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(repost from March 2010)

I usually don't intentionally let dogs I walk go up to too many people but this Lab's just come up from Ohio and has been locked up in a cage for who knows how long and has had a cruddy life and was this close to being euth'd so I make an exception for him. He's untrained and hyper-enthusiastic. He butt wiggles at and tries to meet everyone who passes by. I let him approach a few of the friendlier people, at least the ones who aren't wearing super nice clothing. Everyone's good with that, even delighted to meet the dog, except for one father and son who I don't see, who walk up from behind and try to pass but the Lab runs two steps at them before the leash goes taut and he doesn't reach them but the dad's aghast and the six year old looks like he might cry and the dad tucks the kid beneath his arm and hurries off, giving me a dirty look.

"You're going to have to learn to stop rushing people," I say to the Lab who looks at me with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. "And also stop looking ridiculous."

I take the Lab upstairs and along the way he greets every staffer like each one is his closest and dearest friend who he hasn't seen in ages and everyone greets him back like he's the overgrown puppy nutbar he really is.

There's a couple sitting upstairs and as I walk by them the woman asks, "Is he your dog or are you adopting him?"

"I'm just walking him. We just came back from his walk," I say.

"You're a dog walker here?" she asks.

"I'm a volunteer. Sometimes I walk the dogs, sometimes I ..."

"Is he up for adoption?" the man asks.

"Yes, he's a ..."

"He's too big," the woman says.

The Lab knows we're talking about him or maybe he doesn't but regardless he wants to meet the new people. He starts to pull towards them.

"Hold on," I say to him - as if my words could actually make it through the dizzy happy fog that is this Lab's permanent condition.

"Oh it's okay," she says and both she and her husband lean forward in their chairs to get ready for his greeting.

I advance slowly with the Lab who's drooling with anticipation at the thought of making more human friends. The Lab reaches them and they start to pet him. The Lab starts to paw and to generally get over-excited at the stimulation.

"He's dirty. He doesn't know his manners," says the woman.

"He's not well trained," says the man.

"No, he just got here," I say.

"You should train him better," says the woman. "It's easier to adopt out animals if you train them first. You should train him to sit."

"Training dogs to sit is easy," says the man.

"We trained our last dog to sit in 10 minutes," says the woman.

Then, as if to teach by example, the man goes, "Chuh."

And the woman goes, "Chu."

And the man goes, "Chuh, chuh."

And the woman goes, "Chu."

And the man goes, "CHUH! CHUH!"

And the woman goes, "Chuchuchu!"

Regardless of what people might think of Cesar Millan and his methods, he's got a way of dealing with dogs that works for him. Some of his critics will accuse his show of being one big editing scam where hours of work are condensed into a few minutes but I don't think this is the case. I think, in his own way, Millan is a genius. This isn't an ethical judgment. His alpha dominance methods may be an outdated, moral outrage to some but that doesn't mean he's not a master at what he does and what he does, as far as I can tell, is exude his presence over the dogs, his air of being in charge. I'm pretty sure his method isn't just about his trademark vocalizations.

Maybe I've had a long day and I'm slow to react or maybe I'm just an asshole. I should pull the Lab off them but both the man and woman are now chuing almost in unison and I want to see how this is going to turn out. The Lab is getting more excited by all this chuing and he's now up on his hind legs trying to clamber onto the man's lap.

"CHUH! CHUH! CHUH! CHUH!" the man says.

"CHU! CHU! CHU! CHU!" the woman says.

The Lab's high up enough on the man's lap to start licking his face. His wife, seeing this assault on her husband, reaches out and give the Lab a bit of a shove with her fingertips and then leans forward and goes, "Chu. Off. Chu."

I've been perusing (I don't have time to actually read whole books anymore) Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human. In the chapter on dogs, she discusses whether the relationship between dogs and their owners should be based on alpha dominance or one more akin to parent and child. She brings up an interesting point about how it's a myth that wolves in the wild live in packs. Wild wolves actually live as families. Usually, a group of wolves consists of the two parents and their kids - the ones who are still hanging around. The parents are "dominant" in the way most parents are dominant over their kids and the kids generally stay in line even after they've grown up - just like with most humans (someone can become CEO of a big company but when he goes home, he still defers to mother and father).

But Grandin isn't sure about the artificial environment created when people take dogs into their homes. Do the dogs view the humans as parents or alpha pack leaders? It may be subtle but the difference would inform the proper balance between guidance vs. dominance. Grandin thinks that in Millan's case, where he has a pack of thirty or more unrelated dogs living peacefully together, it's dominance at work. Millan is the alpha dominant leader of the pack and the dogs realize there's no point for them to fight over the top boss position. In a typical family setting, though, with only one or two dogs, Grandin thinks the dogs will view the humans as parents because it's a more natural and comfortable social hierarchy for them, just as it would be for human children or wolves in the wild.

