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11 September 2006

Cesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer," has become the darling of the National Geographic channel.  The Steve Irwin of the dog world, with a bit less aura of danger involved.   I suppose it's possible Millan could have a fatal encounter with an obstreperous pit bull, but for the most part, I think his is not a life-threatening occupation.

Millan is not without his critics.  From his page on Wikipedia:

Some professional trainers and behaviorists claim that Millan's methods are inhumane and "heavy-handed", referring to the use of alpha roles that are discussed in his book, and techniques such as pulling dogs off the ground by tugging on their leash. Critics state that Millan's training methods focus on dominance theory, and positive punishment and negative reinforcement to suppress problem behaviors, without first considering that there might be other medical factors at work which are influencing a "problem" dog's behavior. In addition, dominance theory is, in and of itself, controversial, and is rejected by some animal behaviorists who study canine behavior. It has also been pointed out that though Millan is referred to as an animal behaviorist, that this is a casual use of the term, as he is not certified by The Animal Behavior Society, the professionally recognized certification organization for applied animal behaviorists.

I guess my opinion of the controversy is ... who cares?  If the end result is an obedient dog, does it really matter whether the trainer is "professionally recognized" by any organization?  I suspect that for the majority of house pets with minor irritating habits, Millan's techniques work just fine, with no questionably inhumane methods whatsoever involved.

Millan's discussion of alpha roles and the subtle ways to establish your role as top dog in the pack hit so close to home when thinking about Sheila.

Sheila arrived here, looked around, said "OK--I think I can whip this place into shape" and settled in as the alpha dog.  After several frustrating months, I called in the big guns — a local "dog whisperer" who, in the space of an hour, had Sheila walking at heel, coming when called, and sitting patiently at the open front door until I gave her permission to go outside.  This was before I ever heard of Cesar Millan, yet he was using the same philosophy — show her who's boss.  He also had me trained to see how really very easy it all was.

There was nothing inhumane about it.  He put her on leash and headed out to the sidewalk.  By the time he had gone 1/4 block and walked back, she was walking at heel.  She still walks at heel when I tell her to, and only goes in front of me, pulling on the leash when I give her permission to.

Though I would not leave the front door open without Sheila being where I could grab her, 90% of the time she sits and waits for me to give the command word before she leaves the house.  Having her this much under control still amazes me, knowing what a dominant personality she has.

I have recently decided to work the dominance techniques to do something about her barking.  Now, her barking isn't nearly as bad as some of the other dogs in this neighborhood, but I'm hyper aware of it because of some complaints we've had from neighbors.

After watching Cesar a couple of weeks ago, listening to his tone of voice, I decided that my problem with Sheila's barking was that I was being too wimpy about it.  I would call out "Sheila!  Quiet!"  Then I'd try calling her inside, which she thought was a great game.  She'd continue barking and she wouldn't come anywhere near the house and she'd stand just out of reach and laugh at me.

So this week I changed tactics.  Now when she barks, I wait till she is on the patio (she usually either barks from the patio or runs from wherever she is barking to the patio) and then I stand up and shout "NO!" in a loud, low tone, once.  I don't repeat it.  I then turn my back and walk away.   Calmly.  In control.  Or at least hoping to convey that message.

By golly, she stops barking!  Occasionally she will bark again a few minutes later ("maybe she didn't really mean it...") and another "NO!" said forcefully in a loud, low voice stops her and she doesn't bark after that.

One thing I have discovered is that the frequency of her barking episodes has diminished significantly.  You can count on her barking when the garbage man is in the neighborhood or when someone approaches the house, or when another dog in the neighborhood is barking.  I kind of don't reprimand her at those times.   (Nothing like the sound of a big dog barking at you to discourage would-be predators.)  I wait for when she's barking just to hear herself bark and then tell her "NO!"

Consequently, while she has not given up barking entirely (nor would I want her to) the problem is starting not to be as much of a problem any more, at least when I am home and can reprimand her.

Now with Kimba it's a whole 'nother ballgame.  Even if she could hear, the ploy would not work with her.  Kimba has always lived in her own world and she lets us share it with her.  Say "NO!" to her and she'd look at you as if to say "excuse me?  Are you talking to me?  I don't think so."  But then she never was much of a problem until she started peeing everywhere — and I know she can't help that.  Now that she's deaf it's useless to even try.


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("I just let her think she's in charge...")

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