week or so after the first commentary, I came across a blog with the standard “trainers who condemn Cesar are close-minded and should consider his methods more closely” complaint. I commented, explaining that I had considered his methods and provided a link to the commentary. Part of his response to my comment were words to the effect that it was strange that I spent so much time scrutinizing the show. (I wish I hadn’t lost the link, if you’re reading this, please put it in the comments.)
Isn’t that priceless? We should consider Cesar’s methods…but not spend too much time actually looking at them. Too sciencey I guess.
Two more housekeeping bits:
Rather than go with the latest show, I am going to stick to relatively recent shows that can be watched on nationalgeographic.com Hopefully they will stay live long enough that most people can watch the show when they read the post. The Cesar Millan “channel” is here. I can’t embed the videos. They offer the code, but the embeds do not work.
Also, I’m still tweaking the format. Trying to follow the flow of the show is very difficult. The last post is 2834 words, edited down from over 6000. In addition to taking a long time to write, most people just won’t read that much. I’m going to try to take a “big picture” view this time. I may leave things out. If you feel that I left something important out, please leave a comment.
“Baby Girl” is another episode that only covers a single dog. I selected it because it deals with fearfulness, an area where Cesar takes a lot of heat from his critics. Baby Girl (BG) is a doberman mix that Suzie brought home from a rescue. From the very first day BG displayed extreme fear for any new sights or sounds. She would refuse to enter the kitchen if a cabinet door was open or a drawer was ajar. Suzie lives near Disneyland, and the nightly (?) fireworks are always traumatic for BG. While it was not stated explicitly, I’d wager that travel outside of the home was equally stressful for BG.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation for rescue dogs. Fearfulness can have a few causes, but one of the more common is a lack of socialization during early puppyhood. This socialization is so critical that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has issued a position statement explaining that they consider lack of socialization more of threat to dogs than infectious disease. As you might imagine, many unwanted and stray dogs do not get the socialization they need as puppies.
Another important factor is genetics. Extreme sensitivity can manifest from birth, especially in certain breeds such as some herding breeds and the “sighthounds,” including greyhounds. As we’ll see, Baby Girl seems to have some greyhound in her.
For some great information on how to live with and train fearful dogs, check out fearfuldogs.com.
During the initial interview Suzie mentions another fearful dog that Cesar handled in an earlier show. I haven’t seen this episode. In the flashback we see a “virtual reality” rig which includes a treadmill and a lot of loud noise. More on this in a bit.
There is no discussion of any methods that Suzie has tried before and no mention of a vet visit to check for physiological problems.
Cesar decides that he can best address BG’s needs back at his compound, so he takes her there. The first step is to introduce her to some of the dogs on the compound or, as Cesar says.
…let’s see what the pack feels about it, you know, what energy they feel she is.
Sigh. We’re back in the mysterious energy zone.
In case it wasn’t obvious enough last time, I’m not into the woo. Lots of dog people are. Many of my friends and people I have learned from are, but I’m just not a woo person. Sorry.
Cesar starts out with BG in an adjacent area (which is a good idea). BG seems much more interested in (and overwhelmed by) her new surroundings than the other dogs. She seems to be looking for an escape route at one point.
When she is first let in with the other dogs, she moves around a lot and is clearly trying to avoid being surrounded by the other dogs. As he is shifting and dodging, her tail comes up from between her legs, maybe because of the motion, maybe because she is so focused on her surrounding that those muscles actually relax. Cesar sees this and says “Look at the tail, verry happy!” (Here is a clip, at least until it is taken down. I feel that 57 seconds falls under fair use.)
Sigh. Dog Body Language 101: never just look at one body part. Her tail may have come out from between her legs, but she is actively avoiding the other dogs!
When one dog tries to mount her, she issues a very well controlled and appropriate correction. The other dogs give her some distance, in what I feel is a great display of control. Cesar says: …obviously her energy is not good.”
I don’t want to overdo the “sigh” thing, but sigh.
Cesar waits a few days to get her integrated in the “pack.” This is a good thing. While many trainers that do a board-and-train probably don’t have the luxury of time that Cesar has, letting a fearful dog get acclimated to a new environment is a good idea.
But I can’t say that about the next part of BG’s “treatment.” Cesar takes her to a treadmill that is installed in a trailer and surrounded by a big screen and what seems to be a pretty impressive sound system. He has prepared tapes of things that BG is afraid of, along with a tape of Suzie to “calm her.” He uses this to force her to walk the treadmill while “dealing with” the things that she fears. On the treadmill her head is down low, her posture is low and her tail alternates between low and tucked against her abdomen. She looks miserable, even when Cesar plays the recording of Suzie.
This is called flooding. Flooding is a technique where a subject is forced to face his fears until he loses the fearful response. For example, if you are afraid if spiders or snakes, I could lock you in a room full of them and not let you out until you no longer seem afraid. This is, needless to say, a controversial technique. Some say it doesn’t work, others (including me) say that while it may work, it’s not humane and that there are better alternatives.
One of the better methods, which I may as well discuss here, are counter-conditioning and desensitization.
Desensitization gradually reduces the intensity of a response to an undesirable (to the subject) stimulus. This is done by gradually exposing the subject to low levels of the stimulus. For example, since BG is afraid of balloons, she could be exposed to them at a distance until she no longer responds, and then the distance could be shortened.
This process is almost always paired with counter conditioning, which is an application of classical or pavlovian conditioning. BG already has an association – balloons and fear. This association could be gradually changed, or countered, by pairing the desensitization with something good, such as very yummy treats.