In either case, Grandin makes no mention of the chuh sound.

The Lab, oblivious to the noise coming from the couple and now happily invading the (very) personal space of his two new best friends, has won the competition of wills.

"Alright," I say to the Lab and I pull him towards me. "Hey, stop that," I say and I turn the squirrely dog around to face me and try to calm him down.

"He's much too big," the woman says.

The man is brushing off his pants and wiping off his face while the Lab's attention gets diverted elsewhere: the cats, the floor, the adoption office, the elevator, the columns, the stairs. After a quiet moment of observing the slight to non-existent attention span of the Lab, the woman says:

"Our dog died a few months ago. He was sixteen."

"We're looking for a poodle. Do you have any poodles?" the man asks.

"I don't know about poodles but there are some other smaller dogs here," I say. "You can go into the adoption room and have a look. One of them is pretty timid, though, so please take it easy on him."

I take the Lab into one of the back rooms. He's not ready for adoption yet - still needs to be health checked and neutered. I walk him into his kennel and just as he realizes I'm going to leave him behind and he's about to freak out, I take out a biscuit and present it to him.

"Sit," I say and after a moment of consideration, the Lab sits. I may not have Millan's amazing power over dogs but I do have access to good snacks.

14 Comments to “The Cesar Millan Effect”

  1. This is very funny. I am not a Cesar fan and I think he's popularized some outdated notions that for some people gives them license to use physical punishments as a training tool. Regardless, I think his popularity is due to the fact that Milan stresses the importance of relationship and the human-animal bond, which people find intuitively appealing and is strangely lacking in a lot of positive discipline as if it were all about behavior mod. I am convinced by experience and example that positive training is more humane and effective. But what I see sorely lacking in most positive guides and even classes with experienced positive trainers is the importance of relationship and leadership.

    If I said Chuh! to my dogs they'd laugh and walk away.

  2. Flossy says:

    I so disagree with the comment above. Cesar absolutely does not use physical punishments as a training tool....he is quite adamant that never happens. Sorry but I am a huge Cesar fan.

    As for you Fred, you're blood must have been boiling!!

  3. NK says:

    I think the Cesar Millan effect is that he, along with Dogtown (and of course you too Fred) has brought enormous public attention and awareness for RESPONSIBLE pet ownernship, the long term positive effect of proper training, puppy mills, breed discrimination etc. etc. etc. Hail Cesar! Long live Cesar! Chuh Chuh Chuh!

  4. Flossy says:

    Why couldn't I have said what NK said? Hail NK!!

  5. Cesar may not use force; I never implied he did (though the dogs, if you read their body language without sound are often fearful, which cesar often reads as "submissive"). There's a difference between fear body language and submissive body language and what many of the dogs are expressing is fear. What I said was that the idea of dominance and alpha popularized by cesar is used by untrained individuals to justify physical punishment to establish one's dominance. Everyone should use what works for them, but the research on animal behavior and especially on dogs born under stressful conditions is pretty clear that cesar techniques are damaging to to may dogs, especially highly stressed and aggressive ones. And as far as strategic editing, I thought that's been pretty well-established that that's the case.

  6. NK says:

    Thanks Flossy, now if only I could spell ownemship (ownership) properly I could rule the world.

  7. Homer Simpson says:


  8. joanne says:

    Personally I have never seen him use force other than to keep a snapping, whirling dervish at the end of a leash. His methods worked very well on my dogs and I appreciate his attempts to educate dog owners and in the process save some dogs in great danger of being surrendered to the pound. The "chu" works very well in breaking a dog's fixation on its current behaviour. When you occupy a position with his popularity and consequent financial gain, you are always going to be subject to scrutiny from others "who know better" but strangely don't have his popularity and success. He does not advocate alpha anything but merely being a strong leader. I don't see anyone else with a pack of 30 dogs living in relative harmony...... Yes he is a commercial success BUT he deserves it. He and Daddy did tremendous work promoting pit bulls as just dogs and he is totally anti-BSL. Give the man credit where credit is due.

  9. Anonymous says:

    When we had a shelter, up to forty dogs at a time lived in harmony. Unless, of course, the puppies started chewing on Spunko's ears.... or the some of the more rambunctious moments when the girls' rugby team tore up the front lawn. No one was into dominance. Every dog got basic, positive re-enforcement training, food, yard time all day and lots of strokes and praise. And the only time anyone went 'chu!' was when s/he sneezed. I've never seen Senor Millan's show, so have no opinion on his methods. But, I am reminded that no educational theory works for all human children, so I'm not sure why we would expect one method to work for all dogs....

