Friday, July 24, 2009

The Cesar Millan approach to dogs

You might think this is a funny topic for a post, seeing that I don't have a dog and all, but with my neighbor's little miniature pinschers (aka the rat dogs), I have seen first hand how his methods are grounded in a dog's innate mental state, and that they really work.

The rat dogs visit us at regular intervals, being consummate escape artists. The chain link fence around their yard isn't even a serious deterrent. They get out often no matter what the owners do, and roam the neighborhood. I have heard brakes screeching followed by car horns when they get in the road, particularly the smaller female dog, Sparkle. She hasn't got the sense of a chipmunk and I would be afraid to try to estimate the close calls she's had on the street in front of her house. Her doggy guardian angel must surely be on duty, because she's never to my knowledge gotten hurt. It's a miracle.

The male dog named Fritz is a little more savvy and a lot smarter than his pal. I think he's smart enough to stay away from cars, but he's a nervous little thing and a consummate barker at anyone and everyone he doesn't know. Since his owners don't do very much with the dogs besides feed and provide water for them and give them a house to sleep in, they pretty much run amok and do whatever they please, including giving the fence the slip and roaming the neighborhood. Since his people haven't assumed a position of control in their lives, Fritz has taken it upon himself to be the alpha dog in this little pack, but he doesn't really want the job. His personality is way too nervous and timid to be an assertive leader, but in the way of animals who naturally live in packs, he stepped up to the plate since his humans weren't taking control by his way of thinking and Sparkle surely wasn't leadership material. Someone had to give the orders, so he appointed himself.

Now, for several months they have been visiting us for a pat and a cookie. Those two would walk through fire for a Milkbone. For a while I was admittedly nurturing their bad sides, because I am a cat person at heart and I treat an animal as a friend, not a minion. Unfortunately, this was making Sparkle more demanding of attention and Fritz more nervous.

My husband has more innate skills with dogs, but he doesn't enjoy the task. We have been watching Cesar Millan's "Dog Whisperer" show for years, and my husband already knew what Cesar was telling his clueless clients. If you don't want your dog to become a complete nuisance, you have to clamp down on them from day one. They have to understand that you are the leader of the pack and you won't tolerate any nonsense from them. This isn't being cruel or mean to your pet, it's clearly defining the social structure of the family and making sure the dog knows he's not at the top of it. It actually makes dogs more secure and happier. If a dog sees a vacuum in the power structure, he will try to take over the position of leader simply because as an animal that evolved living in packs, he thinks somebody's got to be the boss - why not him? Without a clearly defined leader, a pack animal can't function comfortably. They're nervous without structure in their lives. That's why most people's dogs run all over them. I don't think my husband feels there's a dog alive that is worth all the work it takes to keep them tolerable. We both would rather be a cat's buddy than a dog's boss.

The rat dogs were a textbook case. My neighbor John passed away last year. He was the one who got the dogs and the one who cared for them. His wife isn't a dog person and only keeps them because there wasn't anywhere else for them to go and I suppose she would feel guilty getting rid of John's dogs. I felt sad for the dogs because no one next door seemed to give them much attention; the youngest girl is even allergic to dogs. When they started slipping out and coming over, I would give them a little affection and a dog cookie, and they started to like me. Sparkle was an instant fan; it took Fritz longer to trust me. Now, whenever we are outside, two little faces appear at my gate for a visit.

I used to let them sit on my lap, but that's bad for two reasons: they are flea-bit and they STINK! I mean seriously; I had to change clothes after cuddling them. Doling out all this constant attention and petting and lap-cuddling was having a bad effect on them. Sparkle was becoming even more demanding of attention and Fritz was getting stressed trying to control her. Every time Sparkle started the "min-pin dance", jumping on her little back legs and waving her front paws in the air to attract attention, Fritz got very nervous and ran around her in circles, trying to calm her down.

I took a clue from my husband and Cesar. No more jumping and pawing at me - not allowed. No more 100% attention when they were around. They had to listen to me. They had to calm down and sit down before they got any treats or pets. Sparkle actually started to do little growly-barks at me when she felt she wasn't getting enough attention. Let me tell you, a seven pound dog trying to dominate you is funny looking, but it is very serious business. Thus are ankle-biters born.

The last few days I'm seeing results when they visit. After some corrections (mostly a finger point and "ssshhh" noise, delivered with the proper command presence) they are starting to get it. They mostly sit down and quit trying to climb in my lap, and behave themselves. Only when they are calm do they get any attention. The change in their demeanor is remarkable. Nervous gestures like lip-licking are diminished. Sparkle's almost-hyperventilating is diminshed and she's breathing more normally. They can sit or lie down beside us and relax. It's their natural state. Dogs don't like to live all spun up like that. Imagine yourself being anxious and nervous and adrenalized 24 hours a day. Horrible thought, isn't it?

I'm trying to make their little doggy lives better and I think we are succeeding. They still listen to my husband better than they do me, but I'm starting to get the hang of it. Of course, since we only see them maybe an hour a day, this won't change them completely, but I would like to see them calmer and happier. Fritz doesn't see me as the leader 100%, but it's coming along. Sparkle, she of the little brain, is a much more pleasant dog when she's not bombarding you with the hopping/barking/pushiness.

Cesar, you're absolute right.


momtofatdogs said...

I have 3 dogs and 1 cat. I'm a dog person. We only have the cat because i rescued him from a trash compactor & got him all fixed up & the kids got attached to him. That was 13 years ago. Back to the dogs - you're right. Strength from the beginning. My shepherd is 95 pounds - leaner than I'd like him to be - but he can knock a grown man down in an instant. that being siad - none of my dogs get a pet, get a treat, get the ball thrown NOTHING unless they sit. My nieghbor - Mrs. Greenthumb - walks her yard nightly - the shepherd runs to her wide @ss open & literally SKIDS to a stop & sits in front of her - trained HER too that they don't get petted without sitting....It's really very comical because she weighs (likely) the same as him. It's all in the control - It works for children too!!!!!

Sam in Middle TN

Tanya said...

Oh my. You make me hang my head in shame. I've sort of given up controlling my dog. She wears me out! I mean I give her lots of walks and love but listen to me SHE DOES NOT! I have read Cesar Milan's books and a couple of his tricks stay in my mind but I've never had great success...

Mart Bright said...

The same training techniques work with horses too--and you have little choice about training, unless you like visiting the emergency room. "No treats or rewards until you get a hold of yourself, buddy!" But I learned this the hard way.