When implementing these methods one also needs to be aware of the threshold model. When individuals react to stimuli that elicit intense fear (or aggression, BTW) there is a threshold beyond which learning is severely (if not completely) impaired. Where this threshold is varies from dog to dog, and that’s really where there is no substitute for experience when it comes to implementing behavior modification.
Of course if you lack the knowledge, experience doesn’t really matter.
These concepts are firmly rooted in behavioral science and apply to many different species. Poke around the Internet or your neighborhood library for more information on them. For further information on how they relate to dogs, check out How Dogs Learn (which has a short section on it) and/or Excel-Erated Learning (which has much more information.)
Counter-conditioning and Desensitization (CC & DS) are very simple concepts that can be very difficult to implement. For one thing, it usually takes a very, very long time. This leads to people giving up. It’s easy to screw up, by either proceeding too slowly or crossing the threshold too often, which leads to no results and again, people giving up. It also leads to crappy TV, because let’s face it, the interesting bits only happen when you can see exactly what you should not: an intense response.
Back at the “virtual reality trailer,” Cesar introduces new sounds and BG is startled every time. Eventually Cesar has some assistants bring in a large string of balloons. BG is so startled she falls off the treadmill. Cesar puts her back on and is shown saying:
“If I do baby steps, I’m just going to make her more and more fearful.”
Sigh. Cesar obviously disagrees with CC & DS. He doesn’t bother to explain the logic behind this assertion at all. It has the sound and feel of common sense, unfortunately that’s not enough to make it right.
I don’t have much more to say about the treadmill. It is revisited several times during the episode. Whether it works or not, I think it is too stressful and arguably inhumane.
When we cut away to the next commercial break, we see Baby Girl happily running alongside Cesar. She does seem to trust him and like him.
Next, Cesar takes BG to a greyhound rescue. This is a really nice idea. She very quickly warms up to the greyhounds, and seems to enjoy running and playing with them. Dogs of similar breeds do tend to play the same way. It makes sense: greyhounds are literally bred to run and chase so running and chasing each other would tend to come naturally.
Cesar tends to take a “whole dog” approach to his behavior programs, and this little slice of greyhound life is a part of that. I like this “whole dog” view of Cesar’s a lot. It’s just some of the connections he makes that concern me.
For the next month or so, Cesar takes BG everywhere with him. We see them walking and we see her on a behavior consult with him. While some of my colleagues might disagree, I have to say I think this may not be a bad idea. While the consult, with the other dog displaying aggressive behavior toward BG, looks very risky and is a bad example, getting BG out and about after being confined to Suzie’s house might just be a big part of what she needs. There is, of course, a risk of her getting over threshold too often, but I can see some merit in exposing her to natural situations on a regular basis, in a controlled and safe fashion.
Cesar has an interesting solution to the tucked tail issue.
Interesting. Does the mind follow the body in this case? It’s not necessarily a harmful thing, but I would feel funny suggesting it. Cesar speaks very definitively about it, as if he knows that this works.
Half way into the show, we find that Baby Girl has not been eating and has lost weight throughout her stay. At first it’s not clear when this started, but later on we find that BG has always been an unenthusiastic eater. Cesar puts a lot of effort into getting her to eat, including consulting a vet (finally!) and trying a variety of foods. He shows some great flexibility and a willingness to adjust his normally rigid rules to work with BG. At the end of the episode Suzie shows him how she handles it. The drama portrayed within this subplot seems a little contrived to me – I find it hard to believe that in the 92 days that Baby Girl stayed at Cesar’s he never spoke to Suzie about her reluctance to eat.
Cesar takes Baby Girl to a pool next. She cannot tuck her tail while under water. Cesar thinks this can help with the fear. No, I’m not kidding.
This is taking shaping the mind with the body a bit too far. Also, as he effectively forces her into the pool, he reads small changes in tail carriage tail as significant changes in state of mind, even while she struggles against being pulled into the pool!
And what exactly does “the brain in a forward state” mean?
Cesar is ready to return BG to Suzie now. We see her playing outside, and clearly she is a different dog. However, there is a thunderstorm and BG has a severe reaction.
Thunderphobia can be a very serious issue. At a seminar I attended given by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, fear of thunder storms rated it’s own hour long presentation. There is also some peer-reviewed literature on the topic.
Some of the recommendations I found in a quick search are:
- Desensitization to storm sounds. This is considered very difficult.
- Create a “safe haven” for your dog during storms. Try to diminish the sound and view of lightning there and create a positive association with this place.
- Medication. See you vet, I will not recommend, or even list, any medicine here.
- Jackets, such as the ThunderShirt. (I have had some success with this with one of my dogs.)
At the seminar, Dr. Dodman specifically called out flooding as risky and not recommended for thunderphobia and other fear problems.
Cesar finally does return Baby Girl home, and we see a 7 month follow up. Baby Girl is very much improved, and there’s really little doubt that Cesar helped her. (I still don’t think she looks at all happy on treadmill though.)
I can’t say whether or not the treadmill helped or hindered Baby Girl’s progress. But I will say this again: it’s not something I would use. I feel that the socialization Cesar provided by taking her with him around the city, and the time she spent with other dogs helped her a lot.
Here’s a thought: is it possible that the “virtual reality trailer” was just included to keep the show interesting? The real work, 90+ days of socialization, was probably pretty boring and would not have made good TV.
So that’s the second commentary, and it’s still over 2500 words. I left quite a bit out, but I think it is a pretty good description of what happened.
What do you think? Please leave a comment below!