  10. Dear friends, I know this is an important conversation because we all love dogs. So if we need to agree to disagree so be it. But please understand if I brought this up, it is because I too support responsible dog ownership and that includes researching carefully the training techniques used. Whether Cesar or anyone else is a commercial success is of no concern to me. And while I applaud Cesar's work advocatimg against breed discrimination (take a good look at my profile picture), at least in my area, there is not a single rescue or Humane Society who will use his techniques and most especially with pitbulls or other special needs (eg. shy or aggressive) dogs. We may have a very different definition of aggression and force, because choke collars and snapping leashes ("corrections") are inflict pain and discomfort. My dog crumbled when a sitter snapped a leash to her (also a big Cesar fan) and it took a week of reconditioning to have her come near her leash again. With all due respect, I do happen to think the veterinary and animal behavior community and people who dedicate their lives to animal behavior "know better." I won't say any more; I have no horse in this race other than concern for dogs. Here's a letter of concern written by one group of vets (and there are many others online from veterinary groups).

    I am not sure what their motive would be one way or the other. You don't see them writing letters about Karen Pryor or Victoria Stillwell or other trainers that use techniques based on the most recent research on animal behavior. I prefer to put my trust in that rather than a television camera. I'll shut up now Fred; I love this blog and the people I find here and do not wish to wear out my welcome. Animals need all the advocates they can get.

    One last note Fred: I see the Lab in your story was from Ohio. Given the political climate here, I am glad one of us was able to spring loose. Cheers everyone.

  11. NK says:

    Wow Fred, your innocent little article has created the first Blog War! I did enjoy reading all the lively and informative comments; ultimately everyone agrees that the welfare of animals is our first priority and we all do the best we can, whatever method we choose. I am sure that is Cesar's intention and his financial success was a surprise by-product of his charismatic personality.
    Okay Fred, can you now please print a picture of a fluffy, adorable dog to calm the murky waters?

  12. Alex says:

    No-one has mentioned one thing I do like about Milan. He believes that no dog is unsavable, and by showing transformations of dog behavior I'm sure that he has convinced some people to get help for their dogs instead of just rejecting them.

  13. lenni says:

    I just want to thank you for your blog. It is genius; this Cesar Millan story had me laughing out loud. You are truly a gifted writer and as a volunteer foster myself for over 20 years, I truly respect your work. So, thank you.

  14. Fred says:

    Hi lenni, it's kinda weird but I clicked on your name and realized I'd read about you in The Globe and Mail or The Star a while back - I'll have to find that article again - and now, here you are. Great idea with the pop up concerts. Too bad there weren't more lonesome pianos in the middle of dog parks - now that would be fun.

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A request

The reason for this blog is to help get specific dogs adopted from TAS but equally important is to try to normalize the idea of shelter dogs being just as good and just as desirable as any other dogs including those which are regularly merchandised by backyard breeders, puppy millers and those few remaining pet store owners who still feel a need to sell live animals. The single greatest stigma shelter animals still face is the belief that shelter animals are substandard animals. Anyone who has had enough experience with shelter animals knows this is untrue but the general public hasn't had the same experiences you've had. They see a nice dog photo in a glossy magazine and too many of them would never think of associating that dog with a dog from a shelter. After all, no one abandons perfectly good dogs, right? Unfortunately, as we all know, perfectly good dogs are abandoned all the time.

The public still too often associates shelter dogs with images of beat up, sick, dirty, severely traumatized animals and while we definitely sometimes see victims such as these, they are certainly not the majority and, regardless, even the most abused animals can very often be saved and made whole again.

Pound Dogs sometimes discusses the sad histories some of the dogs have suffered. For the most part, though, it tries to present the dogs not as victims but as great potential family members. The goal is to raise the profiles of animals in adoption centers so that a potential pet owner sees them as the best choice, not just as the charity choice.

So, here's the favour I'm asking. Whenever you see a dog picture on these pages you think is decent enough, I'd like you to consider sharing it on Facebook or any other social media sites you're using (I know many of you do this already and thank you for that). And when you share it, please mention that the dog in the photo is a shelter dog like so many other shelter dogs waiting for a home. If we can get even five percent of the pet buying public to see shelter dogs differently, to see how beautiful they are and how wonderful they are, and to consider shelter dogs as their first choice for a new family member, we can end the suffering of homeless pets in this country.