Book Reviews: Cesar's Way and Dog Whisperer
Reviews by David Yarian, Ph.D.
This accessible guide helps new and current dog owners better understand the needs of their beloved pets. Cesar Millan explains that dogs are not complicated, just different from humans. They rely on three key elements in their lives: exercise, discipline, and affection (in that order). The book teaches owners how to change their pet's unwanted behavior by better understanding their "best friends." 2006, Harmony
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This successful National Geographic channel series focuses on Cesar Millan as he makes house calls to deal with anxious, obsessive, aggressive, and just plain neurotic dogs. Millan's basic message is reinforced in virtually every case: don't treat your dog like a human; treat him like a dog, and be the alpha dog of your own household/pack. DVD Release Date: 2006; Universal Studios
Recently I watched the DVD of the first season of a National Geographic cable channel show, The Dog Whisperer, with Cesar Millan. I also read his terrific book, Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems.
Mr. Millan came to the US from Mexico fifteen years ago, with the ambition of becoming the best dog trainer in the world. Along the way, he shifted his goal to that of fully understanding dogs -- how they think and behave, what they want and need.
Since he grew up in rural northern Mexico he was able to observe dogs who lived and worked on the family farm. These dogs had jobs such as protecting the property from intruders and helping to herd the cows and sheep. The farm dogs were happy to do their part and never required formal training because they learned their roles from older dogs in the pack.
Cesar Millan was astonished to see the unhappiness, insecurity and neurotic behavior of pampered American dogs. He attributes this to dogs being isolated in homes and yards most of the time, with little exercise -- and no jobs to do. He also observed how often the neurotic problem dog he has been called upon to treat is in fact functioning as the dominant leader in the household/pack.
Millan sees the psychology of the pack as central to understanding dogs. Dogs are pack members by instinct -- and the main issue for a dog in any group is whether he/she is to be dominant or submissive. Every pack requires a leader. When there is a vacuum in leadership the dog will attempt to fill it, whether he has the capability to be a good leader or not.
The DVD shows many wonderful episodes of Cesar Millan working with "problem" dogs -- dogs who were overly aggressive, obsessive, or anxious. The typical episode begins with the dog owners (at their wits' end) consulting with Cesar about their dog. Cesar asks a few questions, then takes the dog for a walk. During this walk he bonds with the animal, and establishes that he is to be the pack leader. It is amazing to see dogs relax and settle down under this regime -- even dogs who had been frighteningly out of control.
Millan believes that his real job is to train the humans to be better pack leaders -- the dog will simply follow. He encourages owners to give their dog a vigorous walk each day, and to maintain control over their behavior. Minor corrections are all that is needed to maintain proper behavior.
Millan asserts that owners must project a "calm-assertive" type of energy in order to confidently lead their pack. Dogs are very sensitive to their owners' emotional state so it is important that leadership be calm but assertive. In response, dogs will naturally assume a "calm-submissive" energy -- the balanced, content energy of being a member of a well-led pack.
I recommend The Dog Whisperer to anyone who loves dogs. It is astonishing to watch the mastery with which Cesar connects with very troubled animals -- and quickly helps them to settle down and give up their insecure and neurotic behavior. Cesar's Way fills in much of the background of his approach and shows dog owners how to help their dog to become healthy and balanced.
There's a larger subtext in Cesar Millan's work. Even though we humans are animals too, dogs are fundamentally different from us in their psychology. Projecting human psychology onto dogs is a mistake which leads to unhappy dogs and unhappy owners. Cesar Millan models interspecies communication and understanding in a wonderful way. His love and respect for all dogs is infectious. I think I understand Hudson (my four-year old husky mix) much better. He's just happy to be getting his walk each day!