Thursday, January 6, 2011

For the Love of the dog

The Loved Dog


The popularity of Caesar Milan's television show and books is a phenomenon about which I have mixed emotions.  I really believe that Milan is a sincere lover of dogs and their owners, and I recognize that his work and his methods really do save the lives of many difficult dogs who otherwise might end up dying in shelters.  He gave me a renewed appreciation for the importance of just walking your dog as often as possible, letting the dog get used to you setting the course and making the decisions.  I know this technique works wonders because I have used it myself, and I've passed Milan's insightful advice on this subject on to a number of owner's who were training their own dogs.

Having said that, however, I must admit that I've never been really comfortable with Milan's methods.  He seems to me to be too invested in the dominance model of dog training, which often seem to have more to do with macho primate politics than they do with the real psychology or social structure of canines.  I believe it was Temple Grandin (Animals Make Us Human) who first called my attention to the new work being done on wolf pack social dynamics.  It seems that the old model of a dominant couple keeping the rest of the pack in line -- think "Call of the Wild", where Buck has to fight his way to the top of the pack -- is really based mostly on studies of artificially assembled packs of wolves in captivity.  The social structure which formed under these conditions was not necessarily natural, it just represented their best adaptation to being forced to live in artificial groups under unnatural conditions.  It turns out that wolf packs are more like families.  The "dominant" couple are in fact patriarch and matriarch, and most of the rest of the pack are their descendents.  The reasons that no one else in the pack mate has more to do with interbreeding instincts than with dominance.  Those that go on to mate find their partners outside the pack, and possibly even form their own packs.  In addition,  researchers at the University of Bristol not too long ago published a paper that calls into question the usefulness of the idea of "dominance" in describing canine groups (Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell, E.J. and Casey, R.A. Dominance in domestic dogs – useful construct or bad habit? (2009) Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 4, 135-144).   This entire model of relating to dogs is one that needs to be looked at very closely and very critically.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to Caesar Milan, even among "celebrity" dog trainers.  Tamar Geller (  has worked on television, counseled celebrity pets, and done many of the same  high profile activates as  Caesar Milan, but her take on the relationship between dogs and humans is very different.  According to her bio, she first became interested in dogs when she was an Intelligence Officer with the Israeli Army Special Forces, and was able to observe the training of dogs for that service.  Later, she was able to study wolves in the wild, and began to doubt the whole dominance based model of wolf society.

Geller prefers to call herself a "life coach" instead of trainer, and she prefers the term "well mannered" to obedient.  But her method is not one of indulgence or over permissiveness.  Instead, she advocates fun game based training that incorporates the dog's natural interests and likes.  She believes that stress free training is far more effective in creating true communication and bonding than traditional obedience type training.
The Loved Dog (Simon Spotlight Entertainment 2007) was followed more recently by 30 Days to a Well Mannered Dog and by videos including The Loved Dog with Tamar Geller.  All of these are worth pursuing if you have an interested in dog training (even just with your companions at home)  -- especially if you find yourself uncomfortable with trying to be the "alpha" dog.
The Loved Dog 30 Days to a Well-Mannered Dog: The Loved Dog MethodThe Loved Dog With Tamar Geller
Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog ProblemsHow to Raise the Perfect Dog: Through Puppyhood and BeyondAnimals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal BehaviorAnimals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals 

Related Viewing
Temple Grandin

Directed by Mick Jackson and starring Claire Danes, Julia Ormand, David Strathairn and Catherine O'Hara

Highly Recommended

I plan to do a much more in depth look at the influential and fascinating work of Temple Grandin in the near future, but if by chance you have not seen the Emmy Award winning tv movie starring Claire Danes, it is a must see for all animal lovers, as well as for those interested in autism and education.  Claire Danes does a phenomenal job of as Grandin (who I have had the pleasure of meeting, briefly, in person and have seen speak on two occasions).  The film is also amazingly effective in  portraying the mind of a "visual thinker" who comes to understand that the way she sees the world is very different from most of the people around her, but that it offers her a chance to make a profound contribution to the world.  This film manages to be intensely emotional (I'm not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes almost all the way through it) without once becoming maudlin or schmaltzy.  If you haven't seen it run out and get it.  It is truly not to be missed.

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